03 May 2012


This morning I was back on my weekly hike schedule, except that the hike was on Thursday instead of Tuesday due to the holiday. Today it was a small group – just three ladies with backpacks and water bottles walking around places like Ang Mo Kio and Bishan.

Bishan Park is beautiful, though quite small when compared to other island parks. Much of the park looks underdeveloped; natural birds, including a heron, kept us company along the way. We walked one trail that was on higher ground than the other as we headed west toward MacRitchie and walked right passed a Lotus Garden, almost hidden below us behind some trees. As we headed back east, we walked beside the glorious pond, bordered by trees and covered in lotus flowers. A few seating areas bordered the pond. We stopped for a moment to take in the view.

After our walk, we ate soups, salads and savory crepes at a tiny French shop inside of Junction 8. The real adventure of the day, though, was yet to come.

We visited someone known to our little group as the Joss Stick Man. 

Mr. Tay, the Joss Stick Man, with his most loyal customer, Mary Ann

Hidden away among aisles of automotive and tire shops in a neighborhood called Ang Mo Kio is a shop boasting some incredible wooden sculptures. Yes, sculptures, not carvings.

Here’s how it works:

Tree Powder
The bark from cinnamon tree branches grown in Southeast Asia with an Indonesian name that literally translates to “sweet wood” is processed into a powder. There are varieties; some powder is very fine while others may be more coarse.

Just Add Water
When water is added to the powder at a ratio of two parts powder to one part water, measured more meticulously than any baking recipe, a fibrous paste forms. The paste has a texture similar to a crumpled paper bag, yet it is soft and squishy at the same time. The paste can be pulled and fibers can be seen as the paste breaks.

Ball It Up & Roll It Out
It’s amazing how much the joss paste resembles dough. The other craftsmen worked as Mr. Tay explained to us the process. They use their hands to pull sections of the joss paste and then used wine bottles to roll out the paste before either sculpting it or placing it over a mold.

Snip Snip
The pieces can be draped over a figure base, placed into a mold or hand carved with a variety of tools. Mr. Tay demonstrated his techniques using his hands, a plastic knife, scissors and a paint brush the size of the one I use to line my eyes. He explained that the sculpting paste is very forgiving. If a piece dries or breaks or gets carved in a non-pleasing way, one simply needs to add a drop of water and begin the process again.

Wait For It
Once complete, the sculptures must dry, either in front of some fans or out in the Singapore sun. Once dried the sculptures may or may not receive a varnish.

Here are some completed sculptures:

Joss sticks are made through the same process and are used to burn incense on various religious occasions. The joss sticks are also available here, which is why my friend calls this guy the Joss Stick Man.

Fascinating, right? Mr. Tay has in his shop pre-made items for sale including Christmas ornaments and patio decorations. He also takes orders for custom projects. In addition, shop visitors can try their hand at this craft that has been passed down through generations. Bags of the joss powder are available. Just remember to measure everything methodically - Mr. Tay advises that once the mixture is altered to the wrong consistency, there is no going back. 

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