Mr. Toh’s father started learning the art of making these paper crafts in China from the age of 10. He came to Singapore when he was 10+ years old and worked at a factory specialising in such crafts in Yio Chu Kang. His specialisation was to make big scale paper houses, meant for the Hokkien people to pray to Ti Kong and ceremonies for the deceased ancestors. Perhaps it’s because these paper houses are all made by hand, so the design of each house is different. Generally, besides paper houses, Hokkiens would also buy paper cars.
Mr. Toh, who joined the business after graduation, revealed, “In the past, the materials used to make the paper houses are drawn by hand. Now, we use pre-printed patterns and stick them onto base structure. Then, we’d to even grow our own bamboo used to make the bones of the houses, after which we’d cut the bamboo strips, takes up a lot of effort. Now we buy ready cut bamboo strips but it costs more to do so.”
At its peak, Mr. Toh and family have to build 3 to 4 large-scale paper houses, with August to October being the busy period. Now, business has been reduced by a lot. It’s even possible not to get a single order in a month. That’s why, the staff strength is reduced from 10+ people to the current 6 persons.
Interestingly, though orders for paper houses are reduced, but clients who do order them want the houses to be larger and larger. The biggest house Mr. Toh has made was one meant to pray to Ti Kong, it was 12 ft high and 5 ft wide. For this type of extra large paper house, it is necessary to transport different parts to the site and assemble everything onsite.
But, since people today are not very familiar with the old customs, so they don’t usually have unusual requests. The only thing they mind is, there must be door numbers, then they hope the 4-digits of the door plaque will strike the big prize. Of course, Mr. Toh will still try his best to avoid using the number “4” in the door number.
Similar to other traditional tradesmen, Mr. Toh has not passed on his art to the next generation. Firstly, the young people are not interested; secondly, this type of craftwork doesn’t have much of a future.
Mr. Toh says, today’s environment is different from before. In the past, one will still perform traditional rites three years after the ancestors passes away, people now don’t pay much attention to traditions, and prefers everything to be simple. Sometimes, they may even wait till a few ancestors have passed away then perform the rites at the same time. And if family members have different religious beliefs, then it becomes even more difficult to get a consensus on the observance of these traditional rites and rituals. In addition, there is still the need to face competition from overseas vendors.
He laughs and says, “Nobody to succeed me, I will take care of this till I “migrate” (ie. pass away”).