New Haw Par Villa exhibition features vanishing trade of paper offerings

The exhibition showcases works of the Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency, a pioneer of the paper offerings industry in Singapore.

Harshiyne Maran

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Published: 16 August 2022, 11:24 AM

An exhibition showcasing the contributions of the Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency to Singapore’s vanishing trade of paper offerings is now running at Haw Par Villa.

Titled End of an Era – The Legacy of a Vanishing Trade: Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency, the exhibition falls under the line-up of Haw Par Villa’s Spirits Festival commemorating the seventh lunar month.

It aims to offer insights and document the significance of paper offerings produced for traditional rituals in Chinese festivals.

The exhibition space is divided into three sections that encompass different types of paper offerings produced by the company – A Transient Trade, Sculpting a Disciplinarian of the Chinese Netherworld and Dedications to Deities and Death

A Transient Trade

Designed to resemble the original premises of the Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency located at Toa Payoh, the first section titled A Transient Trade, transports visitors back to the company’s heyday. 


The space is furnished with actual furniture retained from the premises, including the old-school cupboard and the work table in blue. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


The space also features photos and murals of the company’s workers handling orders, giving visitors an insight into the hectic processes.


Surrounded by various craft materials, workers would work on multiple projects at one go in the past due to a large volume of orders. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


As the company’s ability to cope with orders slowed down, it finally shut its doors after 63 years in July this year. Several unfinished projects such as a lantern with traced motifs are also on display at the exhibition.


Previously, the owner would often take up to four months to complete a single lantern as he was a perfectionist, tracing the intricate motifs onto the lantern with precision. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


Sculpting a Disciplinarian of the Chinese Netherworld

The second section, Sculpting a Disciplinarian of the Chinese Netherworld, sheds more light on the paper effigy deities that are a crucial part of the company’s exports.

Greeting visitors at the section is a colourful two metre tall paper effigy of the deity, Da Shi Ye, also known as King of Ghosts (Gui Wang). Creating such ornate paper effigies is the company’s speciality, with some of the largest standing at seven metres tall. 


Orders for Da Shi Ye paper effigies would peak during the Hungry Ghost Festival period as people believed that the deity watches over spirits that gather. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


Visitors can also see a deconstructed form of the Da Shi Ye on display. Due to their sheer size, the effigies often have to be prepared in parts and then put together on-site.


The different components of the Da Shi Ye include a pair of hands, a belt worn at the waist, figurines of Guan Yin to be placed atop the deity’s head and papier mache faces, often ordered from China. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


After the Da Shi Ye paper effigy has graced the rituals, it will be burned to commemorate the end of the festivities.

As large rituals were halted due to COVID-19, one of such ending ceremonies is screened for exhibition attendees to experience it for themselves. 


The footage comes from one of the largest scale festivals the company took an order for back in 2019, held at the Newton Hawker Food Centre. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


Dedications to Deities and Death

Besides its main exports of lanterns and paper Da Shi Ye effigies, the Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency also dabbles in creating other paper products commonly used in funerals and festivals. 

The exhibition’s third section, Dedications to Deities and Death, showcases such works. 


Other paper products include a bathroom for wandering spirits (left) and netherworld guides known as Tea Boy and Servant Girl (Cha Tong Nu Bi) (right). PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


One notable product from the range of paper products produced by the company is the dragon head for the Nine Emperors Gods Festival. The dragon head on display was crafted by owner Mr Yeo himself, to be placed atop dragon ships (long chuan) made of paper. 


It requires much time and effort to craft as the head is made of various colour shades. Careful strokes are required while painting to capture the dragon’s likeness. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


Also on display are the masks of deities and officials in Heaven. Part of Mr Yeo’s own collection, the masks often served as a means for him to practise his art, further honing his skills beyond painting lanterns.


A deity presented in the line-up is Erlang Shen, a warrior deity that upholds justice with a third truth-seeking eye on his forehead (second row, fourth from left). PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/HARSHIYNE MARAN


The End of an Era – The Legacy of a Vanishing Trade: Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency will run until Dec 3. It is located at the Cloud Pavilion next to the Culture Courtyard, at Haw Par Villa.

The exhibition is part of a line-up of activities for Haw Par Villa’s Spirit Festival. For those who are interested in the full range of activities offered, more information is available on its website.

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