Race, Culture and Religion (80s Singapore)

Chinese Funeral Paper Car EffigyCHINESE FUNERAL PAPER CAR© Michael Chua Photography
Circa 1982~83 – Funeral Car Artist (80s Singapore)
I was wandering around Chinatown when I came across a burned down building. I approached it hoping to find something interesting to shoot. What I discovered was totally unexpected.

Amongst the debris was a gentleman painting a paper car. I recognized the car immediately. It was a Mitsubishi Colt Lancer, a very popular model during that time. There was a photo of the Colt attached to the painting that he was using as a reference. I said to myself, “Wow, this guy is good. The car rim that he was painting looked 3-dimensional. Imagine when the whole car is finished. It’ll look stunning”.

For those who are not familiar with Chinese customs, this paper car is to be burned as offerings during a funeral. This is not the only item. Usually, wads of paper money (Hell money) are burned together with a house, car, tv set etc. Essentially, anything that the family would want the deceased to set up a comfortable home in the afterlife.

The burning of effigies is very ingrained in Chinese culture. It’s roots can be traced back centuries, to the Han dynasty of ancient China. Even today, in the 21st century, it is still practiced. The offerings have kept up with the times though. Nowadays, they burn Apple MacBooks.

Thaipusam DevoteeTHAIPUSAM SINGAPORE© Michael Chua Photography
Circa 1983~84 – Thaipusam Devotee (80s Singapore)

Thaipusam is a religious festival celebrated by Hindu Tamils. The highlight of the event is a procession of devotees carrying the kavadi. A kavadi, in it’s simplest form, is a physical burden. It can be a pot of milk to a very elaborate alter that’s up to 2 meters high.

In more than a hundred shots I made that day, the image above is the only one that I managed to capture the essence of Thaipusam. In fact, it is the only image. I was standing by the roadside as the procession passed by and I wasn’t getting the image I wanted.

When this devotee neared me, I noticed he was in a trance. I held up my Olympus OM-2, went up close and made one shot with a 35mm f/2 Zuiko lens. In an instant, he disappeared from my frame. That was it.

It was only after the transparencies came back that I noticed the skewers that pieced through his tongue and cheeks. This act of oral self-mortification prevents him from speaking so that he can focus solely on carrying the kavadi. In this pilgrimage, carrying the kavadi (physical burden) is the ritual for expressing his gratitude to Lord Murugan for prayers answered.