“We wanted to offer traditional New Year decorations that bear witness to Christian values”: Moses Zhao of buzzworthy Chinatown shop
by Karen Tan // January 17, 2020, 3:47 pm
All photos by Glen Goh.
Chinese New Year is not normally a festive occasion associated with Christianity. But local social media has been abuzz over a certain Chinatown shop offering festive decorations with Christian messages.
Orchid Chopsticks has been in business for more than a decade selling traditional Asian tableware with a specialty on chopsticks.
But once a year, come the Lunar New Year, festive decorative items take centre stage. This year, especially, the shop has been ringing in unexpected sales.
The 48-year-old owner, Moses Zhao, whose photo has been shared many times on social media, was taken aback by the “waves of customers” that have been making their way to this tiny little shop in 24 Sago Street. (Editor’s Note: The store has since moved to 39 Pagoda Street.)
“We have been selling these products for eight years and not many know us. So, why the sudden interest?” Zhao questions. Then he concludes: “It is God’s blessings!”
Fruit of the Spirit
The most popular item customers are coming for are the huichun festive décor with idiomatic phrases consisting of four characters reflecting hopes for the year.
Along with that, many are also picking up little classical Chinese cut-outs of the “Fruit of the Spirit” both in English and Chinese.
A tourist had asked to take photos of Zhao and the shop’s offerings last year. Zhao had politely obliged without thinking too much of it. The impact of the photos only hit home when his wife was forwarded the pictures a couple of weeks ago.
The affable business owner had started selling Christian decor items eight years ago. He recalls: “I was having a casual conversation with a sister-in-Christ at church (Queenstown Chinese Methodist Church), when she said in passing that Christian products can be a good channel and tool to share the Good News.”
That got Zhao thinking.
In the beginning, he sourced for Christian items that were already on sale in the Mainland Chinese market and brought them in. However, he found that the Chinese products did not suit local tastes and the quality of the goods was a little rough.
Hence Zhao, who has experience in marketing and product design, decided to make the festive products from scratch.
“We want to bring in something new for our Christians customers. As I am more inclined towards the Chinese culture, I wanted to keep to that as well,” he tells Salt&Light. “When I first started, I had to do lot of research. I had to think about the wordings, the designs and match all that to customer preferences.”
Zhao hit the drawing board and worked especially hard at penning the chunlian which are traditional scrolls hung on door posts to usher in the new year.
The antithetical couplets have strict rules for composition. They must take into consideration the number of strokes each character has, and the seven characters on either side of the couplet must match. Not only that, the tonal sounds of the characters must be consistent and the meaning of both phrases congruent. They must also include a shorter, overarching four-character theme phrase that frames the couplet.
It is poetry written with musical counterpoint – it was a tough assignment Zhao had set for himself. He had to include all those literary limits within Christian verses and precepts.
It’s no wonder Zhao says: “I had a big headache!” as he reflected on the early challenges.
In the meantime, Mrs Zhao was praying on the sidelines, and God gave her Psalms 121.8.
“It is important that the items bear witness to what Christians believe in and how we live our lives.”
The verse which talks about the going in and out of the house is well-suited for the purpose of a chunlian.
Over the years, her husband had painstakingly come up with several different chunlian with Christian sayings.
“The decor is not only about celebrating the New Year,” says Mrs Zhao. “To me, it is important that they bear witness to what Christians believe in, what we are like and how we live our lives.
“It may be a small decorative item that you have on your door or in your home, but for the neighbours and visitors or even people passing by, they represent a witness of the Christian culture and values.”
Zhao has also added a measure of artistic licence to bring changes to traditions.
“Traditionally, the Chinese like the magpie and call the bird 喜鹊. They believe its bird call is akin to announcing happy news. We have replaced that with the dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirt. We also like to add parts of the olive tree as referred to in the Bible,” Zhao explained.
Today, about 90% of the festive products on sale are designed by Zhao to include Christian motifs and emblems.
Business has been especially brisk this year and for a while it baffled the entrepreneur. He had initially expected poorer sales because of the short sale run-up to the Lunar New Year festivities after Christmas.
“We were prepared to make a loss!”
His wife, who sometimes helps out with the business, had also made an error on the orders.
“We usually based our calculation on the previous year’s numbers, but this time, she made a mistake and ordered double the amount of last year’s,” revealed Zhao. “And because of our tight year-end schedules, we took only a week to work on product designs which usually take a couple of months. We were prepared to make a loss!”
The festive goods, however, are mostly sold out and the Zhaos had to order more to meet the overwhelming demand.
God came through.
For the festive period, Orchid Chopsticks at 24 Sago St, Singapore 059020 will be open from 10 am to 10 pm and will remain open throughout the public holidays.
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