For Terence, the mission of preserving religious traditions is deeply personal. His interest in religion arose from his exposure to Taoism in his youth, which inspired him to explore the meaning behind the traditions he follows. Some of Terence’s customers have remarked on the uniqueness of seeing someone his age running a “kim zua diam” (金纸店, a shop selling joss paper and offerings), but Terence believes it is time for the younger generation to get involved. He fears that the trade will be diminished as the older generation of owners retire, and has seen several other “kim zua diam” close down. Thus, despite having no prior experience in this industry, and having to juggle his own interior design firm at the same time, Terence felt an urgent need to step up.
Stewarding Dong Sheng meant that Terence had to equip himself with more knowledge of religious traditions. He is continuously learning on the job, picking up knowledge from those well-versed in religious practices, and working closely with Timothy Tay, a Taoist priest who guides the team and the customers at Dong Sheng. A passionate member of the Taoist community, Terence supports various activities within the circle – for example, he aids Taoist groups with matters such as temple relocation, and works with lion dance troupes to support their art. He also helps to promote products from like-minded local businesses, such as natural incense from Chua Hup Eng. His efforts reflect his belief that one’s work should have an impact beyond just dollars and cents.
One of the ways that Dong Sheng distinguishes themselves from other key players in the market is by placing an emphasis on customer education. As rituals are passed down from descendant to descendant, the original meaning of certain aspects have unfortunately become lost to time. This, Terence says, results in generations of devotees copying their predecessor’s rituals without understanding their significance. Dong Sheng aims to preserve these traditional rituals and their meanings, as they believe that the correct methods of prayer will bring benefits to both the living and the departed. These benefits come in various forms, such as clearing obstacles, vanquishing bad luck, and smoothening journeys. Terence illustrates this with a Chinese saying – that if one has a smooth and successful life, it is because “上辈子烧好香” (good incense was offered to the gods in one’s previous life).
At Dong Sheng, sterling service goes hand-in-hand with educating their customers. They understand that newcomers may be confused by the great variety of religious practices, and may not know which products they require. For these customers, the team is always ready to assist and explain the significance behind various rituals and religious items. The shop also displays handy guides and instructional graphics on topics such as writing proper dedications on offerings. Regular patrons have praised Dong Sheng’s warmth and willingness to go the extra mile – whether by arranging delivery for large orders, accommodating requests for unique products, or simply by carrying bulky goods to a customer’s car. Heartened by the positive feedback, Terence intends to build a friendly and welcoming business, where customers both young and old can ask questions and get help with a smile.
Although Terence and Kent took over Dong Sheng after it was already established, the transition was still a steep learning curve. Differences in opinion made it difficult for them to obtain guidance from the previous owners, and made certain business arrangements untenable for the new team. As a result, the process was akin to starting from scratch. COVID-19 introduced further challenges, as many devotees found themselves unable to visit their religious institutions due to pandemic restrictions. This disruption caused the demand for religious products to become extremely unpredictable. As the transition coincided with the annual Qing Ming season (清明节, Tomb-Sweeping Festival), the pair had to manage fluctuations in demand for Qing Ming items, while also juggling the negotiation of new supplier contracts. This led to a frenetic first month for the new team, who spent many late nights assembling prayer packages by hand.
Despite the challenging experience, Terence shares that the transition brought unexpected benefits. It gave the team an opportunity to critically review Dong Sheng’s stock, discontinue products which did not meet their standards, and introduce new offerings to complete their inventory. Though a few of their old brands may be no more, Terence is confident that the new products they’ve brought in provide solid quality and good value for their customers.