Fancy Gems and Taoist Ancestor Worship

I don’t know anything about the ancestor worship practices in Taoism. So perhaps this is already all well-known to many, but just not to me. And searching on online for answers hasn’t exactly been very fruitful.

Recently it was the end of the 7th month, which was marked by rampant unattended fires on HDB grass lawns all over, red wax candles and joss sticks blazing, and a ton of food offerings left around. The most ubiquitous offering that I have seen around Ang Mo Kio have actually been these plates of gem biscuits.

The “fa gao” or steamed cupcakes with the four-way split on the top, the packet of food, the fruits… all those are familiar and recognisable enough to me but…. forgive me if this is stating something that should be plainly obvious, but since when did the Gem Biscuits become a widely accepted item of offering for the annual ghost festival ancestor worshipping??

When I started googling for Gem Biscuits I found out that they are in fact not the product of some nostalgic old local biscuit factory in Singapore or specific just to Singapore. According to NICECUPOFTEAANDSITDOWN, the gem biscuits originate from Reading from an biscuit technology accident at Huntley and Palmer, where the biscuit they were making shrunk by accident. They named them ‘gems’ and in 1910 went on to put hard icing on top of them. So it was a colonial import! (Along with bread and toast and kaya jams, which sound totally local but were a product of Hainanese deckhands bringing back and adapting their cooking skills from working on British ships to cooking ‘traditional breakfasts’ or your ‘chuan tong’ breakfast for the masses.

I observed in several cases that people had even scattered the fancy gems all over the ground in front of their offerings. Maybe that could be a clue…

According to NLB’s Infopedia (which cites a tv documentary as reference):

“For the Teochews, an additional step of eating cockles is performed. After the cockles are eaten, their shells are thrown around the grave. In the past, cockles were used as a form of money. Hence, the throwing of cockle shells indicates a prosperous family with gold scattered all over the ground (钱满地). The strewn cockle shells also indicate to those who pass by that the family has visited the grave.”

So I wonder… is this why people have taken to throwing gem biscuits all over the ground? Scattering the symbolic GEMS over the symbolic GRAVES? Or is the answer more quotidian, like, were the gem biscuits just conveniently being sold in the AMK bakery next to the AMK hell money shop?? Thus making them #1 offering of choice in AMK town? Or have wild birds taken to flinging the gem biscuits around? Cats? Someone in the block flamboyantly scattering the gems all Salt-bae-style?…