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2022 is coming to an end, so here’s my year-end tradition of posting 12 photos, one for every month of the year that has just passed.

January: The last link to Nee Soon’s agricultural past.

February: The last of Boh Sua Tian.

March: Sunset on an abandoned road.

April: Reviving a lost tradition.

May: Searching for calm.

June: In pursuit of roadside gods.

July: A school gone silent.

August: A tribute to a dying industry.

September: Receiving the Nine Emperor Gods.

October: A dragon to send off the Nine Emperor Gods.

November: My parents are together again.

December: Tracing a fragment of railway history.

See 2020 and 2021’s photos here and here.


Here’s to a better 2023.

Paid a visit to Tay Guan Heng Joss-Sticks Manufacturer at 4001 Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park 1. I had seen online posts about its impending closure, so I wanted to see the place for myself before it was too late.

The humble factory space houses a dying trade that has endured four generations. The family business was founded in the 1930s, and specialised in giant, traditional joss sticks made of cinnamon wood clay, burned during Chinese festivals such as the 7th Lunar Month.

Like the paper offering industry, this business produces intricate, but transient, works of art that last only as long as the festivals for which they are dedicated.

During my visit, I was fortunate to meet the proprietor, Mr Albert Tay. He readily shared about his work, showing me old photo albums of the business’ glory days, and clay sculptures and dioramas on display on shelves.

The business will close at the end of November. Why, I asked. “A lot of pressure… a lot of stress”, Mr Tay shook his head sadly.

Until then, work carries on in the factory, to fulfil final orders.

Tay Guan Heng is open Mondays to Saturdays, 11am to around 4pm or 5pm. It is closed on Sundays.

I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the faceless transcribers who listen to National Archives oral interviews done in Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese, and transcribe them in Chinese characters.

I don’t understand the three aforementioned languages, and besides, listening to hours of tape recordings made in the 1980s - usually with poor audio quality - can be an exhausting chore.

Instead, with transcriptions, I can read the Chinese characters at a quicker pace, and scan entire blocks of text for keywords. My command of Chinese is not very strong, but regular practice has made it better.

Thanks to the transcribers’ labours, a whole world of memories and experiences from the 1920s to 1980s - lived history - has opened up for my study. Many interviewees were already elderly folk when they were recorded in the 1980s. They were born in the 1920s, 1910s, 1900s, one in 1894. They should have passed on by now.

I wonder how much I would have missed out if I had not understood Chinese script. I also wonder how much I’m missing out by not comprehending Malay and Tamil.

Despite relying on Chinese transcriptions to access interviewees’ recollections, I still occasionally listen to their voice recordings, if only just to feel them addressing me from another time, another realm.

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