Woman Hungry Ghost auctioneer asked to get off stage

BEHIND THE MIC: Auctioneer Gwee Wan Ling has been asked to get off the stage because she's a woman.

SINGAPORE - She has been asked to get off the stage.

And all because she is female.

Miss Gwee Wan Ling, 22, is an auctioneer.

She works the crowds during the Hungry Ghost Festival auctions, where lucky items are sold to bidders in return for good fortune.

Miss Gwee is among the few women who have stepped forward to take on this "manly" task, and has been doing so for about 1½ years.

Two other auctioneers say they have encountered only one other woman, compared with about 20 men, in the business.

The reason? Some audience members - particularly from the older generation - don't think a woman should be conducting the auctions.

Says Mr Lim Cheng Hoe, 53, who is Miss Gwee's mentor: "The items auctioned off are supposed to be auspicious, and they feel a woman will 'dirty' them.

"But I feel a woman should be given a chance. Since Wan Ling is confident and interested, why can't she do it?"

He had previously seen aunties conducting auctions about 20 years ago, during a show at Ang Mo Kio.

"They were refreshing to watch. They also raised quite a lot of money."


Said Miss Gwee: "I like being on stage. It has helped me to become more confident, and I hope that there will be more opportunities to develop here.

"I understand some people might not like to see a woman conducting the auction, but I still hope they will be able to accept me one day."

Last year, a man actually asked her to get off the stage.

She had auctioned off three bottles of wine, when a man shouted from the bottom of the stage in Mandarin: "We don't want a woman."

Miss Gwee said: "I felt very awkward. I didn't know what to do."

Mr Lim eventually took over the reins and carried on with the show.

Looking back, Miss Gwee said: "I should have made a joke about it. It could have lightened the mood, and won him over."

There have also been occasions when Miss Gwee has noticed audience members pulling long faces when she walks on stage, or whispering to the other auctioneers when she takes the mic.

She said: "I don't let it bother me. People can say what they want.

"All I know is that I'm enjoying what I'm doing, and my family supports me."

Last year, she assisted in over 15 auctions, handling a few items each night.

They included giant bottles of cognac, television sets and other appliances, electronic Chinese statuettes or figurines in the likeness of deities, which can change colours or play music.

As an assistant, she makes $50 a night.

In contrast, popular auctioneers have been known to earn $500 to $600 for an auction.

Says another auctioneer, Mr William Soh, 45, who has worked with Miss Gwee: "She has a lot of potential. We sometimes perform in front of over 1,000 people, and she can still keep her cool and handle everything.

"Not many people can do that."

When she goes on stage, Miss Gwee has to introduce the items and make sure they are sold on time.

She has to know what is the highest bid, who placed it, and which item is next.

"For me, this is a challenge. I've always looked up to auctioneers because they seem so energetic and engaging," she said.

Miss Gwee, who has a day job as a human resources executive, used to visit auctions as a child with her family. Last year, she started working part-time at auctions, doing paperwork and accounting for the items auctioned off.

She added: "Initially, I took it up because of the extra money. But I soon grew very interested in how auctions are done."

Mr Lim noticed her interest, and asked her to go on stage.

She said: "I was so nervous when I first walked on stage. I didn't know if people would like me or not."

Thankfully, Miss Gwee had performed on stage before - in hip-hop dance competitions - which helped her overcome the jitters.

The first item she auctioned off was a bottle of Cordon Bleu cognac, which fetched a winning bid of $1,800.

She added: "I was surprised I could raise so much. For me, being an auctioneer is a challenge as I used to be a shy person.

"Being able to persuade someone to bid higher gives me a sense of achievement."

Mr Lim said: "Times are changing, and the audiences are becoming more open-minded.

"I hope more people will be able to accept Wan Ling.

"Who knows, maybe she will be able to take charge of an entire auction in two or three years."

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