Life after death – in a subdivided flat: why paper replicas are big business for Hong Kong’s Hungry Ghost Festival
Paper miniatures selling fast one week ahead of festival – the Chinese version of Halloween – where believers burn offerings for ghosts roaming Earth
To Chiu-sung holds up a 20cm tall, three-storey cardboard mansion of 16 rooms, each with an old-fashioned air conditioner installed outside the window.
“These are subdivided flats, the star item this year,” explains the 65-year-old owner of Chun Shing Hong, a paper offerings shop in Sai Ying Pun which opened 35 years ago.
The paper miniatures are selling fast one week ahead of the Hungry Ghost Festival – the Chinese version of Halloween – a time when believers say the gates of hell open, allowing spirits from the other world to roam among the living.
Traditionally, believers burn paper offerings and hell money during rituals for the homeless ghosts in the hope of their blessings. They also place pastries as food offerings on the pavements.
In real life, more than 200,000 Hongkongers live in subdivided flats, according to the government’s 2016 population by-census. But this type of housing, usually taken up by the poorest in society, is also being sought for the dead.
And the reason is, a little like reality, the paper subdivided flats cost just HK$48 (US$6) – half the price of a paper replica of a three-storey villa.
“They are also smaller, and thus easier to burn than big villas,” To says.
Explaining why he creates subdivided flats, To says Hong Kong’s housing problem is unique and should be reflected in the culture.
“By tradition, we believe the world of the deceased somehow resembles that of the living, so when I think about new paper offerings to create, I try to reflect reality in Hong Kong society,” he says.
But believers also have many more luxurious options to pick. Among them, a snow-white villa with front and backyard, a Happy Valley racecourse, a luxury yacht and a glittering motorbike.
The festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month – next Saturday – meaning the traditional shops that sell products for the rituals have again entered their peak season.
According to To, some visit ancestors and deceased family members in cemeteries and temples.
“To show admiration for your ancestors, it takes more than just joss money and coloured paper offered to random souls,” To says. “People burn all sort of luxurious things for them.”
Indeed, To’s customers can choose from a wide range of high-end goods, including a private jet, sports car, name-brand phone and laptop. However, he says other than subdivided flats the more popular offerings are plain clothes and shoes, and dogs and cats to be kept as a pet.
He says his store sees nearly 200 customers a day during the seventh lunar month, twice as many as for most days in the rest of the year.
On a weekday afternoon, the Post saw shoppers, mostly middle-aged housewives and the elderly, stuffing paper products and incense into trollies and plastic bags, with the help of six busy clerks.
The owner, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and walking barefoot, was also busy explaining to customers the best time and location to burn each item.
To says people are generally more willing to spend money at this time, especially on expensive items like a life-sized funeral doll made of bamboo and paper, which can cost more than HK$1,000. On normal days, customers spend about HK$100 on average during each visit.
“More people also want customised offerings – banks, a theatre stage, anything the deceased loved,” To says. “You just need to be creative.”
Unlike To, Rocky Yeung Tze-yee, owner of a pastry shop that makes food offerings, says he seldom makes changes to his products, as “they are part of the tradition people want to remember and celebrate”.
Yeung’s shop Woo Kee Loong, a Chiu Chow-style cake shop, opened in 1948 in Kowloon City. It sells more than 200 types of buns and sweets, including ones specially designed as festival offerings.
“Every year Chiu Chow descendants living in Hong Kong worship our gods in temples by serving the food of our own culture. That’s why I am not that keen to change the style of my cakes,” he explains.
According to Yeung, celebration activities in temples are already being held across the city by Chiu Chow communities, whose members trace their roots to Guangdong province, and place a high value on the Hungry Ghost Festival in particular.
Both Yeung and To say their businesses have been stable over the past few years with support from regular customers.
“It is the tradition of Chinese people to worship ancestors. No matter how society changes, there are still those who make the effort to pass that on,” To says.