Working for ghosts

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Death sells, and behind the Hungry Ghost Festival’s carnival of souls, artisans craft religious effigies for a business that is very much alive and kicking.

Ornate paper effigy of the King of Hell.

The best part of the Hungry Ghost Festival comes at the end of the seventh lunar month, when a melee of Chinese limbs lift up statues of the Taoist King of Hell, Tay Su Yeah, from makeshift street temples and carry them for one last joyride around the streets of George Town. This ritual means that the spirits of the dead, after a month-long indulgence on those human pleasures they cannot find in Hell’s poorly stocked supermarkets, are all about to plunge back into the burning pits of the underworld through a powerful bonfire.

For the occasion, all over Penang, piles of “ghost money” – the currency used in Hell – are stacked up, ready to be sprinkled with gasoline and set on fire. And when the matches fall, they quickly turn into a swath of burning, wispy vines. The flames devour the colourful and majestic statues of the demon king until they are all nothing but mountains of smoky ash.

“I think it’s very silly,” confesses Koh Eng Keat, sucking his freshly lit cigarette. He’s standing in front of a wall lined with scaffolding and filled with plastic boxes, each one carefully tagged with the corresponding readymade paper effigies they contain. Cut from glossy, coloured paper, a tiger’s face and Chinese deities peek back at me. “Devotees don’t understand that what burns in 10 minutes takes us days of careful work and preparation to make,” Eng Keat comments with a wry smile.

Koh Eng Keat.

This life-sized paper and cardboard motorbike is not meant for the living.

He’s right – there’s so much concentration on the almost-pyromaniac act of burning the paper ghosts that people seem to completely forget that, exactly like any other thing in this world, there’s a business behind it. Eng Keat, 29, together with his father and master Koh Beng Hock, 57, are a part of this incredible industry. Their workshop, 358, is named after the civic number of the small room in Lintang Macallum 2 where they work, just a few kilometres south of the jetty. Here, they build custom-made statues of Tay Su Yeah and his cornucopia of assistants and helpers, such as the creepy white and black guardian brothers of Hell, Jee Pek and Tua Pek. Apart from father and son, six other workers help cut paper figures, glue papier-mâché body parts together, and prepare the internal structures of the statues by weaving and stitching casts of attap wood.

“I have been doing this for more than 30 years,” says Beng Hock as he shuttles between a wall full of half-finished hanging heads and the centre of the room where he’s preparing a paper house for a funeral ceremony. These houses, made from a mixture of papier-mâché and layers of paper cuttings, are burned with the wish that the departed will receive the same homely comforts in the afterlife. Beng Hock explains that, for most of the year, their business comes from the sale of funeral effigies for local rites.

A worker preparing the internal structures of the statues.

“We were even commissioned to make a life-sized car once,” Eng Keat says. “In a way, the bigger the effigy they burn, the more a family shows its wealth. It’s a bit of a power game, but we deal with anyone, rich or poor.”

He’s not joking. I’m amazed to find a life-sized paper and cardboard motorbike at the back of their shop – I would’ve mistaken it for the real thing had I found it parked outside. Even the ignition keyhole is perfectly reproduced on a silver paper disk. But Eng Keat reveals that he much prefers the work during the Hungry Ghost festival. “Building ghosts is much more creative and entertaining.”

The paper ghosts that 358 make are sold all over Penang and Seberang Perai, and are even shipped as far as Langkawi. Eng Keat tells me that they personally transport and mount the effigies wherever they are required. “We work at most of Penang’s suburbs, and even some places in Bukit Mertajam and the mainland.” This is not surprising as there are only two other professional effigy makers in Penang, both located along Lebuh Carnarvon in George Town.

358 manufactures two different sizes of effigies, the biggest reaching about four metres in height. They build them in three portable and mountable parts: the lower body and the legs, which function as the base; the central part, with its torso and arms; and the head, with its colourful decorated crown. Part of 358’s crew gets busy preparing the structures by bending attap wood sticks and weaving them together with threads. The others, including Eng Keat, work on the outer layers of paper that, once coloured, will constitute the “flesh” and clothing of each ghost. “For the bigger statues, we have to tie over a thousand knots for the structure and paste decorations to make their clothes look realistic,” he says.

The smaller effigies sell for around RM1,000 while the biggest are worth about RM3,000. “This year, we have already received 42 orders,” Eng Keat reveals. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun. I just feel a bit silly when I think that all the effigies will end up as ashes,” Eng Keat says, bending over a table to paint black stripes on a bunch of tiger tails. “These are for the deities’ mounts,” he mutters. ”These guys must always ride something.”

His candid remarks show his detachment from this traditional profession. In truth, he moonlights as a drummer and guitarist for several of Penang’s heavy rock bands, such as space-doomsters Coma and hardcore punks WEOT SKAM, and dreams of making it internationally. “If I could just make enough money with music, I’d leave this job instantly,” he admits.

Besides making paper effigies, Eng Keat also freelances for funeral preparations, and he’s not new to the art of cleaning and dressing up dead bodies for their final farewells. Some of the stories he tells me would turn the stomachs of the squeamish, and at this point, I’m curious if he’s superstitious. “Of course I am,” he says. “The workshop is full of inquisitive, floating spirits. Spirits are attracted to us. It’s normal, as we work in their element. One just has to learn how to be respectful, and they stay quiet,” he concludes as he intensely sucks at his cigarette.

Turning around, I notice that some customers exiting the Chinese restaurant next door stop at the entrance of 358. They bow and join their palms together in prayer before shuttling away to their vehicles. As I leave Eng Keat and his father to their ghastly business, I too put my palms together to pay respect to the spirits. Eng Keat smiles, his eyes stretched thin. I might be impressionable, but I swear I just saw the statue of Jee Pek faintly twitch in the background.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at www.monkeyrockworld.com. His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.



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