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Adding Years of Fortune Without Joss Paper

“Retirement”, “rest” and “troubles” are words not found in Tzu Chi volunteer Feng Theam Fook’s books, and the most apt description of the man’s character would be the Jing Si Aphorism: “Be willing to give and happy to accept what comes our way”. Ten years ago, Feng wound up his incense and joss paper business, and since then, his lorry has only transported recyclables as it travels throughout the whole island.

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The most apt description of Tzu Chi recycling staff Feng Theam Fook would be “Be willing to give and happy to accept what comes our way.” (Photo by Guo Pei Fen)

With his safety helmet on, Feng closes the door of his vehicle and starts it up as he prepares to go to his next destination. The lorry he drives is Tzu Chi Singapore’s “No. 2” recycling lorry as its predecessor had just been scrapped in March this year.

“Be willing to give and happy to accept what comes our way” – this Jing Si Aphorism is an apt description of the man himself. Feng is 64 years old this year and has been a full time Tzu Chi recycling staff for 10 years. Almost every day for the past 10 years, he has been making his way to the schools, factories and hospitals etc. to collect recyclables and sort them. He later sells the materials collected to recycling merchants. He lugs and transports the 500kg to 600 kg load of recyclables mostly by himself, and puts in more than 10 hours almost every day, yet he does all these with pride and does not see it as a burden.

“I like this job, so the motivation is there and I want to do it; it’s not hard on me. I’m so busy and have no time to think so much, so how would I feel the strain?” said Feng.

He views his job as a responsibility and lets on that apart from festival holidays, he rarely takes a day off, explaining that if he does not quickly clear away the recyclables, they will pile up.

Feng worries about the schools which lack space for keeping recyclables, as he thinks that the items that pile up in their compound would give rise to frustration to those who catch sight of the heap. Hence, even if it is a weekend, he would go and collect the materials.

“I am okay with not having a rest, even if I work half a day, it’s good because I would be able to finish clearing the items. I’ll work while I can, because I will not be able to continue (when my health fails me),” he said.

The deputy manager of the cleaning services company that regularly provides recyclables to Feng said of him, “He is warm and friendly, and very responsible!”

A Change from Transporting Joss Paper to Recyclables

It is hard to imagine that Feng was once in the business of supplying joss paper to the Singapore maker sourced from his father-in-law in Malaysia. He managed the business together with his wife Lim Poh Sim and his brother-in-law.

They did a roaring trade over the last ten years and Fong said laughingly that not only did their family burn joss paper, they also prayed to multiple deities and used to offer up non-vegetarian food to the many deities they worshipped. If it was the seventh lunar month, they would be busy with the business of packaged offerings which would keep them up till 3am in the morning.

Since 2003 however, when Feng and his wife joined Tzu Chi, things began to change. Fong would often volunteer the use of his lorry and because it was filled to the brim with joss paper and other items, he would have to first offload them at another volunteer’s house before making his way to the Foundation’s then premises located at Chinatown.

It was then that Fong and his wife found out from volunteers that burning joss paper did not constitute Right Faith and was harmful to the environment. About two years after they became volunteers, and with much persuasion from his wife, Fong started to follow a vegetarian diet and stopped the practice of burning joss paper. Feng admitted that he experienced some inner conflict initially—as he put it, “Ultimately, it is a traditional practice (and we have) always been doing it this way.”

For Lim too, the decision was not an easy one to make as she was giving up a family business. However, with their faith in Master Cheng Yen, the couple gradually came round in their thinking, and Feng now says that it was not such a big thing after all as they do not feel uncomfortable even if they do not burn joss paper.

A New Vocation in Recycling

Just when the couple decided to make the change, Feng heard that Tzu Chi was looking for a staff to help out in recycling. At the same time, the incense and joss paper industry was facing a decline, and this prompted Feng to wind up his business. On 16 June 2006, Feng was officially a recycling staff, and his lorry began a new phase of life transporting recyclables.

“The Tzu Chi recycling station had been started then, and it was not easy to find staff, so I decided I would be the one to take on that responsibility,” said Feng. He was not daunted by the prospect of a drastic decrease in income, nor his lack of knowledge in recycling. Fortunately for him, his children were already grown up then, and his modest living expenses did not pose much of a financial burden.

Feng was recommended by the CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore to attend training in Taiwan, and he returned from a fruitful trip with much new knowledge. “The Master said that (we should) love the earth and not generate so much rubbish. The trash in Singapore are all incinerated, so we must recycle.”

He is grateful to be able to benefit from the Master’s teaching, which has given him inner peace and the strength to carry on. In his house today, he only has two Buddha statues on his altar, and when he makes offerings to his departed parents, only fruits are used.

Cultivating Stillness in the Midst of Action

In the early days, the recycling station was situated in the Tzu Chi Jing Si Hall and volunteers would be rostered to do cleaning duties. Feng had many responsibilities and so, he would come in early a little pass 7am, before it got too hot, to sweep the floor.

Ever focused on his task as he tidies up the area, Feng shares a little tip: one should not entertain too many thoughts while working so that thoughts of frustration do not arise; if one thinks of how dirty the environment is and how tired he feels, negative emotions will be the result.

With the many years of such mental cultivation, Feng returns home to sleep soundly till daybreak once his work for the day is done. With less negative thoughts, Feng’s temper has improved and so has his relationship with his wife. Whereas in the past they would have frequent disagreements, this has now changed and he credits the virtue of forbearance for this.

Lim has not worked in two years and together with her husband, they engage in recycling work for more than ten hours daily. This has further improved their relationship and Lim shares that though the work is tiring, she does not mind.

Cultivating Wisdom and Blessings Together

Fellow volunteer Lee Teck Hock, a taxi driver by profession, was touched by the spirit of selfless contribution exemplified by Feng. He now takes Wednesdays off so that he can help Feng with the recycling work.

Once, when they were at Tuas to collect recyclables, Lee was shocked at the huge amount of materials waiting to be collected. The sturdily-built Lee asked, “If I’m not here (with you), how would you move these stuff?”

“I shall move them one by one, (and will have to) do it slowly then!” was the response that Lee received, which filled him with admiration.

Feng finds himself always racing against time as the amount of recyclables that piles up is huge. However he insists on doing a preliminary sorting of the materials first, so that he can get a better price when he sells them to the recycling merchant. “The sorting out (into categories of different materials) must be clear, or the merchant will not take them. Those that can’t be sold will become rubbish,” he explained.

To Feng, who does not like to seek recreational activities outside often, finds that time passes easily when he spends it on Tzu Chi activities. He has vowed to continue with his recycling job till the day “impermanence” (e.g. poor health) prevents him from doing so. The word “retire” is not for him — he cheerily said that if that day ever comes, he would still turn up at Jing Si Hall to help out and continue to do recycling work as usual.

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In 2007, volunteers visited the V1 plastic recycling plant and Feng helped to unload recyclables from the lorry. (Photo by Law Sook Fong)

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In February 2008, when the Gleneagles Hospital held a recycling event, Feng went there to collect recyclables. (Photo by Law Sook Fong)

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Feng and his wife Lim Poh Sim often help out in cleaning the premises of the Jing Si Hall before any major events. (Photo by Chen Rou Jie)

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In March 2008, Feng (in dark blue) was around to help when students from Manjusri Secondary School visited the recycling station at Jing Si Hall to sort recyclables. (Photo by Law Sook Fong)

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In 2013, Feng (back row, fourth from right) and Lim (front row, second from right) were certified as Tzu Chi commissioners in Taiwan. (Photo by Dai Long Quan)

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Tzu Chi Singapore’s “No. 1 recycling lorry” had just been scrapped in March this year, but  Feng and Lim vowed to continue with their good work. (Photo by Chen Rou Jie)

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In July 2016, Feng shared with an audience how he ended his joss paper business to engage in recycling over the last ten years. (Photo by Douglas Lee)

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