GEORGE TOWN: Sitting shirtless behind an old table, crouched over a wooden stool, Loh Soo Ban takes an order from a customer on his landline, jotting notes down in Chinese on the insides of flattened cigarette boxes.
As he hangs up, he says, “They want a Vellfire. Last month, we did an Alphard.” He gets his assistant to google the MPV in question. “Ah, not much difference. Can-lah,” the man fondly known as Ah Ban tells his nodding apprentice.
Loh is not getting requests for real cars, but paper models commonly burnt for the departed to be “transported” to the afterlife.
Operating out of a warehouse in the back lanes of Carnarvon Street, Loh runs a tight ship, making paper offerings with a team of five apprentices and a lot of elbow grease.
The Penang Chinese still follow the tradition of burning paper models — houses, cars and other worldly items for the deceased to use in the afterlife – three days before or after their funeral.
Making one of these intricate structures, especially the ones that look like Chinese temples, takes days.
The frame is fashioned from Batam wood, which Loh said has become expensive over the years. A bundle of 25 of the thin sticks now costs RM30. They are ordered from Bukit Merah, Perak.
Then, washi, a type of Japanese paper made from plant fibres costing RM600 to RM800 a box, is stuck to the framework with homemade glue made with flour. Then, coloured printed squares are laid out, ranging from fluorescent to a myriad of other glowing colours. The more expensive ones are handwoven, with individually made dolls.
Loh says the entry-level “house” costs about RM1,000 for a two-metre wide model. It takes at least three days to build a basic entry-level model while the larger more intricate ones can take up to a month and cost RM10,000 or more.
“The most expensive order I’ve received was for a six-metre wide house. It took us a month to build at a cost of about RM40,000. I think that was the most expensive model we have made in our 50-year history,” he said.
The name of the deceased is written on the front of the house and inside are servants, cars, furniture, appliances, clothing, iPads, everything needed for a comfortable afterlife.
Loh brought out life-sized effigies of a Sikh guard, requested by a family who had had a trusted and “strict” Sikh security guard. Another oddity is a safe with gold bars in it.
“We get requests for fridges, motorcycles, almost everything. You tell us, we can do it,” he said.
Loh, now 64, says he has suffered financially because of the Movement Control Order. He had to pay salaries for five workers and RM2,000 a month rent.
He said he is glad the Chettiars, who are renting out the warehouse to him, have been kind enough not to raise the rent over the years.
He said after the lockdown was eased, some orders came in but not as much as before. He is now jittery about another possible lockdown just weeks away from the Hungry Ghost Festival on Aug 18, when demand for paper offerings usually soars.
Close to the festival, demand spikes for effigies of the King of Hades, believed to ward off evil spirits.
Those dyed in red are placed in safe places while blue ones are placed in areas with high levels of disturbance, he said, adding that “money” is also burnt during this period.
“If there is another lockdown in the next few weeks, I will definitely close. No one will be able to burn offerings,” he said.
He has used up a lot of his savings to stay afloat, he added.
Loh wonders if the youth of Penang are interested in their intangible cultural heritage. Even his two children, aged 30 and 38, have no interest in taking over the business as they are comfortable with their jobs in Singapore.
“The youngsters are not interested in doing this kind of work. We work seven days a week, they expect a five-day workweek. It is not a good match,” he said.
Loh’s late father, Ting Wan, passed on the trade to him in 1970. Ting Wan had run the business for about three decades, he said. Loh was the second of eight brothers.
There are about 10 active paper offering shops in Penang, he said, but his shop is in demand for its beautiful work and consistency.
Loh said his five apprentices get about RM100 to RM200 for each completed work, in addition to a small monthly allowance.
“I hope next year will be better for us after the virus is gone.”