Fall 2017

How to Burn Paper for the Dead

Contents of a joss paper set bought at Btrust Supermarket. Annie Wong, 2017. In aisle nine of Btrust Supermarket, an Asian grocery store in North York, are rows of joss paper between the sections for pet food and toiletries. Often made of rice or bamboo, joss paper are sheets of spirit money and prayer folios burned as offerings to pay tribute to a generational bloodline. Central to Chinese ancestral worship, the practice continues to thrive and adapt over millennia, keeping lines of communication to passed ancestors as conveniently accessible as buying a toothbrush. My father, who accompanies me to Btrust, picks up a package of dried fish, some soap, and a set of joss paper.  

“Let me pay for the joss paper,” I offer at the cash desk.  


“It’s special. And I want to keep it.”  

“It’s not special” he scoffs, “and it’s bad luck to keep things that belong to the dead.”  

“Look at this gold tint. It must be special.”  

With fatherly candour he rebukes, “You don’t know anything.”  

I regret the truth behind the statement he so often utters to scold and lament the acquired orientalism of his Westernized daughter. I ask, “How do you burn paper for the dead?” After a contemplative pause while I anticipate his words of wisdom, he replies, “Go ask your mom.”  

Joss paper in aisle nine at Btrust Supermarket. Annie Wong, 2017.

Joss paper is indeed not special. Sold in the supermarket among household necessities, joss paper participates in the mundane rituals among the miscellany of my father’s purchases: wash, eat, worship. To engage with the spirits of the dead is to incorporate their presence into the everyday. In a conflation of the domestic and the supernatural, ancestral worship involves a quotidian intimacy with the dead in a heaven that approximates the earthly. The space of ancestral prayer is a medium for affection and continued care for family. The similitude of the kingdom of the dead and the proximity to its inhabitants, however, are often obfuscated in the Westernized spaces of the diasporic subject. The ephemera of eternal affection are media of familial communion for the observant as much as they are confrontations with the ghost of failed memory, disconnected ancestors, and lost lineages for the diasporic. “What ensues,” as María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren note, “is a consideration of intergenerational trauma as a haunting force, where the notion of haunting, as site of comparison, clarifies both the temporal and spatial aspects of the affliction, while its resolution is described as the phantom being successfully exorcised.”María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, “An Introduction: Conceptualizing Spectralities,” in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 8.This proposed solution, however, presents a double negation in a haunting of cultural loss. As nocturnal phantoms take the place of diurnal ancestral spirits in the diasporic landscape, the proposed psychoanalytic cure of the Westernized psyche is a cultural exorcism of Eastern orthopraxy. Eradicating the spectral body from the diasporic is a flawed resolution if not a perpetuation of trauma. Perhaps what is needed is not an exorcism, but an act of heeding to the haunt, a process in pursuit of ghosts that does not attempt to clarify aspects of affliction but to reconcile with what is lost.  

Traditional clothing set from the package bought at Wing Fong’s shop. Annie Wong, 2017.

The assortment of merchandise at Wing Fong’s specialized joss paper shop in Toronto’s Chinatown Centre is overwhelmingly diverse. Among stacks of different currencies, from American dollars and Chinese Yuan to Hell Bank notes (the official heavenly currency), is an equally multifarious array of paper clothing, jewellery, cigarettes, passports, iPads, laptops, and other replicas of the necessities of everyday life. Traditionally performed at home during the first and middle of the lunar month, the ritual of burning paper gifts and money engages prayer as a transaction between the living and the deceased. In an afterlife similar to the earthly world, ancestors receive goods transformed through fire in exchange for blessings.Janet Lee Scott, For Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: The Chinese Tradition of Paper Offerings (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 1–41.I admit to Fong that while the merchandise captivates me I am entirely ignorant of how to use it. Unsurprised by my confession, he says this is common among the jook-sin Canadian-born Chinese of my generation. Jook-sin is a pejorative Cantonese term used to refer to the Westernized Chinese subject born in North America. The term is defined by a loss of cultural heritage and language through processes of assimilation. I ask Fong what gift would be appropriate for a “beginner” and he hands me an ornate green package containing a set of traditional clothes and joss notes. 

Various joss paper currencies. Annie Wong, 2017.

Across town in the city of Markham, the selection at Far East Arts Co. includes newer imports from Hong Kong like paper dim sum sets, name brand shoes, luxury cars, and suburban houses at slightly higher prices. During my visit, Richard Hew, the owner of the shop, shares his personal accounts of Hong Kong’s ostentatious cult of the dead. In Hong Kong, he tells me, the annual Hungry Ghost Festival and Lunar New Year are occasions for private prayer to be performed publicly. In a spectacular immolation of abundant offerings, families invest generously in stacks of joss paper along with extravagant and practical paper gifts. The local joss paper markets eclipse the volume and demand in Canada, providing everything from paper facsimiles of Prada handbags to rice cookers. The materiality of ancestral liturgy is intrinsic to understanding the eschatological complex to which they are tied. Contrary to the transcendental heavens of Christianity, the Chinese afterlife resembles a heavenly bureaucracy that administers the dead in the same way taxes administer life.Wolfgang Scheppe, “In Effigie: Representational Magic in the Supermarket of the Dead,” in Supermarket of the Dead: Fire offerings in China and the Cult of Globalized Consumption, vol. 2 (Dresden: Dresden State Art Collections, 2015), 7–22.Spirits in this realm are subject to a mystified version of feudalism and continue to participate in a system of commerce. The place for the dead in the Chinese cosmologic map is not sublime but banal. The dead need to eat, pay debts, and upgrade their iPhone models the same way the living do.

This banality is perplexing in a Western secularized society haunted by the chimera of Christian eschatology. Karl Löwith’s secularization thesis suggests that notions of progress in modernity are not divided from theology but merely subsume Christian conceptions of “fulfillment and salvation.”Rodolphe Gasché, “The Remainders of Faith: On Karl Löwith’s Conception of Secularization,” in The Multidimensionality of Phenomenology, ed. Babette Babich and Dimitri Ginev (Switzerland: Springer, 2014).The “modern” West’s obsession with the production of the future is predicated on the problem of empty, earthly time in Christianity, where salvation is deferred until a future date in anticipation of the Second Coming: the return of Jesus Christ. The question of what to do with time on earth asked since the Middle Ages has construed life as more or less a state of Beckettian waiting. Modernity in the West merely replaces the destruction of the earth for a kingdom-to-come with the production of the future in the likeness of a Christian paradise. In the language of science and humanities, progress as envisioned by modernism eventually reaches a point of social perfection in the promise of the future. Time and space in both Christian and modernist doctrines operate in linear trajectories, where the future represents the realization of ideal forms.

Time in Chinese cosmology engages an entirely different set of metaphysical principles. To grasp them requires a reorientation of the epistemological frameworks that underpin Western consciousness. If infinity is experienced linearly in the West, the Eastern conception of eternality is cyclic. The dead are not emancipated from sin nor do they promise to return at a future date. They simply exist in the matrix of everyday life. What perplexes the West, and by extension my jook-sin generation, is the spiritual world’s contemporaneity. Attending to the sustenance of ancestors through the medium of burning engages the deceased in a habitual relationship. They exist in a continuum with the living and are addressed in the present tense. Chinese ancestral worship situates the spiritual in banal spaces like the home, the supermarket, and the Asian shopping mall, perpetuating a sense of familiarity and closeness in a contemporary context. They become “othered” only when we try to understand them in the Western framework of futurity haunted by deferred salvation. The West’s preoccupation with the narrative of progress cannot accommodate the spirits of the past. Rather, the exotic spirits of the East that seek to intervene in Christianity’s-cum-modernity’s conception of the past and the future, or the place of original sin and the site of salvation, are rejected as a terrorizing force, a horrific disruption, a traumatized “other” that needs to be exorcized.

Standing in aisle nine of Btrust Supermarket, in Wing Fong’s shop, and in Far East Arts Co., I am captivated by the vertiginous variety of gifts and animist magic they employ. What perplexes me is not caused by my ignorance of the practices, but the uncanny likeness of the underworld to the living world. In a state of both wonderment and fear, I am confronted with reflections of myself in the material desires of the dead. The sameness presents a challenge to my diasporic identity, asking me to see in the paper replicas of everyday necessities my own desires and needs. As Fong explains to me, buying a gift for your ancestors is the same as buying a gift for a friend or for yourself. In the deceptively simple gesture of gifting, I am compelled to embrace an eschatology that prioritizes intimacy and kinship over salvation. The gift is an expression of love and devotion, a quotidian intimacy with the dead who are not that far away. Affection generated by the maintenance of permanent kinship takes precedence over the fear and awe of a monotheistic god. In this context, there is nothing enigmatic about the eternal care for family. The dead continue to feel love and affection as long as we continue to express it. Burning joss paper is an act of remembering as much as it is maintaining connections beyond the grave

Ancestral relationships in the diaspora, however, are not carried across continents without incidents of disconnect. To engage in rituals of remembrance for those whose ancestral links are severed by exile, silenced by cultural trauma, or assimilated into erasure is to be haunted by a lack. In the fragmented landscape of the diasporic subject, the benevolent Eastern spirit becomes an eerie Western haunting. Evocations of historical and cultural lineages filter through discontinuous frames of reference to a time, space, and people that are familiar yet estranged. What is kindred is instead experienced as a loss. For the diasporic subject, the ancestral occupies the border of knowledge, hauntingly, as Collin Davies describes, “[like] a wholly irrecoverable intrusion in our world, which is not comprehensible within our available intellectual frameworks, but whose otherness we are responsible for preserving.”Collins Davies, “Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms,” French Studies 59, no. 3 (2005): 373.

The challenge of maintaining connections with ancestors beyond the grave proves to be easier than it is across the Pacific. My reflection in the gold tint of a sheet of joss paper is obscured by the conflict between my Western consciousness and my Eastern amnesia. My bewilderment over the arcana of ancestral worship is short-lived and met by a mocking refrain. I recognize the sound as my father’s voice, whose father, and his father and his mother and sisters and brothers before him, begin to creep facelessly along the precipice of my perception in a chorus of echoes: you don’t know anything. What follows is a wave of sadness after realizing that my ignorance of these practices stems from my ignorance of my ancestors. Rendered nameless and faceless by the silence following my parents’ exile from their homeland, the parade of ghostly figures continue to taunt me, presenting a mirror reflecting nothing. The empty reflection pierces deep, puncturing the foundation that holds my own identity. As Stuart Hall (1900) reminds us, “identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within the narratives of the past.”Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 225.

Contents of a traditional clothing package. Annie Wong, 2017.

In North York, my mother leads me to her garden in the backyard. She sets up a small kettle grill on the ground next to a cup of rice. She hands me three incenses and tells me to clasp my hands and pray.

“In English?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies.

“What do I say?” She chants a few Cantonese words for me to repeat that I do not understand. “What are you saying?”

“I’m calling your grandpa and grandma.”

“But I’ve never met them.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says, “they know you.” After the chant she directs me to insert the incense into the cup of rice. “Our ancestors died a long time ago and so far away in China and Vietnam,” she says in broken English. “We can't go to their graves so we pray for them at home, under the open sky.” She takes a ream of joss money and the pre-packaged gift that I bought from Wing Fong. The night before, we carefully opened the oversized envelope to glimpse the delicate crafted paper hat, slippers, trousers, and shirt set. I surprise myself by saying aloud, “I hope they like it.” My mother sets the package on fire. “Here is a gift from Annie,” she says, “please look over her and give her lots of projects to do.” We attend to the fire with joss papers and prayers until the flames are starved by our silence.

“That’s it,” my mom says, covering the grill with a lid. “OK, clean up.” As we make our way back to the house my mom asks if I will send her paper gifts when she passes.

“Yes,” I reply, “of course.”