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Meet Singapore’s new generation of getai auctioneers

Meet Singapore’s new generation of getai auctioneers
Kelvin Oh, 28, is one of the youngest getai auctioneers here and has been on the circuit for about 2 years now. Photo: Najeer Yusof
Published: 7:35 PM, September 9, 2017
Updated: 1:15 PM, September 13, 2017

SINGAPORE – In a trade dominated by middle-aged men in their 50s or older, two young men are picking up the baton.

Kelvin Oh, 28 and Lim Ming Kian, 34, are among the Singapore’s youngest getai auctioneers.

Both Oh and Lim, who share the same shifu (master), were introduced to the profession while volunteering as stage helpers at auctions organised by the temples they attended.

The duo said people are often surprised to see auctioneers as young as they are, while some organisers are sometimes sceptical about their abilities.

“In the beginning, they always say: ‘So young! Can or not?’” said Lim, who has day job in a timber export company.

Oh echoed a similar experience. “One time, I arrived and the person in-charge asked: ‘Are you the auctioneer or the helper?’ ” said Oh.

Both Oh and Lim said they do it because the money is good. They can earn between $500 and $800 per session as auctioneers. Each session lasts three to four hours.

Oh works as a delivery driver during the day, and is married with an 8-year-old son. Besides the attractive earnings, Oh, who has been an auctioneer for two years, said he also wishes to carry on the tradition and even hopes to pass on skills of the trade to his 8 year-old son.

Oh said: “The trend is dying out – there are no young people to continue so I hope I can continue until I’m old.”

Lim added there are fewer younger people stepping forward to become auctioneers for Hungry Ghost month events so he does it “because there’s like a sense of responsibility (to my shifu) and as a yearly duty”.

The auctioneers are busiest during the Seventh Month. Lim conducts about 20 auctions in a month, while Oh is building up his experience with about 25 events this year.

Lim started out four years ago on a prank by none other than his teacher. “While my shifu was (on stage), he passed the microphone to me and said he had to go to the toilet. It was my first time, I just took over the microphone and started shouting. It was a prank of course, he didn’t actually go to the toilet,” Lim laughed.

However, the prank was just the push Lim needed as “it was something I sort of always wanted to do but didn’t have the chance or the courage to.”

Oh, however, did not have as dramatic an entry into the trade. “Three years ago, my shifu started to ask if I was interested in auctioneering. I had recorded (videos of him in action) on my phone and started to learn how to say (auction phrases) in Hokkien. After a few months I thought: ‘Why not give it a try?’,” he said.

A diverse range of items are auctioned off to guests who believe that supporting the event by bidding for items will bring luck and prosperity for the following year. Funds raised determine the scale of the following year’s Seventh Month celebrations.

According to Oh, items like oranges, charcoal (referred to as black gold), coin banks and wood barrels are the most popular. The price points also depend on whether the auctions are held in residential areas or in industrial areas, where the events tend to be bigger.

“$15,000 for 20 oranges is very normal for big events, but near a HDB it would be less than $300. Charcoal has gone for $88,888 at big events but is usually $800 at smaller auctions,” he said.

Lim added that those who bid high prices tend to be “towkays” (business owners) in their 40s or older. He claims he has seen a prosperity urn for prayers sold for $168,888.

While auctions can be thrilling, the job is challenging especially in a soft economy where “items don’t go for as high and don’t go as fast”, said Oh.

“No matter how well we speak, if no one is interested, you can’t force anyone to bid. The most sian (frustrating) part is when you’re alone, nagging on the stage and no one wants to bother. Just have to try your best,” said Lim.