For 63 years, Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency was a pillar of the paper offering industry, a crucial component of the commemoration of traditional Chinese festivals such as the Hungry Ghost Festival and the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
Its owner, 83-year-old Yeo Hung Teo, was famous for being one of the few artisans in Singapore who could craft and paint traditional Teochew lanterns.
Sadly, due to multiple health issues, Mr Yeo is unable to work his craft anymore, and he is currently wheelchair-bound.
Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency, founded by his father Yeo Swee Piew in 1959, also shut its doors for the last time in July.
The historic Teochew business became a victim of a general decline in traditional Chinese trades in Singapore, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the unexpected demise of a longtime employee.
Faced with these immense challenges, Mr Yeo’s wife, Mrs Yeo Siew Peng, was left with little choice but to cease operations.
My team and I have known Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency since 2017, when we were conducting research for Hell’s Museum. The museum, which opened in October 2021, focuses on perspectives of death and the afterlife, and the firm was relevant because they made paper offerings for the 7th Lunar Month and for funerals.
We were impressed by the artistic skills of the Yeos and their workers, and their deep knowledge of traditional Chinese festivals and Chinese traditions. They were stewards of Singaporean intangible cultural heritage.
When we received news in early June that the paper factory was shutting down, we were dismayed and saddened. We felt we had to do something to honour the Yeos’ contributions and achievements of a lifetime, and allow them to tell their story.
The result is an exhibition in Haw Par Villa, titled End of an Era - The Legacy of a Vanishing Trade: Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency.
My team and I curated and put together this exhibition in just eight weeks, to have its launch coincide with the 15th day of the 7th Lunar Month - what would have been a very busy period for Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency.
On display are photos, footage, and original furniture from the Yeos’ factory, and a plethora of colourful paper offerings for funerals and the 7th Lunar Month and other traditional Chinese festivals, all generously donated by the Yeos.
This exhibition will use their works of art to open a window into the oft-misunderstood world of traditional Chinese festivals and practices, a window into thousands of years of philosophy and culture.
More importantly, I hope this exhibition conserves the spirit of Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency, and honours the Yeos and more than six decades of hard work.
Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency may be no more, but it is our duty to ensure their legacy lives on for future generations.
End of an Era - The Legacy of a Vanishing Trade: Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency runs from now until the end of December. It is at the Cloud Pavilion, next to the Culture Courtyard in Haw Par Villa.
Directions to the Culture Courtyard here.