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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Sending Money to Hell

A man's essentials including a Hell Bank credit card.
 
An old Chinese custom is to send money to dead ancestors. You can’t write a cheque but you can burn cash so that it floats up to them.
 
Paying respect to one's ancestors is deeply rooted in Chinese culture; it is believed that the relationship and obligations of children toward their parents remains intact even after death. Funerals are considered to be a part of the normal process of family life, serving as a cornerstone in inter-generational traditions. The primary goals, regardless of religious beliefs, are to demonstrate obeisance and provide comfort for the deceased. According to traditional Chinese beliefs, it is up to the living to make sure that their departed relatives are looked after financially and materially, as the dead cannot take anything with them to the next life. The act of burning the paper products “sends” the dead what they need in the underworld. If the departed live well on the other side, it is believed they will bestow blessings on the living.
 
Western goodies
 
Making offerings is also believed to ensure the proper separation and direction of the deceased's soul into the afterlife. If the deceased is happy he will protect his descendants from malevolent spirits. The siting of a grave is considered important as it is believed that if it has good feng shui not only will they flourish in the afterlife, but their descendants will also flourish in this one. 
 
Apart from the funeral itself, there are three occasions specifically given over to showing respect for the dead. These are the Ching Ming Festival, held at about the same time as Easter; the Hungry Ghost Festival, held in the seventh month of the Lunar calendar and the Cheung Yeung Festival held in the autumn. Ching Ming and Cheung Yeung are both times when families visit their ancestors’ graves and make offerings. On those days, cemeteries are crowded with thousands of worshipers carrying incense sticks and offerings of paper money, fruit, foodstuffs and wine. The ancestors’ graves are swept clean, weeds removed and stones and ornaments touched up and refreshed.
 
 
A display of offerings on sale
 
 
The month of the Hungry Ghost Festival is when the spirits of the deceased are released and they come back to wander the living world. It is said that some spirits may be restless and will have to be appeased, and thus, worshippers will burn paper money and make the usual offerings to ensure they are back in the good graces of their ancestors - the same goes for any other wandering ghosts that may happen to "drop by".
 
A feature of all the festivals is the burning of paper money – not real legal tender but a colourful imitation. Hell Bank Notes are sent by living relatives to dead ancestors as a tribute to the King Yanluo for a shorter stay or to escape punishment, or for the ancestors to use themselves in spending on lavish items in the afterlife.
 
It has been suggested that the word "hell" may have been derived from what was preached by Christian missionaries, who told the Chinese that non-Christians go to hell when they die. Of course there are other explanations but that is my favourite. 
 
Hell Bank Notes are also known for their outrageous denominations ranging from $10,000 to $5,000,000,000. The bills almost always feature an image of the Jade Emperor on the front and the "headquarters" of the Hell Bank on the back. Another common feature is the signature of both the Jade Emperor and
the Lord of the Underworld.
 
 
False teeth
 
 
Of course ancestors don’t just need money and the family will often send them other material items, which are sent in the same way by burning paper replicas. These objects are copies of a vast array of products, mainly luxury goods or items indicating wealth and affluence: gold bars, gold credit cards, mobile phones, laptop computers and digital cameras. On a more practical level, a clean shirt and tie, or a pair of paper trainers are also available. Some people even buy paper mansions with a full complement of paper servants for their departed loved ones. But perhaps the most bizarre item available is a paper mistress; one shop owner is said to be selling more than a dozen a day.
 
Often these paper objects are a copy of branded goods offering the dead the same illusion of status and wealth as the living. Which begs the question: is this a breach of copyright? Most manufacturers do not appear to feel threatened, and turn a blind eye.
 
Many shops also offer a bespoke service: they will make you anything from a bamboo and tissue paper copy of your dead relative’s dog to a copy of a favourite car. Especially poignant are the paper versions of bicycles and toys – some of which bear the familiar figure of Mickey Mouse – left by parents for their children. Disney (who have a Disneyland in Hong Kong) are said to “frown” on copies of their products being produced in paper to burn, albeit as an offering to dead children. Such customs appear strange to Western eyes, but they are part of a rich culture that still manages to survive in today’s high-tech world.
 
Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China.
www.richardjgarrett.com
 

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