Talking to the dead: the art of making Taoist paper effigies
In the third episode of our Uniquely Hong Kong series, a design graduate tells of his decision to take up his father’s craft of making Taoist paper effigies used to communicate with the dead
Few young people in Hong Kong today opt to pursue careers in traditional crafts – particularly those in which it is hard to make money.
But 32-year-old Au-yeung Ping-chi is an exception. He has followed in his father’s footsteps and mastered the difficult art of making taoist paper effigies for those mourning the dead.
The burning of joss paper is common in traditional Chinese religion – particularly Taoism. The practice is said to ensure the dead are provided for in the afterlife. Paper money or effigies are used to imitate the appearance of objects used by the living. Burning joss paper occurs at Chinese temples, crematoria, grave sites and other places of Taoist worship. Joss paper accessories are often burnt during the “Ching Ming” (or “grave-sweeping”) festival, which on April 4 this year.
Ping-chi’s father Au-yeung Wai-kin, 75, founded Bo Wah Effigies in Sham Shui Po in the 1960s. Their shop is filled with joss paper accessories, or “zi zaat” which are burnt along with the joss paper. “Zi zaat” are traditional gold, money and servant effigies. In recent years, they have also included modern items such as smartphones, laptops and electric guitars.
Although making paper effigies is an “old craft”, innovation is vital. “People now ask for extravagant things,” said Wai-kin. “One time, a customer asked for a fishing rod complete with a moving reel and a fishing line. My son was the only effigy-crafting master in Hong Kong who dared to take on the request. I couldn’t do it myself,” he says.
Ping-chi, who is Wai-kin’s youngest son, started in the business after graduating from university. Initially unable to find a job, he has worked with his father ever since. He uses skills learned doing a degree in design to produce crafts which really impress the older man. “It was very hard at first. I didn’t know how to do any of this, so I just started experimenting – different techniques and materials,” Ping-chi says.
Ping-chi made a name for himself within the “zi zaat” world a couple of years ago when he made a paper guitar for late singer-songwriter Koma Wong Ka-kui (1962-1993). This was after a request from Koma’s brother. Wong Ka-kui was the lead vocalist in Hong Kong rock band Beyond. He died after falling from a stage in Japan. Ping-chi has made another paper guitar to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Koma’s death. This cost the customer around HK$2,000.
Wai-kin said it was unusual for sons to follow their fathers into this business. “If he didn’t have the talent, I wouldn’t encourage him to continue because there is no money in it. But the things he produces make lots of money, although, orders [for them] are few and far between,” he adds.
Wai-kin began in the business in his late teens in the 1940s. During that time, he has seen many changes. “Our best times ended when the mainland opened up,” he says, pointing to things around the shop. “Look at these. These are all from China, machine-made, printed. So cheap... you see those dolls? They used to have clothes made from cloth. Now it’s all cheap paper,” laments the elderly master.
Even Wai-kin’s most loyal customers have gone north for paper goods. In one infuriating incident, a former customer from San Francisco visited the store to see whether Bo Wah was “surviving”. “That old man came all that way to mock me. He told me he was now ordering effigies from China. I almost died with anger!”
Other things have affected the business. Some people don’t believe in the after-life, anymore.
“The appearance of our effigies and joss paper offerings have to be equivalent to what the living used, so the underworld can experience progress too. But some popular products now deviate from that principle.”
He says that “hell bank notes”, for example, come in billion and trillion denominations. They are sometimes the same size as A4 paper. “How can the dead carry them around? What would the dead do with all that money? Exporters have even created US dollar notes. No wonder people stopped believing in the efficacy of paper offerings. Even I find it illogical,” says Wai-kin.
He believes that his crafts help alleviate the souls in the underworld. His son agrees. “It is difficult to accept that people will burn what I’ve spent days to research, build, and create. But I remind myself that the deceased will be enjoying these items in the underworld. That makes me feel better,” says Ping-chi.
Speculating on why their business has declined, Ping-chi says: “People care more about the environment now. Burning these crafts is not good for the air.”
Wai-kin is adamant that no “sifus” (‘‘masters’’) of their craft now exist. “A ‘sifu’ must be able to do everything. I can’t do everything, for sure. And my son, although he can make all these amazing things, isn’t a “sifu” because he doesn’t know the older stuff. I don’t know if there are any ‘sifus’ left anymore. I don’t think so. And there aren’t any people entering the craft. My son may be the exception.”