Meet the 80-year-old joss paper seller who fled a revolution in China for a life in Singapore

In exchange for food and shelter, Ng laboured at his boss’ joss stick factory. Because the workshop was thick with dust and smoke, and Ng’s health could not take the dismal air quality, he was put in charge of packing the finished goods. From afar, he watched as the lively workers embraced the painstaking process with great joy. “I was very surprised,” he said. “I remember thinking that they are making immense contributions to our trade. They are doing what others won’t.”

Two years later, Ng sailed to Singapore with hopes for a family reunion. Instead, reality could not be further from it. Ng’s father was infuriated to see his eldest son and condemned him for abandoning his duties. He demanded that Ng return to China.

That he had survived the unthinkable and come this far only to be rejected by his family was crushing. For a time, the homeless 20-year-old slept in the back of lorries at the former Thong Chai Medical Institution along Eu Tong Sen Street. “At 4 to 5am, when people left for work and started their engines, I would wake up with a start and hop off.”

It was not long before Ng was on the road again. This time, he travelled to Kulai in Johor, Malaysia to master the art of candle-making, which wasn’t a huge departure from his trade in Hong Kong. He learned to carve dragons and phoenixes – an auspicious duo in Chinese culture – onto wax. Once again, the world of joss sticks, incense papers and candles threw him a lifeline in his darkest hours.


In 1967, Ng returned to Singapore and started working at a shop along Desker Road. Around this time, he was also matchmade with a lady who later became the mother of his five children. Asked where they went on their first date, Ng laughed and said: “We just stayed in the shop. Back then, having fun was not on our minds.”

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