Meet the 80-year-old Joss paper salesman who fled a revolution in China for a life in Singapore

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In exchange for food and shelter, Ng worked at his boss’s joss stick factory. As the workshop was full of dust and smoke and Ng’s health could not cope with the poor air quality, he was put in charge of packing the finished goods. From a distance he watched as the lively workers embraced the arduous process with great joy. “I was very surprised,” he said. “I remember thinking they make a huge contribution to our trade. They do what others don’t.”

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Two years later, Ng sailed to Singapore in hopes of a family reunion. Instead, the reality couldn’t be further from it. Ng’s father was furious when he saw his eldest son and condemned him for giving up his duties. He demanded that Ng return to China.

That he had survived the unthinkable and come so far as to be rejected by his family was devastating. For a while, the homeless 20-year-old slept in the back of trucks at the former Thong Chai Medical Institution along Eu Tong Sen Street. “At 4 to 5 a.m., when people left for work and started their engines, I woke up with a start and got out.”

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It wasn’t long before Ng was back on the road. This time he traveled to Kulai in Johor, Malaysia to master the art of candle making, which was not much different from his trading in Hong Kong. He learned to carve dragons and phoenixes – an auspicious duo in Chinese culture – from wax. Once again the world of joss sticks, incense paper and candles threw him a lifeline in his darkest hours.

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FROM DESKER ROAD TO MACPHERSON

In 1967, Ng returned to Singapore and started working in a shop along Desker Road. Around this time, he was also matched up with a lady who later became the mother of his five children. When asked where they went on their first date, Ng smiled and said, “We just stayed in the store. Fun was not on our minds then.”

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