Thursday, April 02, 2009

See you in the next life

This weekend in Malaysia, it's Cheng Meng (or Cheng Beng, depending on your dialect). Taoist devotees will make their annual pilgrimage to cemetaries or crematoriums to visit their dearly departed, spiff up the old headstone (or urn) and reminisce a little. But the Chinese are Chinese first. Regardless of religious persuasion, more than a few Chinese folk will be asking for lucky numbers they can buy at the local lottery booth. Also a must - burnt offerings.

Burnt offerings are a part of our culture.* They're also a thriving cottage industry, and though its roots are older than old, the products on sale each year are as progressive and in touch with modern trends as a fashion label. A quick primer for the unfamiliar: It's customary to burn offerings for those who have passed on so that they want for nothing in the next life. I don't use the word 'effigy' even though there people-shaped burnt offerings, because effigies are usually burnt in protest. Burnt offerings are quite the opposite.
This year, a few us accompanied a friend to one of the many Chinese shops in Section 17. And Section 17 is very Chinese (restaurant menus sometimes don't even feature English translations). My friend was buying just a few items for his grandparents. What you do is you pick out whatever you want and the boss puts it together for you in a box, neatly arranged in the correct order (the order is apparently important, and little things matter - the boss lady was insistent that the wrapper on one item be removed).
The Netherworld is referred to as 'Hell' but its meaning is quite different from the Judeo-Christian view of it. Well, maybe not different, but more...egalitarian in nature. Everyone ends up there, you just occupy a station in (the after)life closer to your karma. There are lotsa stuff you can buy with the prefix 'Hell' on it; paper replicas of things you'd use in life:
  • Hell Notes. The preferred currency of the afterlife. Exchange rate roughly RM1.50 to one stack of I dunno, three hundred notes.
  • Hell Pavilion laptops. HP can't be too happy about that.
  • Cars. Chinese folk love auspicious number plates. Anything with 3, 6 or 8 is good. You can customise these with a marker pen.
  • Electric massage chairs.
  • Safes. Gotta put all those Hell Notes somewhere.
  • Louis Vuitton Bags. Yup, still the monogram version. Also, you got all those Hell Notes. You gotta spend em on something.
  • Guinness.
  • Toiletry Bags. Toothpaste and tongue scrapers.

Two years ago, one of my uncles joked that the trend now was to burn petrol kiosks so the deceased could actually drive the cars your burned them. Similarly, there wasn't much point burning a swanky house if you didn't include a staff of maids to help maintain it.
I wonder if the Global Recession we're going through affects them. It should shouldn't it? After all, we're the ones running out of money to burn. Doesn't that make their economy linked to ours? Or do they have their own leaders working on stimulus packages?

This year though, something else caught my eye.
Among the myriad burnt offerings for sale, are schoolbags. Complete with pencil case, and cartoon characters on the front. Only kids need those.

* When I say 'our' I mean as a Straits Chinese and as a Malaysian Chinese. I'm not religious myself, and can hardly claim to be a keen observer of Chinese tradition, but these are the rites I - we - grew up with.