Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: Burning iPhones for the Afterlife

Nicolas PetitNicolas PetitNicolas PetitNicolas Petit

Ching Ming Festival is just around the corner, and this April 4, many of Hong Kong’s families will be heading to their ancestors’ tombs to pay their respects. For this so-called “tomb sweeping” festival, many will bring food, incense and flowers. Some will also bring joss paper creations to burn as an offering. Also known as effigies, these joss paper accessories are an integral part of traditional Chinese funeral rites. They are supposed to provide the dead with what they need in the afterlife, ensuring they have what they need to be happy – so they do not come back to haunt the living.

Paper Effigies_Zolima_Nicolas Petit-6 copyWhat exactly do the dead need in the afterlife? Money, of course, which comes in the form of billion-dollar “hell money” notes, along with big houses, cars and even servants. The dead can keep up with the rigours of a modern lifestyle thanks to joss paper handbags, video games and cameras. Who wouldn’t want an iPhone 6 to while away their time on the other side? Or a pair of stilettos, for that matter? Jimmy Choos or Manolo Blanhniks, to be sure.

One of the men behind these most covetable paper effigies is Au Yeung Ping-chi of Bo Wah Effigies. From his small Sham Shui Po workshop, 37 year old Au Yeung has been working hard to make sure the dead have everything they need to spent the afterlife in style. The walls of his workshop are lined with towering stacks of multi-coloured joss paper, bamboo sticks and bulk packages of incense. From the ceiling hang ready-made effigies of motorcycles, guitars and boats.

Behind these columns of paper, Au Yeung is seated at a folding table, working intently on the bamboo frame of a small dog – a pet to accompany a life beyond. The workshop was set up by Au Yeung’s 80-year-old father, Wai-kin, first in Hung Hom before moving to their current location in Sham Shui Po. He learnt the craft as a teenage apprentice in Central in the 1940s before deciding to set up his own business. He still goes to the workshop everyday and greets his customers, though nowadays most of the made-to-order designs are produced by his son.

Paper Effigies_Zolima_Nicolas Petit-4 copyWhen Au Yeung first followed in his father’s footsteps, he had just graduated from design school and was finding it difficult to get a job. “There was a lot of self-learning,” he says. “Studying photographs, looking at magazines for ideas, long hours of trying different materials, refining my bamboo construction skills. I have had many splinters in these fingers!”

In a business that does not attract many young professionals, Au Yeung began making a name for himself by satisfying unusual requests from customers. Some of the first requests included an X-Box, a skateboard and even matching diving outfits. “Sometimes it is parents coming for their child who has passed and that can be very difficult,” he says. “I just believe that if what I am doing can help them process the tragedy and help fulfil the soul in moving on, then I get satisfaction from this. You have to believe it.”Paper Effigies_Zolima_Nicolas Petit-2 copyIn recent years, more and more customers are asking for joss paper electronics like mobile phones and microwaves. “The smallest things I have had to make include a nail clipper and a Tamagotchi,” he says. “Remember those?” His customers do not limit their requests to the human realm. Many have taken to burning paper effigies for the souls of their beloved pets. “I have made dog houses, dog bowls, dog biscuits and objects for birds and turtles,” he says.

For Ching Ming Festival, many families bring a whole roast suckling pig to offer to their ancestors before devouring it on site. At other times, they may also want to burn some effigies of favourite dishes the dead may like to eat. Au Yeung points to a stack of dim sum steam baskets in the corner. “Sometimes food is needed, so they ask me to make roast meats, noodles, congee, but if it is very difficult to make I occasionally suggest buying the real thing,” he says. His tasty repertoire includes crispy chicken wings, prawn dumplings, sushi and toast.

Paper Effigies_Zolima_Nicolas Petit-5 copyAu Yeung accepts most of his clients’ challenges, always eager to try out new models or construction methods, but occasionally he has to accept defeat. One of the most difficult things he has made is a fully functional fishing pole. The only object that proved impossible was a retractable umbrella.

“You need patience to do this job,” he says. “I charge based on the amount of time it takes me to make an object, but you definitely do not do it for the money. I enjoy testing new things, trying out different ways of using the paper to create new textures.” He demonstrates how to twist the fragile paper so that in turns into a rope, then wraps it around a structure of the dog that he was working on. Au Yeung’s perfectionist side means that this will not be any ordinary dog, but a dog resembling the photo he has been given, brown paper fur and all.

Au Yeung may be the master of trendy effigies, but he insists that he has not learned all the traditional forms that the old sifu2 (師傅) — the masters — used to know. “In those days, it was also about constructing big pieces for festivals and parades,” he says. During the Tin Hau festival at the end of March, for example, Au Yeung’s father would build big flower wreaths to hold up statues of the goddess during processions. Dance and martial arts schools would also order paper lion heads, but these days it is much cheaper for them to have them made in mainland China.Paper Effigies_Zolima_Nicolas Petit-1 copyAs with many of these traditional crafts, a lot of the business that used to be based in Hong Kong has now moved to the mainland, where materials and labour are cheaper. The Au Yeungs also order from factories there, especially for basic things such as incense and ghost money. Some of the cars and boats in the workshop are ready-made from China, but personalised objects need to be ordered à la carte.

“The traditional structures such as lion heads are actually very difficult to make,” says Au Yeung. “Sometimes with my father we still make them together, but on a much smaller scale.”

Au Yeung is one of the few in his generation who decided to pursue his family’s paper effigy craft. He is doing his part to spread the skills he has learnt from his father. Aside from the time he spends in the workshop, he also conducts classes with students as part of school programmes. He teaches ten to twenty students the art of paper folding, wrapping and constructing. “I enjoy teaching,” he says. “It also teaches me how to improve. When students ask questions and show interest it is very rewarding.” 

One question that always comes up: why put so much effort into something that is burnt to ashes in a matter of seconds? “It is burnt into another world,” Au Yeung acknowledges. “But I take a photo to remember and trust it helps the spirit move on.”

Bo Wah Paper Effigies, G/F, 2C Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po. +852 2776 9171.

Explore and Discover Hong Kong Culture

Sign up for free weekly stories

Go back to top button