The occult shops of Singapore: talismans, corpse oil and witches
It may be a modern metropolis, but some residents of the Lion City still believe in the mystical and magical, and the Fu Lu Shou mall caters to their needs
Believing himself to be a victim of black magic, a man turned to social networking site Reddit in June pleading for help. Inside his pillow, he had found a talisman containing a picture of himself, a piece of paper bearing Arabic script and some unidentifiable debris.
He was not in Haiti or New Orleans, places you might associate with voodoo or other dark arts, but the modern, cosmopolitan city of Singapore.
There are occult stores throughout the Lion City, where the superstitious can buy everything from mystical amulets and potions allegedly made from corpse oil, to talismans to attract lovers and tattoos to ward off evil – imported from neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia.
Just outside the city centre on Rochor Road, in Bugis district, is the Fu Lu Shou Complex, a shopping centre named after the Taoist concepts of good fortune (fu), prosperity (lu) and longevity (shou). Many of the vendors occupying its five floors sell Thai amulets that supposedly bring wealth, luck, health, love or happiness to the wearer. One outlet that stands out is Siam Arts, which has glass cases displaying a huge range of strange amulets and talismans of different shapes and sizes.
Penis-shaped talismans are meant to charm and attract lovers. Tiny scrolls in tubular cases called takrut supposedly have the capacity to help with anything from making you more popular to increasing wealth, and small vessels with child-shaped sculptures allegedly contain kuman thong – spirits of aborted children – which will do your bidding.
The latter objects are known as barangs, which, according to a moderator of amuletforums.com, are “magical objects empowered by spiritual beings geared towards worldly goals”.
In the back of the store, a monk offers blessings and magically protective sak yant tattoos – and can even apply new ink to an existing tattoo if its magic has faded. His services start at US$50, depending on the size and the type of blessing requested.
Asked about Thai barangs containing corpse oil, which the store has advertised on its website and says was obtained from the bodies of recently deceased women, the shop owner instead directs us to oils made from flowers and herbs that are also said to have the power to attract the opposite sex.
Pressed further, he admits: “I have [corpse oil] also, but if you don’t need it then you don’t need it.” Do they really contain oil extracted from dead people? “Yes.”
Is there any karmic debt incurred in attempting to sway another person by acquiring such magical amulets? “It depends on who you are targeting,” the shopkeeper says. “Say a husband has another girl and the wife wants him back because she’s desperate, so she has to use the oil. It’s like a hammer – a hammer can kill someone, but it can also hammer in a nail.
“It depends on how you use it. If you use it to cheat people, to break up a person’s family, that is your karma. But if you use it to save your family, it’s OK.”
Singaporean Choon Hui, who previously dabbled in the occult, says he used to have a collection of barangs, but believes they are anything but morally neutral.
“People get a corpse and burn the chin until oil drips out of it. They put this oil inside a container and perform chanting for a few days. After the chanting, this oil can be used for a lot of things, including black magic stuff aimed at harming people. But some people use it to get money, to go after girls, to improve their career, all sorts of things,” he says.
“I last used it more than 20 years ago. You have to apply it on your eyebrows, on your forehead. And when you talk to people, they tend to listen to you.”
In 2015, Thailand’s Chiang Rai Times reported on the arrest of a monk and two accomplices for grave-robbing in Udon Thani province in northeastern Thailand. They had dug up corpses to use for magical purposes. The monk was subsequently defrocked.
In October last year, The New Paper in Singapore reported that a Thai spiritual master was illegally smuggling charms made from animal parts into the Lion City hidden inside soft toys. The master had told clients he could provide fragments of human skulls and dead fetuses for magical uses.
Singapore’s Human Organ Transplant Act forbids the trade in organs and blood, which is punishable with a fine of S$10,000 (US$7,340) and 12 months in jail. But the trade in “corpse oil” is a legal grey area, not expressly mentioned in the act.
On the first floor of the Fu Lu Shou Complex, Amulet Studio owner Eugene Tay sells more mainstream amulets. “The amulets work on faith,” he says.
Regular amulets may not look much different from the more nefarious ones, but they are usually shaped in the form of a deity, such as the Hindu gods Hanuman and Ganesh, or Buddha.
“Of course, some sellers will tell you that it’s your fault if it doesn’t work and that you need to buy something else to work on your bad karma. But the power of amulets is 30 per cent from god and 70 per cent from your own hard work. You can’t expect to become instantly rich just by buying an amulet,” says Tay.
When asked about barangs, Tay insists they are not to be messed with.
“They work really fast because they have spirits in them,” Tay says. “People should stick to the mainstream amulets. The only thing you must do is give donations. It doesn’t even have to be to a temple. If you give food or water to a homeless person, that’s also a form of donation. It’s about building good karma. But the spirits in barangs always want something in return.”
Western-style witchcraft also has a presence in Singapore. In the Peninsular-Excelsior Shopping Centre, just a stone’s throw from the Singapore National Gallery, is Spellbound, the state’s first witchcraft store, which has been operating for 12 years.
A poster on the door lists the phases of the moon and their magical significance, while a collection of herbs is displayed on a table with explanations of their uses in spells.
It’s best to call ahead before visiting Spellbound and place orders over the phone, because the shop only stocks a sample selection of products. When asked about Spellbound’s customer base, the owner – who refuses to provide her name – says: “It could be anyone. They could be practitioners of witchcraft or not. We won’t know ourselves. Not everyone will tell us what they are buying the items for.”
Dusty bottles of herbs and stacks of coloured candles nestle between shelves crammed with New Age books. Amulets, blessed and charged, can be found by the counter, and are cleaner, simpler designs than the Asian charms.
The revival of these practices is often attributed to author and occultist Helena Blavatsky, whose ideas greatly influenced occult movements and inspired the New Age movement a century after she co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875.
Blavatsky was instrumental in introducing Asian religions and philosophies to the West, and renewing interest in Hinduism and Buddhism in their native lands.
As a result, despite being located in the cradle of Southeast Asia, Singapore has its own branch of the Theosophical Society. Established in 1889 by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, another co-founder, the Singapore lodge is based just outside the city centre in Sims Avenue. A library of rare old books on religion, philosophy and more esoteric theosophical ideas are available to members.
During a recent visit, the society was holding a free lecture on theosophy – or, acquiring the knowledge of God. The speaker quoted from Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and discussed the evolution of man and theosophical cosmology.
Society members seem to come from varying cultural backgrounds, reflecting Singapore’s status as a cosmopolitan melting pot. Guests, mostly in their 50s, listen attentively and nod as the lecturer speaks about mysterious subjects including the mythical lost city of Atlantis.
As long as the vagaries of life continue to confound us, and our desires for love, wealth and meaning mount unabated, the occult, it seems, will continue to exist in its various forms, even in the world’s most modern cities.