29 October 2012


Nothing can make me feel like a tourist like invading someone’s space and taking endless photos. Throughout our tour of Singapore’s traditional trades, I constantly felt like I was in the way – in the way of fellow tour goers, in the way of the people tirelessly working and in the way of people who actually came into the shops to purchase items.

Stop three on our tour was to an incredible place in Ang Mo Kio, just up the road from the Joss Stick Man, that specializes in constructing funeral offerings. In the Chinese culture, when a person dies, the family holds a ceremony that includes the burning of paper money, cars and homes, among other things, so that the ancestors will live comfortably in the afterlife.

We walked into a warehouse and were immediately taken aback by the structures and bright colors that greet us. Shiny, bright-colored and sometimes metallic paper glistened in the sunlight breaking through the front entrance. Paper crafts were just coming together as we walked onto the main floor; drying crafts hung from the rafters and finished items were stored up in the loft.

Families can pay thousands of dollars for a masterpiece that can take weeks to create. We were advised that one house in progress cost $8,000 and would take two weeks to complete. While I completely respect culture, I’m not going to lie – my brain went to, “You’re going to spend $8,000 on an elaborate piece like this and then set the thing on fire and watch it burn?!”

A wood frame is first cut and bound together with small strips of paper wound around each joint. Once the bones are completed and al joints are secured, the structure can be covered with various colored paper. A handmade glutinous rice paste is used to attach the paper to the wooden posts and to secure the layers of paper and decorative pieces.

Because the houses are built on stilts, while constructing the multi-level houses also burned on the anniversaries of the ancestors’ death, crafters stand on stools to create their masterpieces.

Our final traditional trade landed us at a local bakery in an area of Singapore I had only recently discovered. The shop is located near China Road in an area just east of Chinatown. This streetside location with goodies for sale along the sidewalk was definitely a spot where, no matter where I stood, I was in someone’s way.

We had the chance to enter the kitchen where just a few workers raced to make special cookies filled with a variety of flavors. The dough was kneaded through a machine, torn into tiny pieces and folded, then filled once from a block of tasty chewy paste (I like the mung bean paste), rolled, filled again, rolled again and then baked on massive baking trays.

The pastry dough, once cooked, is extremely flaky. Each of us joked about the mess we were leaving on the sidewalk. Our guide kept purchasing bags and bags of goodies so that we could try as many local sweets as possible. I cannot possibly remember all of them, nor was I able to take pictures thanks to a dead camera battery, but I did have the opportunity to taste a few. I declined a couple because of the potential sugar overload, but I do remember eating a very light, tan, transparent cookie that really surprised me.

Honeycomb, the tour guide stated, was a great treat, especially for children. She remembered eating the cookies all the time as a kid. If I were a kid, I would eat them all the time as well. In fact, I might buy a bag of them the next time I find myself in a local bake shop. They tasted like airy, crispy, fried funnel cake chips. One bite was not enough.

And that, my friends, concludes the tour of some of Singapore’s traditional businesses, most of which will likely die with the family members who are currently keeping the businesses running. The sad truth is that most of the traditional trades are family-run enterprises and most of Singapore’s original trades have died after a few generations either as the family members die or as younger generations choose to pursue more modern careers.

I am glad I took the tour because my eyes were certainly opened. This was a great way to celebrate Birthday Week. 

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