Temple of Knowledge

Little Prayer Shop

August is the month of the 7th month of the lunar calendar for Buddhists and Taoists. The gates of the Afterlife open and ghosts of the dead return to Earth to linger among the living. Families make offerings to appease the souls of the dead and pray for their well-being in the Underworld, and paper mâché is burnt to send money and gifts to the spirits.

Prayer shops in Singapore have graced the markets for multiple generations. They sell traditional prayer artefacts such as joss sticks, paper money (known as “hell” money which is legal tender in the underworld), and paper mâché replicas such as clothes, watches, and tennis rackets.

“I think people are praying less.”

Running a family business for decades gives the shopkeepers a keen perception of how society is changing.

“Business is getting more difficult. I think people are praying less. They will say: “we are very busy with work.” Families were bigger last time, so we had more people to help at home. But now… people seem to have less time.”

Previously, these occasions were marked with family members coming together to cook large quantities of food that would be shared, but this abundance of time has waned.

Praying – as a collective social ritual – seems to take more effort to maintain.

Temples of Knowledge

With traditions fading into the past, small shops function as temples of knowledge:

“People ask us for simple advice: like which days to pray. We also get advice from our elderly customers: they tell us how they cook, how they pray, and how life used to be in the past – and we share these stories with others.”

In this way, shopkeepers play a vital, long-honoured role in the social circulation of knowledge and news, serving as contact points between total strangers in society.

Continuity | Competition

How do these shops deal with competition? If you walk around Singapore, you will notice numerous small shops selling prayer items. It seems like loyalty keep the shops relevant in their own communities.

“Most of our customers are regulars. From 3 generations ago, the customers used to bring their kids with them to the shop– and then when the kids grow up, they still get their things from us.”

This intimate familiarity evokes a sense of continuity in society: from generation to generation, down the line of time, the business owners pass down the shop to their children who serve each succeeding generation of customers.

Tradition meets Fashion | Staying Relevant

“Last time, we only burned the traditional paper. But now it’s more common to burn mobile phones, sports shoes, condos… so we started selling those. But our older customers still prefer using the original paper (instead of paper mâché models).”

I noticed a 6-pack of (paper mâché) beer cans hanging from the jungle of commodities, and it is heartbreaking to notice artefacts meant for children: baby jumpers, milk bottle, toys… At least there is a way for us to send gifts to children in the Afterlife.

Every day, the shopkeepers stay close to society, understand what they need, and find ways to bring it all together.

Small shop in Singapore selling Buddhist and Taoist prayer artefacts such as joss sticks,

This is the traditional joss paper with symbols. It is gradually being replaced with joss money and paper mache replicas of commodities that can be used in the Underworld.

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The shop is stocked with a variety of joss paper for the 7th month festival

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Joss paper money that has currency in the Afterlife (if you look carefully you’ll see that it says “The Hell Bank Note”)

You can browse more shopkeeper stories on the homepage, or see the project on Facebook and Instagram @ShopkeeperStories.

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