25 August 2008

Making fire with business cards

ahsesMy best friend May and I used to do crazy things together when we were undergrads more than a decade ago. For example, we would walk on the elevated road and then the bridge for motor vehicles to cross a river at 2.00 in the morning.

Today, an unexpected short religious ritual held during the lunch break reminded me of mad old days. May bought a 'paper gift' and we managed to deliver it by reducing it to ashes, i.e., burning it.

In Chinese folk beliefs, the dead, whether ascending to Heaven or suffering in Hell, still need daily necessities, luxury items, all sorts of consumer goods and, above all, money. While on few occasions people would immolate real stuff (yes, they even burn apple notebooks or flat TVs), most of the time paper crafts are used instead. Thus, it is popular to burn a paper model car, miniature paper house, paper TV or so for a deceased family member, as well as 'paper money' (precisely 'joss paper', not real banknotes), in the funeral and other subsequent remembrance rituals.

However, because of growing environmental and global-warming concerns, people are discouraged from burning such paper items nowadays. It is not uncommon to see a burner outside a temple sealed and made redundant. It is particularly true in Taipei.

Normally, a paper item would be made of bamboo splints and tissue paper, but what May bought is made of quality cardboard and coated paper by SKEA, a studio which makes literally any stuff with paper (visit the website and check out their fab produtcs), as long as you provide a photo.

As May and I couldn't find a temple with a burner, after the second attempt in Cihui Tang (慈惠堂), we followed a trail from the back of this temple into a hill, Tiger Mountain, neighbouring Elephant Mountain where Fanne and I heard cicadas singing.

Without a burner, which would provide enough heat to burn down the tough cardboard, we built a super tiny fire with May's business cards as 'fuel'. It took a while because the cardboard was so heavy-duty, industrial-strength. At one point I doubted whether this paper gift was meant to burn or made to last. Fortunately, it turned into ashes before all of May's cards were used up.

(See, while the gift has burnt to ashes, a corner of her business card bearing her name is still there.)

On the one hand, I believe, SKEA should be proud of their well-crafted products, but on the other, they should also worry about those who can't find a proper burner.

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