Cashes to ashes

Consumerism and brand fixation have infiltrated the underworld. Hong Kong's ghosts are a rich lot, many of them with their own fleet of luxury cars, iPhones and houses with servants to keep their bullion dust-free, discovers Tiffany Ap

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 10:58pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 10:58pm

Hong Kong is one of the world's most expensive cities in which to live. But it's a bargain to exist in its underworld if the array of joss paper offerings at the cluster of paper-goods shops on Queen's Road West is anything to go by. A colourful stack of HK$500 million in banknotes sells for HK$2, while eight bars of replica gold bullion costs just HK$10. Does your ancestor need a bit of jade jewellery, a watch, or a credit card? That'll be HK$18 please.

Hell money, also sometimes referred to as ghost money, is burned as offerings to ancestors every year during the lunar calendar ghost month, which ended on September 4. The long-held tradition in Chinese culture sees devotees buy joss paper replicas for just about everything imaginable, from renditions of food, such as roast chicken, to daily necessities, such as toothpaste and shirts. These items are all needed for spirits to live comfortably in the afterlife, so the belief goes.

The product selection hardly stops at the mundane. The stores do their best to keep up with modern technology trends; an iPad and not one but two iPhones, can be had for HK$48. There's a version of a Vertu phone - the real handset starts in the tens of thousands - and also Gucci logo shoes and purses, Louis Vuitton wallets, luxury cars, gold watches and more.

The son of one shop owner surnamed Tsang said, "The iPads and iPhones are some of our best sellers. Usually people want to buy Apple products for their deceased. Sometimes they ask for the Samsung S4 but we don't have that yet."

It's a striking statement about contemporary Chinese culture, where dashes of consumerism and brand fixation have infiltrated some of the most ancient and dearly held traditions.

The fact does not always sit well with the mainland's cultural overseers. After discovering people were burning paper offerings of Viagra, mistresses, and even paper versions of celebrities such as the contestants on Super Girl - an American Idol-style singing competition broadcast on the mainland - the government issued an edict in 2006 to stop extravagant offerings.

"The burning of luxury villas, sedan cars, mistresses and other messy sacrificial items … will be investigated and punished," says Dou Yupei, deputy civil affairs minister for the mainland

Dr Echo Wan, a University of Hong Kong associate professor who focuses on consumer behaviour, says the shift towards more extravagant sacrifices could be a result of social immobility. Burning so called "high end" branded products allows people an outlet to attain the items for a fraction of the price, albeit in the underworld.

"In current Hong Kong and mainland society, people are stressed from the pressure of living. Rich people become richer and poor people stay where they are. If they cannot achieve certain goals in their own life, they use this practice to achieve that wish. It's not so much that I burn this celebrity to compete with my neighbour. The things are all so cheap it's not about showing status," says Wan.

"For them, it's something I can do without offending anyone and I can symbolically consume celebrity whereas in real life, I can't have a relationship with celebrities. They use this practice to express their inner wishes they cannot easily attain. Particularly in this society, the general population is unhappy with their socioeconomic status."

That chastising seems to have long fallen on deaf ears.

"Look, this one comes with a servant," says one shopkeeper, pointing to a two-storey house with a front garden, which comes with a little Western figure dressed in a French maid outfit. "This is such a big house, you definitely need a servant."