This traditional Chinese paper house crafter knows it's a dying trade, but chooses to soldier on

Why I Do What I Do is an original AsiaOne series where we showcase people with uncommon professions and what it takes to get there.

Squatting down in the middle of his shop in Ang Mo Kio, Toh Kia Cheng methodically holds sticks of bamboo together and seals them with glue and strips of paper. 

He's been doing this for the last five decades, having first learnt the craft of making traditional paper houses from his father as a young boy. 

"My father would be assembling the house, and he'd ask me to stand next to him and observe how he does it, after a while he'd ask me to have a hand at [assembling the house]", the 70-year-old told AsiaOne. 

Origins of traditional paper houses

Mr Toh is one of the last remaining traditional Chinese paper house crafters left in Singapore — a trade that is quickly dying as an increasing number of people seek alternative ways to honour their deceased relatives. 

While sharing more about his craft, Mr Toh also explained that burning paper houses for deceased relatives was a practice that spread from a Chinese emperor. 

When Mr Toh's father first arrived in Singapore from China, he realised that there was a demand for paper houses among the Chinese community, who wanted to replicate their customs of paying respect to the deceased.

He then learnt how to create these paper houses, and started his own business.

After learning the ropes from his father as a young boy, Mr Toh took over the business in 1969. 

"My grades in school weren't very good, I wanted to learn a skill after graduation, but my father asked me to learn how to make paper houses instead, and I've been doing this ever since," he informed us.

Rise and fall in demand for paper houses 

By 1973, the business had gotten so brisk that he had to enlist the help of his two older brothers and younger sister.

Mr Toh said that the business had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, when he and his siblings received around 10 orders for big paper houses in a year, which cost between $5,000 to $8,000 apiece back then. 

There were also about 100 orders for the smaller houses, which were priced at $200. 

Unfortunately, Mr Toh's brothers only helped out for a short time, as they were getting on in years. These days, the shop is run by Mr Toh and his younger sister. 

This also means that the production time for the paper houses has increased — from four to five days to about three weeks, depending on the size. 

In 2019, Mr Toh sold the shop to its current owner, as he felt he couldn't manage it by himself anymore as he was getting on in years. His now-boss then hired him and his sister as full-time staff.

These days, the number of orders for huge houses of the past has decreased. Instead, there's been a demand for other things, such as HDB flats, cars, and even hotels. 

Sometimes, customers also ask to customise the paper houses for their loved ones. "We had people asking us to put a jackpot machine in the house before," said Mr Toh.

"We'll usually try to accommodate customer's requests, and then we'll think about what kind of materials we can use to make it." 

Makings of a paper house 

To create the base of a paper house, Mr Toh first selects matching pieces of pre-cut bamboo sticks and glues them together. 

After the skeleton of the house is complete, it is passed on to his younger sister, who sticks white paper onto the structure, before 'furnishing' it with coloured paper, and gluing on some paper fixtures inside it, such as a toilet and a kitchen. 

Mr Toh also told AsiaOne that the craft has evolved over the years. When he first started, almost 90 per cent of the parts were handmade, and the details of the house were hand-painted. 

Nowadays, the details of modern paper houses come pre-printed on sheets of paper bought from overseas suppliers, which Mr Toh's sister glues onto the bamboo stick structure. 

However, some degree of creativity is involved, as the process sometimes involves experimenting with different materials. For instance, Mr Toh shared that fluorescent paper is used on certain parts of the house as it is sturdier than other materials. 

From boss to employee 

When asked about why he didn't retire after selling away his business, Mr Toh said: "In my younger days I was making paper houses out of a passion for the craft, these days I do it to support myself; otherwise what else can I do?" 

However, now that the burden of running the business has been lifted off his shoulders, Mr Toh says he can afford to take things a little slower. 

"I feel more relaxed... I used to work seven days a week with long hours, as we had to rush out orders. Now I work six days a week, from 9am to about 5pm." 

As he shares how his boss runs the business today, a tinge of regret can be heard in his voice: "If I had the opportunity to see the world when I was younger, maybe I would have been a different person today, and I wouldn't have had to sell the business." 

One of the regrets Mr Toh has is not learning English, a skill he deemed important for running a business, as he'll need language skills to hire workers.

"But after doing this for over 50 years, I have no regrets about going into this craft. My father told me once, 'If you learn this skill you'll never go hungry.'" 

On the bright side, with a regular paycheck and a little more time on his hands, Mr Toh busies himself with other things. 

Aside from fulfilling orders, Mr Toh says that they sometimes get informal visits from curious students and tourists. "When visitors come there's a lot of laughter and chatter, it makes me happy."

In his personal free time, Mr Toh visits to a Taoist temple to make offerings and spends the day catching up with his friends and family. 

On Sunday afternoons, he also goes to the Toh Clan General Association, where he serves as their treasurer.

Future of traditional paper houses in Singapore 

Despite acknowledging that there have been efforts to preserve the craft, Mr Toh remains a realist and knows that it's something that will be forgotten about eventually.

"It's not just traditional paper houses, there are also other crafts that will be forgotten once our generation stops. Because there are no successors. Young people don't want to do it because it's menial work." 

Mr Toh himself admitted that he's also discouraged his two daughters from learning the craft, as he knows it's not profitable in today's economy. 

However, he's hopeful that someone in the future might be able to further develop this craft.

"I wouldn't know after I pass on, but I'm choosing to stay positive."

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