Friday, 21 November 2014

Joss Stick Man and Funeral houses

Tay Guan Heng (Joss sticks manufacturer)

Have you ever visited a Chinese Temple here in Singapore?  a Buddhist or Taoist celebration? Have you seen those large 4-5 feet coloured joss sticks burning outside? Have you every wondered about them? OK, I guess maybe many of you haven't thought much other than, they're unusual, big, interesting.... but you may be surprised to know that in the whole of Singapore there is just one tiny place that makes them. Tucked away in a non description industrial estate, in the middle of Singapore's heartland of Ang Mo Kio, amongst the car repairers, engineers and other such businesses, sits Tay Guan Heng (Joss Sticks Manufacturer) If you didn't know it was there it's highly unlikely you would come across it by chance.

I have been fortunate to visit a few times and each time Mr Tay has always been eager so show us his craft, to explain the history of the business, the families paperwork and visas, dating to when his family first came to Singapore. His father, Tay Yong Pah, set up the business and now it is run by his 2 sons, Amos and Stephen, and a couple of fellow craftsmen. Yes craftsmen, for these are indeed a work of art. Clearly passionate about his work he is more than happy to talk to you, a man that loves his craft.

The Joss sticks are made from a type of malleable putty, derived from the bark of the cinnamon tree, ground into a powder and then with simply water added, it becomes this dough that Mr Tay, his magical hands, and just a few simple household implements crafts into his joss sticks and figurines. He will show you how, in a matter of seconds, from a tiny nondescript blob of putty, he turns it into an arm, then a hand, a few more tweeks and fingers appear, so simple yet so clever.

The business was set up to make joss sticks and at one time these were as large as 20 feet. You can still see some of the monoliths standing in the corner of the unit. Nowadays however, these large joss sticks are not allowed to be burnt in Singapore and the average you will see will sit around 4-5 feet in height. The putty for these are made from a slightly courser cinnamon powder as this helps the sticks to burn slower and last longer. They can burn for up to several days. The Sticks are first formed and then later a decorative design is added on top of the plain sticks. These are often dragons but vary depending on which festival, celebration, birthday they are being created for.

To keep the business going they have diversified into decorations, figurines and also commissions. With Christmas around the corner his biggest business is that of making nativity scenes, gingerbread houses (a seemingly must buy for expats) and small Christmas tree decorations. He makes religious figurines and characters from Chinese mythology, anything you could wish for. All These products once molded are left to dry, sometimes up to month, although a fan helps the smaller pieces dry quicker. Once dry they can either be vanished to give a rich wood colour or in the case of the joss sticks painted in vibrant  colours; pinks, blues, yellows and greens. These articles may not be the cheapest products but when you think of the time, labour and love involved they are more than worth it. These will last for years and years and often become heirlooms.

Mr Tay will tell you that the business is struggling, that its a dying art, which indeed it is, however, with various TV clips, newspaper reports and visits from expats, along with the never ending Chinese celebrations, so long as we keep this up and there are people to take over this business I'm hopeful that this unique, in Singapore, business will continue to thrive.

Joss Stick man, aka Tay Guan Heng can be found at

4001 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10,


If this was of interest to you, when exiting the unit, turn left and walk a few units up and on the other side of the road is a joss paper product maker, in particular the immensely large and elaborate houses made for the Chinese funerals.

Associated Handicraft Co

Joss paper funeral houses

This is another small unit that you would easily miss, the family here do not speak English but are happy for you to come and watch. Amazing watching the dexterity when using feet and fingers they split the bamboo canes into small pieces and into strips for tying the canes together to form the structure of these houses.

The houses are easily 15 plus feet tall and even wider, they are then covered in brightly coloured joss paper, made from rice paper, to form rooms, walls and the roof of the house. Rooms will even have furniture inside and at the entrance door of the house will be "the accountant" to look after the deceased as they pass onto the afterlife.

Joss paper and papermache products are made to burn at funerals and other festivities (you probably have seen such items being burnt along side the grass verges in a street near you)

The houses made here are vast and are for the deceased to live in but take good time to make. Often when a person becomes seriously ill, family members will order these houses advance ready for the funeral.

4034 Ang Mo Kio Ave 10

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