Things People Send to the Underworld

This post was first uploaded on T: The New York Times Style Magazine (Singapore) on 15 August 2019.

Throughout the entire seventh month of the lunar calendar, it is said that the gates of hell open and restless, benign spirits roam the land of the living in search of entertainment and feasts. Chinese communities from across Southeast Asia would gather to remember their deceased relatives, pay respect to the dead, and entertain weary souls by means of boisterous stage performances or the burning of paper offerings.

Colloquially known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, the month-long festivity has roots that are entrenched in the teachings of Taoism and Buddhism; the former emphasises the appeasing of wandering spirits while the latter emphasises the virtue of filial piety by families of the deceased. In Singapore, the burning of paper effigies and joss papers is a commonly practised ritual.

“The most traditional meaning of burning joss paper and paper effigies for our ancestors is to help them get their materialistic possessions into the afterlife,” says Alex Teo, the third-generation owner of religious goods retailer, Ban Kah Hiang Trading, in Bukit Merah. “But over the years, the meaning changed. People, today, want their ancestors to live a more comfortable life in the netherworld; they began burning items for their relative to use in the afterlife while they wait for reincarnation.”

In other words, much of the paper effigies we see today have evolved in tandem with industrial trends of modernisation. Flipping through the pages of history, past interpretations of paper effigies and joss papers were straightforward and simple in nature. Clothes were either interpreted as simple paper T-shirts for men or paper cheongsams for women, while transportation was commonly interpreted as miniature paper mock-ups of trishaws or bicycles.

Things People Share to the Underworld.jpg

Today, new aesthetics to paper effigies render itself in its most advanced form. A quintessence of the 21st-century’s obsession with materialistic wealth, modern-day creations can run the gamut from faux-smartphones and faux-luxury handbags to paper-made personal mobility devices and paper-made Lamborghinis. “Most of the people cannot afford these luxury items in their actual life, so the descendants would burn those items for them with hopes for a more luxurious life in the netherworld,” Teo adds.

At Ban Kah Hiang Trading, paper-made mahjong tiles and paper-made sashimi make up some of the more interesting paper effigies. But it is their imported paper-made pets that made waves in recent years. “It was a customer’s request, really,” Teo tells me, as he brings out two life-size, 3D caricature of a husky and an orange tabby. “They claimed their ancestors visited them in their dream and requested them to burn a pet to accompany them in the lonely afterlife.”

The 31-year-old has since received a myriad of interesting requests by customers who sought to burn such novelties as offerings to the deceased. To deal with this, he turns to China for help. “Manufacturers from China are quick to imitate things. They can come up with all sorts of new models, turn them into paper effigies and sell it to us.”

Having dipped his toes into the trade from observing his parents manning the store since young, Teo is also concerned about the fate of the industry. Rising secularisation and westernisation culminate and veer younger generations away from the cultural significance of the rituals behind such religious products. The result? Many companies are winding out as they fail to find new and younger successors for their businesses. “We don’t learn about all these [traditions and practices] in schools,” he quips.

The pursuit of novelty objects even in the afterlife is unlikely and preposterous, to say the least. Yet, the modernisation of such paper effigies can be construed as a salvation of sorts. The Asian virtue of filial piety continues to remain deeply-seated, and the burning of such modernised paper effigies to the deceased serves more than an obligation to preserve traditions. It’s a forlorn expression.

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