- Families who typically travel to mainland China to visit ancestors’ tombs are staying home now that mandatory quarantine awaits them on return
- Sales of paper replicas of healthcare products, driven mostly by younger customers, are up at one shop in Sai Ying Pun
Hong Kong's traditional paper offering shops have seen business plummet by as much as 50 per cent ahead of this year's Ching Ming Festival amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, even as sales of faux health care products have seen an uptick at some stores.
New social-distancing rules, along with an inability to easily visit ancestors buried in mainland China, have meant major adjustments in how families are handling the festival, where paper replicas that mimic real-life objects are traditionally burned to transfer them to recipients in the afterlife.
Despite an exemption for relatives who live under the same roof, operators said a recent ban on public gatherings of more than four means fewer people plan to mark this year's festival, which officially falls on Saturday, by sweeping their ancestors' graves.
At Chun Shing Hong, a shop in Sai Ying Pun, business is down at least 35 per cent year-on-year.
Owner To Chin-sung believes the slump is also tied to the fact fewer Hong Kong families are visiting ancestors buried in mainland China now that they face a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon return.
"We are suffering a big hit to our business," To said. "For instance, on a day when our daily income was up to HK$10,000 (US$1,300) last year, this year, we can make only about HK$6,500."
But To said while overall sales are down, demand for paper health care products and drugs is up five to six per cent, thanks mainly to younger customers. Older people still preferred traditional paper banknotes, as well as gold and silver, he said.
"Some believe that ancestors are immune to diseases in the afterlife … but there are also some people who would burn joss paper dolls dressed as doctors and nurses for their ancestors. I think it really depends on people's own beliefs," he said.
To said one of his masterpieces this year " a metre-long paper yacht with a miniature control room, canteen and living room " cost about HK$1,300.
"The customer who commissioned us to make the yacht said their ancestors loved cruise ship trips. Unlike the coronavirus incident on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, our yacht is (private) and completely new, so there will not be any diseases on it," To said with a touch of gallows humour.
Another nearby paper offering shop, Po Tai Hong, said business had been halved from the same period last year.
Owner Kwan Wing-ho, 61, said customers have been spending less " about HK$100 to HK$200 on average " amid the economic downturn.
"We'd be relieved if we don't make a loss, let alone making a profit," he said.
He said he had also received some special inquiries from customers this year.
"There were customers who asked me if we made paper face masks. To be frank, you don't need to burn a paper face mask, because you can always burn the real version. They'd probably cost way less than custom-made paper ones," Kwan admitted.
Locally handcrafted paper offerings cost from about HK$100 to over HK$1,000, depending on the size and complexity. Customised items range from hearing aids and e-cigarettes to professional cameras and full-size pool tables.
At Po Wah Paper Crafting in Sham Shui Po, owner and paper craftsman Au Yeung Ping-chi recently made two paper face masks. The face masks were not for sale, however. He made them because he simply wanted to try out his skills.
It took Au Yeung less than an hour to make the masks, which he said had three layers, just like the three-ply real-life versions.
However, the cost of making paper masks could be several times more than the real thing, which are priced at about HK$3 to HK$5 each. As such, he did not anticipate many customers for them.
"Paper masks cost (a lot more) compared to the real ones, as it takes time to slowly craft them," he said.
Like other shops, Au Yeung said revenue this year has slumped, and he was worried the Covid-19 pandemic would last until the Hungry Ghost Festival in the summer, another occasion when people typically burn paper offerings.
But for customers like Michelle Liu, a housewife in her 40s, the coronavirus is no excuse for not getting appropriate paper offerings for her ancestors.
Despite her husband being on unpaid leave since February, she dropped HK$600 on paper banknotes, clothes, shoes and a handbag at To Chin-sung's shop in Sai Ying Pun on Tuesday.
"It doesn't matter whether the coronavirus pandemic happened. The most important thing is showing our respect and caring towards our loved ones," she said.
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