Every April, millions of Chinese people burn replicas of paper money during Qingming, the tomb-sweeping festival, believing the money will reach their ancestors in the heavens.
It’s not all they burn. Paper models of real-life items such as clothes and cars, as well as luxury items like brand-name bags and Apple products, are also incinerated. The belief is that people still enjoy the trappings of the real world, even when they’re dead.
(Read more: How Chinese people appease the dead)
Most of the paper models, known as joss paper, were once handmade, but nowadays, a majority of them are mass-produced in China.
Bo Wah, founded in the 1960s, is one of the last papercraft shops in Hong Kong that still custom-makes replicas of items from daily life. His past commissions have included smartphones, cars, and even a giant racecourse complete with paper thoroughbreds.
Au-yeung Ping-chi, 37, took over Bo Wah from his father after he graduated college. He believed the shop could compete with mass producers by tailoring products to individual customers.
“A paper skateboard that he created caught customers’ attention,” says Au-yeung Wai-kin, his father, “and before long, he was being asked to make more quirky offerings, from high-heel shoes to toothbrushes and dim sum.”
Au-yeung Ping-chi made a name for himself when the brother of Hong Kong rock legend Wong Ka-kui asked him to make a paper guitar for the anniversary of Wong’s death.
Wong was the lead vocalist of the Hong Kong rock band Beyond and died in 1993 after falling from a stage in Japan.
The family was so pleased with the work that they later commissioned another guitar for the 20th anniversary of Wong’s death. They paid him $250 for the job.
Au-yeung Wai-kin, the father, entered the trade in his late teens in the 1940s. That period was a boon for the papercraft industry in Hong Kong.
The Communist Party was suppressing ancestor worship in mainland China, giving much of the world’s effigy business to Hong Kong. The heyday lasted until the 1970s, when mainland China began opening up its economy to the world.
“Our best times ended when the mainland opened up,” Au-yeung says, pointing to things around the shop. “Look at these. These are all from China, machine-made, printed.”
He points to a set of dolls. “They used to have clothes made from cloth,” he says. “Now it’s all cheap paper.”
Even some of Au-yeung’s most loyal customers have gone north for paper goods. He recalls an infuriating conversation with one former customer from San Francisco who visited the store just to see whether Bo Wah was “surviving.”
“He told me he was now ordering effigies from China,” Au-yeung says. “I almost had a fit!”
“I feel a duty to preserve these traditions so that people later on will still have a chance to appreciate this unique art form.”
Cultural shifts have also affected the business. Some people, especially younger folks, don’t believe in the afterlife anymore.
“People care more about the environment now,” says Au-yeung Ping-chi, the son. “Burning these crafts is not good for the air.”
But the industry’s decline has only motivated him more. Au-yeung Ping-chi now organizes papier-mache workshops for kids in Hong Kong.
“I feel a duty to preserve these traditions,” he says, “so that people later on will still have a chance to appreciate this unique art form.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.