At 28, he chose to take over his family's joss paper business - here's why

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The joss paper industry is on the cusp of change - and standing at its fore is 32-year-old Alex Teo, a third-gen owner of Ban Kah Hiang Trading.

With a history spanning over half a century, it's one of Singapore's oldest surviving joss paper merchants - and one of even fewer local businesses that supplies "bao ga liao. Everything also have," Alex laughs.

While most suppliers in the industry bring in solely joss paper or joss sticks, Ban Kah Hiang offers those and more: incense coils, religious oil and paper effigies, plus candles and prayer offerings, including cookies and tea leaves.

The family business operates from a Bukit Merah-based store - a retail shop and office in one - that brims with colourful prayer paraphernalia, whether ornate dragon candles or giant packages packed with clothes, shoes and hell notes.

Hell notes, for the uninitiated, refer to legal tender currency for the deceased.
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BIRTH OF THE BAO GA LIAO

"I had no interest in taking over the business," Alex admits. "I had minimal knowledge of the industry, even though I helped out from the time I was in primary school."

It wasn't helped by the fact that he has a self-described babyface.

"I look like I'm in secondary school, so customers would say to me, 'Xiao di, ni hui ma? Bu hui lah.'* Temples would also ask for my dad when placing orders, or ask me complex stuff I didn't really know how to answer."

(*Mandarin Chinese, to mean: Boy, are you sure you know what you're talking about? I don't think so lah.)

It isn't uncommon, for instance, for customers to ask about prayer rituals and paraphernalia for deities' birthdays, ancestors or Hungry Ghost Festival.

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Though Taoism and Buddhism hold similarities, it's the little things that set both religions apart - like using a specific religious oil when praying to Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, in Buddhism.

And, where Taoists burn joss paper and joss sticks for prayer, Buddhists interchange the latter with candles.

It's plenty to take in, but Alex is patient in explaining the differences in rituals, which have taken him all of three years to become well-versed in.

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"See this?" He gestures to a bundle of joss paper whose grainy edges have succumbed to the printing process.

"It's got air bubbles. You can tell it's of lower quality than these."

He shows off yet neater stacks of joss paper the colour of fresh butter, their edges this time prominently bearing the Ban Kah Hiang logo.

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Immediately the bundles of lower grade joss paper - used mostly for ancestral worship during the 7th month, or Hungry Ghost Festival - appear like jarring anomalies next to their better-looking counterparts.

It's the Jade Emperor, then, who gets special treatment.

Throughout the year, customers burn top-grade paper for the Taoist deity, whose most popular depiction remains to be in 1986 TV series Journey to the West.

THE DEATH OF RELIGION?

In an age where more millennials are seeking alternatives to religion, Buddhism and Taoism - and their respective prayer traditions - are going the way of dialects and hawker culture.

That is to say: diluted or fast fading, though that's hardly news, given religion constantly evolves as new belief systems emerge.

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In fact, Alex admits to being a freethinker himself, unlike his (Taoist-practicing) family.

"I'm like the rest of our generation. If it's time to pray, I follow the traditions and burn kim zua [Hokkien for gold paper, or joss paper], but honestly-" he pauses here, as if hesitant to admit this aloud "- honestly, I'm a freethinker, and my parents know this."

At this point, he regales how his grandfather travelled from China to Singapore to set up a joss factory that eventually succumbed to high operational and manpower costs.

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At its height in the '80s, Ban Kah Hiang was kept alive by Alex's dad, who tirelessly worked on securing orders for the import and export of joss sticks and joss paper.

It was only in 2016 that Alex joined the trade, swapping CBD lunches and regular hours as a medical claims assessor to prolong his grandfather's painstakingly-built business.

On the plus side, it also meant more time for his family - and a higher salary, of which around half is funnelled into a savings account.

But a small struggle lies beneath the surface.

His only investment with his wife - a four-room HDB that sits under the short-lived Design Build and Sell Scheme, or DBSS - has hit its Minimum Occupation Period, but remains above the market rate of regular BTOs.

"I'll probably only break even from it," he says, wincing slightly. "We're hoping to upgrade to a condominium, but want to avoid incurring the ABSD [Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty]."

MONEY DON'T COME EASY

Since taking over his father's role as Director at Ban Kah Hiang, Alex has made small but necessary changes including automating payments, invoices and inventory.

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Prior, everything had been manually recorded by his father, making the process needlessly painful.

In itself, the meat of Ban Kah Hiang's revenue comes from bulk orders, which are delivered weekly to over 20 temples islandwide from the joss paper merchant's three warehouses in Redhill, Sims Drive and Defu Lane.

A typical weekly order amounts to $1,000 to $2,000 worth of joss paper, which in itself is sourced from suppliers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.

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In fact, Alex and his parents make thrice-yearly trips to the Fujian province to browse physical catalogues before making bulk purchases.

These trips are also when the Teo family places customised orders for paper effigies - usually in quantities of 50 pieces per design, depending on customer requests.

Some consistently popular paraphernalia include dogs in kennels, coffee machines, sports cars and safety deposit boxes.

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"If something costs $1, we sell it for $1.20," he says.

"We earn more from volume than individual items. And customers will make noise if we increase prices too much, so a way of retaining them is by absorbing price increases from suppliers."

Corporate orders increase significantly during the Hungry Ghost Festival, thanks to the likes of Marina Bay Sands, Fullerton Hotel and Mandarin Oriental - along with a bevy of younger, non-practicing Taoists and Buddhists.

"For hotels…these companies are not always backed by religion," he explains, then half-jokingly adds, "Maybe they see, 'Wah, that company pray, I also wanna pray. That company huat, I also wanna huat.'"

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The chat goes that way: anecdotes, light humour, his struggles, more light humour.

Outside the air-conditioned office, his parents bustle about beneath suspended plastic-wrapped paper effigies, bundling stacks of joss paper into neat piles.

Wandering through the store is bit unlike poring over a walk-in cabinet of curiosities; for someone whose scant knowledge of Taoism is limited to once-yearly trips to the temple over Chinese New Year, it scares me that time could be the only fuel for the dearth of the joss paper industry.

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Alex seems upbeat on its outlook, though: it's his hope that one of his children will eventually take over the business.

"I think [Ban Kah Hiang Trading] will be able to last for another generation, so long as the Government's policies on joss paper-burning [around neighbouring estates] remain status quo."

For a man who reluctantly traded his career to keep a family heirloom alive, it's a surprisingly paradoxical thought - yet I can't help but hope the same.

This article was first published in Seedly.