Situated 5km northwest of Ipoh, Kampung Baru Jelapang is a serene rural village of about 2000 households, the majority being Chinese of Hakka and Cantonese descent, leading simple and contented lives. Despite having settled overseas for more than a century, they still practise ancient cultural customs, including traditional paper offerings at funerals.
On Jalan Pasar which cuts across Kampung Baru Jelapang, stands a row of rustic wooden shops with over 60 years of history, the sole paper offerings store selling handmade white lanterns for funerals nestled within. Although no signboard hangs above the mottled plank doors, it is familiar to all village folks as the “papercraft man” is a household name.
Currently handled by the octogenarian “papercraft lady” Kwan Lean Tay, for decades the shop opens from 6A.M. until noon. The shop has a range of offering items, joss paper and candles supplied by traders, while paper offerings such as deity statues, clothing, and horses, are handmade by her husband Mr Lee Look Sang and her second son Lee Wan Wah.
Madam Kwan devoted the better part of her life to her family and the shop. At 18 years old, she married Mr Lee who used to work at a paper offering shop in Paloh (Ipoh’s former name). They then started their own venture, struggling to make ends meet as the village was under curfew. Facing difficulty in securing premises, they finally managed to purchase the current site. Ever since, husband and wife work together in selling paper offerings, fulfilling filial duty to their parents, and bringing up four children. After her husband’s death last year, Madam Kwan remained in the shop alone, sustaining the small business with help from her son.
Mr Lee Look Sang, nicknamed the “papercraft man”, was renowned for his proficiency in producing fine paper offering items such as clothing, horses, and bicycles. He was also a fortune-teller who could decipher the Chinese Almanac to pick auspicious dates, as well as decipher the Book of Three Lifetimes to help customers pray that things go well. Singaporean customers would purposely telephone overseas to consult Mr Lee. The easygoing Mr Lee did not charge customers a specific fee, a red packet of any amount would do instead. Madam Kwan always gave discounts to regular customers, as she did not engage any worker, and cherish close relationships. Therefore local villagers who moved elsewhere always return to make purchases at this rustic hut.
The second generation heir, nicknamed the “papercraft lad”, Lee Wan Wah mastered his father’s skills, and could single-handedly produce a dozen types of paper offerings including houses, golden and silver bridges, golden and silver hills, boys and girls, coin trees, lazy chairs, and cars. During his childhood, his mother often brought him along to the shop. Stirred by curiosity, he started helping his father to make paper offerings when he was 16 years old. He then took his father’s advice to pick up another skill, thus becoming apprenticed to a tailor in Paloh. Upon completing his apprenticeship, he returned to work in Kampung Baru Jelapang while also helping his father to produce paper offerings. As Uncle Lee realised that the tailor industry is declining, he thought of a brilliant idea: to make life-sized paper clothing. He surveyed departmental stores for designs. “Actual Faking” was popular for a time, even Singaporean traders discovered its market potential.
Due to advancing age, currently Uncle Lee only accepts orders for small scale common funeral offerings, instead of the wide variety produced by his counterparts. His workshop is set up beside his house, starting from the basic procedure of making the frame, shredding attap into appropriate thickness and bend according to size and height, finishing by pasting paper. Uncle Lee also finds pleasure in his work. Due to his passion for calligraphy, he did not progress to computerized printing, but sticking to the tradition. Each lantern he made bears his tidy calligraphy. Some of his paper offerings are on display at his mother’s old shop, others are kept in the workshop or delivered to customers.
As lifestyles change, people are less superstitious, younger generations no longer worship deities at home. Yet Uncle Lee is confident that paper offerings would not be wiped out since the religious goods business is still thriving. However offerings are gradually simplified, customers generally ask traders for set packs, or buy substandard set packs online from China. Handiwork that used to be a livelihood has been commercialized into a different business model. Youth nowadays being uninterested in this industry, none of Uncle Lee’s children are willing to inherit, the skills of making paper offerings may be lost after having sustained two generations.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Evon Pang
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : Is A Solo Piano
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