Recently, a photo of a mobile phone showing the government’s LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app went viral in Hong Kong. It was not an actual device, but a paper offering intended to be burnt as a gift for loved ones who have passed away to enjoy in the afterlife. “[You] have to use LeaveHomeSafe even after death,” someone commented beneath the image on Facebook.

Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Paper offerings are a major part of Ching Ming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day as it is sometimes known in English, which this year falls on Tuesday. However, at a store in Sai Ying Pun, HKFP was told that “no one looks for Covid-themed offerings anymore.”

A Covid prevention kit for the dead. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“Now our best-sellers are Switch and PS5,” said Mak Wai-hung, one of Hong Kong’s last paper offering craftspeople, who has been stationed at the store for three years. “In my knowledge, there are only two people in Hong Kong who make these modern [paper offerings], and I am one of them.”

Paper offerings inspired by gaming consoles. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Despite infection numbers being on the decline, the fifth wave of Covid-19 continues to batter the city’s economy. Kwan Wing-ho, the owner of the store, told HKFP that his business had not been spared. Usually, Ching Ming would bring a boost in sales to paper offering sellers, but the 63-year-old said that business was “only at 70 per cent” compared to last March.

Kwan WIng-ho, the owner of Po Tai Hong, a paper offering store in Sai Ying Pun. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Although thousands of lives have been lost to the fifth wave, Kwan said there was little to gain for stores like his. Covid-19 has accelerated a growing trend for more simple funerals, with fewer families ordering extra paper offerings from Kwan’s shop. “Most nowadays would keep it simple,” he said.

Modern paper offerings. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Additionally, the recent coronavirus outbreak has disrupted supply chains, while government limits on social gatherings have seen fewer people head out tomb-sweeping, Kwan said.

The “manager” of the store, according to owner Kwan Wing-ho. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Kwan’s store sells a mix of paper products mass produced in mainland China and locally crafted handmade offerings. Covid-related border restrictions have seen the delivery time of the former jump from one day to at least a week, while the latter takes time and can only be produced in small quantities.

‘The department of creation’

Traditional detailed, large-scale paper offerings were once the store’s greatest selling point, proudly exhibited on its social media page. However, craftsperson Mak said it has become difficult to compete with Chinese suppliers, while social distancing restrictions have also steered people away from large family gatherings to worship their ancestors.

Paper artefacts of mansions. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Mak said “a lot fewer people” buy conventional, large papier-mâché models such as mansions with gardens these days. “They don’t believe in [the custom],” he said. However, some young people are interested in smaller, trendier offerings. “Now [I] am better off making these small and trivial things.”

Paper artefacts of pets. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

From popular gaming consoles to beloved pets, or even objects with complicated components such as a sewing machine or a guitar – they have all been turned into paper offerings by Mak, in a corner of the store which he proudly calls “the department of creation.”

A paper guitar. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Mak told HKFP that he has been crafting paper from the age of 16. When he was young, his family operated the furnaces that burned paper offerings. One day, the staff of a paper offering store asked him if he wanted to “play” at crafting paper offerings, “and thereby I have played for 30 years,” Mak said.

Paper artefact crafter Mak Wai-hung’s workbench, as known as his “department of creation.” Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“Those who are of a similar age to me and truly understand how to create paper offerings… I think there are only a handful of them left,” Mak said.

Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“Being in our industry, [we] will never get rich.” Mak said, smiling nonetheless. “It is just enough to make a living.”

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.