Chris It’s 6:15 on a Tuesday morning. It’s still dark as I walk toward to my local market. The sun won’t rise for another hour, but the shop owners at West Coast Market Square are already busily preparing for the day.
Greengrocers arrange cucumbers, tomatoes, and a dozen green leafy vegetables in appetising bundles, while fruit stand owners build pyramids of mangosteen, dragonfruit, and rambutan, a sweet fleshy fruit wearing a nightmarish costume. It looks like a blood-red sea urchin whose spikes have wilted in Singapore’s equatorial heat.
Under the same massive roof are dozens of stalls selling fried noodles, rice porridge, freshly-baked bread, and the thick sweetened coffee Singaporeans love. It’s a foodie paradise.
I’ve been to this market — one of roughly 100 like it around the country — hundreds of times in the past seven years, but this is the first time I stopped at this shop. I usually walk right past it without a glance, but today a tube of toothpaste catches my eye.
It looks like the label for Colgate, but it is misspelled C-O-L-G-A-T-S. Colgats. As I stop to examine it, I realise that the tube is empty … and made of paper. I look around and notice shoes, cans of beer, table fans, even dentures – – all made of paper. Then it hits me…These products are not for the living.
I know this because of a paper written by three of my students. Their assignment was to visit a business or institution using the positive connotations of home — things like privacy, domesticity, intimacy, and comfort — to sell a product or an idea. For instance, some groups made a study trip to IKEA, which convinces customers to purchase more by reminding them that “Home is the most important place in the world”.
But this group did something different. They went to a shop literally selling homes: paper homes … for the dead.
Why do the dead need homes? And how does death complicate the comfort we associate with home? Those questions and more, when we continue.
I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot. This podcast will explore the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.
I return to my local market with Hui Jun, Ryan, and Max, former students and collaborators on this podcast.
We are here to take a closer look at the shop that sells paper houses and to talk with its owner.
Hui Jun So according to the shop uncle, stores likes these are called jin yin zhi liao dian (joss paper provision stores) or shen liao dian (deity [related] provision stores).
Actually I’m not sure if people really call these stores jin yin zhi liao dian. Rather, we call it the incense paper shop, or simply the shop you sell things you burn for the dead.
One of the most common items sold is money, and this money is mostly paper bills, in denominations of 1 million and 5 million dollars. It’s a little like going to Indonesia but the bills are issued by the “Bank of Hell”. They also sell other items like gold and silver bars, and also countless other items, like beer, iPhones (which are called iPhony), and shavers. All these items are made of paper, and would probably go up in flames at some point in time.
The particular stall that we visited is approximately 2.5 meters wide and 6 meters long, but it feels both larger and smaller than these dimensions. The items spill out into the corridor in front and along the side, which kind of doubles the size of the shop itself. Everything is so tightly packed together that you barely have space to move around. The only space that you have is this narrow aisle that runs in the middle of this madness. Customers, they normally don’t enter. They just stand outside and call out what they want, and the owner will know exactly where everything is.
Chris The owner is a short, middle-aged man with round glasses and close-cropped salt and pepper hair. He wears a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops: what my students call a Chinese “uncle”’s uniform. His smile is a bit mysterious, like he’s holding in a joke because he’s afraid it will go over my head. He’s probably right.
We introduce ourselves and ask if he’s willing to talk about his shop. This leads to an awkward conversation by my students, who feel embarrassed by their poor Chinese. They all had to pass it in high school, but they’ve largely forgotten it since because of disuse.
Shop Owner Singaporean, but you can’t speak Chinese?
Chris Right? Right? You’re supposed to speak Chinese!
Shop Owner’s Wife You should brush up on your Chinese! Even if you can’t read it, you need to be able to speak it. Honestly.
Students We can speak, a little.
Shop Owner That’s alright, then.
Singapore is like that. The younger generation takes university classes in English, and some of them even learn Japanese, Arabic, or Spanish. At the same time, their grandparents may speak one or more dialects of Chinese or even Malay, but little or no English. That is a rapid linguistic change in only two generations.
Hui Jun Some things change fast. But other things, like this shop, don’t. It has been operating for 35 years, and was first run by the current owner’s mother.
Chris How long have you had this shop? How many years?
Shop Owner It’s been… 35 years.
Hui Jun He told us that he took over 22 years ago largely because his lack of education gave him little career choice. His own son and daughter have no interest, and because they received more education, unlike him, they can choose a different life.
Shops like these cater to the living, by selling products they would burn to honor the dead. They do so at funerals and on other special occasions like during Qing Ming, or the hungry ghost festival.
Shop Owner …After many years, I took over the shop. It’s been about 15 years.
Hui Jun His mum had the shop for 10 years, and then he took over.
Chris And then he took over, yeah.
Chris Of course, he also sells paper houses. When we ask about them, he takes us to the hallway outside the shop where stacks of items are wrapped in plastic.
Hui Jun He opens a clear plastic bag to show us this paper mansion, which has three storeys, a circular drive, two luxury cars, a garden, and even a swimming pool. The rooms visible through intricate windows are filled with gorgeous furnishings and the latest design trends.
Shop Owner So far, everything…
Shop Owner Got a house… The fog… got anything. You see? Inside?
Chris With a garden… beautiful! Beautiful background!
Hui Jun How much is it?
Shop Owner I sell it for $40.
Chris It looks like a toy. As a child I played with paper dolls, and I can imagine getting hours of enjoyment from this amazing house. But this one is not for play. It’s designed to go up in smoke at the funeral of a loved one.
I’m particularly drawn to two figures standing at attention: a man in a dark suit and cap next to two luxury cars and a woman on the third story balcony in a French maid’s uniform holds a tray with a cocktail.
Chris And this, who is this?
Shop Owner The guard.
Chris And this?
Shop Owner How to say? The helper.
Chris Wow… How convenient!
Chris These are the driver and the maid, who are also burned as an offering for the dead. Both look vaguely Western.
I first learned about burning paper houses in a research paper by students in my course called Home.
Chris …thing is, just introduce yourself.
Yi Gang I’m Yi Gang.
Amanda I’m Amanda.
Chris So, what inspired you to write this? About this topic? Whose idea was it?
Yi Gang Actually, we wanted to come up with a topic that is really unique. So, because you gave us that platform, to come up with our own topic, so we wanted to find something that nobody has touched on before. We began discussing a lot of things, and… I can’t remember how we came up with…
Amanda I can’t remember also.
Yi Gang Yea. I can’t remember already. It’s just someone or… someone just mentioned this idea of paper house?
Chris Someone. It just came from somewhere. You don’t really remember?
Yi Gang We can’t remember who was the one who’s… suggested the idea, right? But we listed a few. But in the end we decided to shortlist that, and give it a try.
Amanda Because I think it was nearing Seventh Month at that time.
Chris Seventh Month? What is that?
Amanda The month where people buy the houses to burn.
Yi Gang So in Singapore, we have this tradition. For me, a Chinese tradition whereby Seventh Month means the- they call it the Hungry Ghost Festival. So basically all the relatives that have passed away, they come back during this Seventh Month into this human realm, and people will tend to buy offerings for them. In terms of money, paper money, paper house, and stuff.
Chris So you went in, and you looked at these houses, and then you came up with this idea of… Can you remind me what was the main point of your paper?
Amanda Oh no.
Chris Oh no! This is not a test. You’ve graduated yesterday. So you’re fine! You’re in the clear!
Amanda Something like… if not nostalgic…
Yi Gang What we’ve learnt from your module is that based on what Massey has told us, home does not have to be a place of nostalgia.
Chris Yi Gang is talking about Doreen Massey, one of the most prolific and influential geographers of the past 40 years. Massey wrote a lot about home, especially in the context of globalization.
In particular, she wondered why so many scholars in the 1980s and 90s felt that global economic and cultural change was threatening their sense of home.
Massey Space concerns our relations with each other. And in fact social space, I would say, is a product of our relations with each other. Our connections with each other.
Chris For Massey, people who claim to be losing their sense of home tend to be looking backward, to an idea of home that resists change, especially regarding the roles of men and women.
She calls this a nostalgic sense of home, which is usually the privileged perspective of a man who freely travels to and from home. And when he is home, he enjoys the comforts provided by a woman – usually his wife or mother, who is more likely to feel stuck there or see it as a continual labor of love – not just a place to relax.
Massey So globalisation, for instance, is a new geography constructed out of the relations we have with each other across the globe.
Chris For Massey, coming to grips with globalization requires changing how we think about home itself. If we conceptualise home as progressive and future-oriented, we can begin to work toward making something better, instead of resisting change and trying to turn back the clock.
Yi Gang, Amanda, and Stella pick up Massey’s idea and point out that these burnable homes are not nostalgic representations of places people used to live in. Instead, they are what they call “aspirational homes.”
Chris So tell me, do you guys have any personal experiences burning houses for the dead?
Yi Gang I had that experience once.
Amanda I don’t.
Yi Gang My cousin passed away, and then we held this Chinese ritual for her. What they did was they bought paper house, and paper car, and then they burned it in a garage or something. So they burned it for her, hoping that after she pass on, she will at least have a house to stay in, and not wander around in the realm. And she’ll be better off after she’s in the afterlife. That was the idea behind this burning of items for their loved ones.
Chris And you have no experience with it?
Amanda Uh, no.
Chris So it was totally new to you.
Amanda I knew of the practice. Usually on TV, they’ll
Yi Gang Chinese TV…
Amanda Channel 8 or what, some dramas, they will show…
Chris And they will show them burning these houses too?
Chris OK I should watch more local TV…
Chris I think these students did great work, and I still recall my excitement during their presentation in class. I sat mesmerised by their photographs of elaborate paper houses with paper gardens, paper furniture, and paper iPads. Everything the deceased would need for a happy afterlife.
Chris And the inspiration was your paper on Paper Houses. I think you remember my eyes, when you were giving the presentation like “What? Is this a thing? I didn’t know this was a thing!” And you’re probably looking at me like “Yeah. Everyone knows this. So boring.”
Chris What can I say? Sometimes students have to point out things right under your nose.
Chris Earlier this year I attended my first wake in Singapore. After a colleague’s father died , his family invited people to help them honor him. We burned joss sticks and tried to help in some way with our presence.
Standing in front of the casket was a massive paper house 2 metres wide and at least a metre tall. Unlike the one we saw in the shop, this one was 2-dimensional, but it had the same level of detail, with 4 storeys, windows that opened onto fully furnished rooms, servants, and useful household electronics: a flat screen TV, a laptop.
My students were perceptive in pointing out the aspirational aspect of these burnable homes. But I still wonder, why are they so extravagant? Is this a new phenomenon?
In order to learn more about the practice of burning houses to honor the dead, I sat down with Dr. Richard Lee. He is an associate professor of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore, and an expert on Chinese history and culture.
Chris So how long have you been working on, or interested in funeral rites?
Richard Lee Well… more than 10 years. Because at one stage, I’m very interested in funeral rites, so I follow some of the Taoist priests to observe how they conduct funeral rites. And because of my interest in Chinese culture, funeral offerings are part of the funeral rites, you know.
Chris So getting to the topic of paper houses. I realise there are other things that can be burned. Can you talk a little bit about that – what should be burned, and how do you decide?
Richard Lee In fact, if you talk about paper houses, it can be traced back to more than 2000 years ago in Chinese culture. It’s part of Confucian filial piety that you bury with your deceased family members, items they used when they were still alive. Or imitated items. The house they live, the farm house, the stove. So that’s why in archaeological findings there are lots of these kinds of clay houses, domestic animals. We find in tombs, and also in ancient Chinese graveyards. So all of this is, in fact, is part of the ancient Chinese funeral rites. Part of the Confucian funeral rituals. So that was about (2500) years from now. But gradually, when paper became commonly used in China… From historical writing, we discovered that starting roughly around from the Song dynasty in China, around 11th century, Chinese started to use paper to build houses, statues, figures, servants.
Chris Instead of ceramics
Richard Lee Instead of clay. In olden days, it was clay. The Han Dynasty. Then down to the Tang Dynasty, they used ceramic, because the emergence of ceramics was much later. But this kind of item, even clay or ceramics, became more expensive. Common people may not be able to afford it. And paper became commonly used, and is very cheap. And also influence by Taoist and Buddhist religion. That burning the items will be able to send to another world.
Chris In other words, miniature houses have been used in Chinese funerals for over two thousand years. But over time, the custom gradually changed. Not only did the materials change, from clay to ceramic, then to paper, but also the meaning changed when the custom intersected with Buddhism and Daoism, both of which believe in an afterlife.
Chris And so, as it is practiced today, in Singapore, is that why people burn houses and servants and money and credit cards and passports and iPhones… They believe that their loved one will use this.
Richard Lee Yeah, well we can classify this kind of action into 2 groups. One is related to their religious belief. Some are Buddhist, some are Taoist, and they believe in afterlife. So they also believe that when they burn this kind of thing, it can be used in another world, in the next life. So this is one group of people with religious belief. Another group, they just follow the Chinese tradition. So it is custom of the Chinese people, when you go to tomb cleaning during the Qing Ming Festival, you bring along food, you also burn joss sticks, paper money. So this is just a custom, a practice, rather than a religious belief.
Chris So what is the purpose of burning it, if it can’t be used in the next…
Richard Lee It’s just… For example, you burn the house. You burn the notes, paper money, that means you want the deceased person to have something familiar, to be buried together with the person. So that’s why in olden days you make clay house, porcelain, or even domestic animals, to bury together with the deceased person. But during that time, in olden days, when we look at the findings of the Han Dynasty, usually the house will resemble the house of the deceased person, who has lived there for probably his whole life.
Chris It may be tempting today to think that burning an extravagant mansion is new, something influenced by globalisation and exposure to Western ideas. Sure, the design of the house may have changed in recent years. But, in fact, burning an aspirational home has a much longer and complicated history.
Chris So when do we see the change to something more… aspirational?
Richard Lee I think it’s influenced by religious belief. Religious belief thinks that “Oh you have a good life in your next life.” So you try to provide more than enough, so you have credit card, the bank note will be 10 million dollars for one piece, the house will be bigger, you try to burn paper servants to serve the person, so that he will have a better life in the next life. So that’s related to religious belief.
Chris The practice of burning houses is not necessarily a superstition. It is part of Chinese custom linked to Confucianism and filial piety – honouring your elders by giving them what you can.
Even today, my students carry on this tradition. Once they graduate and begin working, they give part of their income to their parents and grandparents. It doesn’t have to be much — maybe 100 dollars a month to a grandmother — but it is not optional.
Once a loved one passes away, such offerings continue for many people, this time in the form of paper money burned both at the funeral and occasions like the annual Hungry Ghost Festival.This is when shops like the one in my local market do most of their business.
As architectural trends and funeral practices continue to evolve, I’m left wondering how the tradition of burning houses might change.
Will Singaporeans continue to burn paper houses to show their filial piety?
Will they use these houses to try to provide their loved ones all the comforts of home in the afterlife?
Will paper houses become even more extravagant, reflecting the growing aspirations of Singaporeans?
I have Amanda, Yi Gang, and Stella to thank for opening my eyes to this phenomenon, which will keep me thinking about the intersection of home and death for years.
I want to conclude this episode by talking about another intersection of death and home: the fact that home is the place most of us want to die. According to a recent article in the Straits Times newspaper, around 75% of Singaporeans have this wish. However, over 60% actually die in hospitals.
The reasons for wanting to die at home are clear: Although hospitals and nursing homes may try to create a comfortable atmosphere, most of us consider them cold. They can never replace the feeling of home. In our final days, all we want to do is to go peacefully, surrounded by those we love in a space where we feel comfortable.
But what of those left behind?
10 years ago my father was diagnosed with cancer. Despite surgery, chemotherapy, and an apparent full recovery, doctors suddenly found cancer in his lymph nodes and elsewhere. They declared him beyond repair, and he spent his final month in a series of hospitals in ever-increasing pain.
When he was finally recommended for hospice in November 2007, I cut short by a few months my PhD research in Japan, and my wife and I moved back to the US the following day. I hadn’t seen my father in about 6 months. He was barely recognisable, his lean muscular frame suddenly skeletal. The man who had suffered broken arms and multiple knee surgeries without shedding a tear or showing any obvious pain, now pled for morphine. And he begged to go home.
He wanted to look out the big windows of the house he almost completely rebuilt with his own hands, to watch deer grazing in the south meadow, and mostly, to touch his beloved Golden Retriever Mattie.
We all wanted that for him, but it was impossible, given the combination of his need for morphine to ease the pain and one of the worst ice storms to hit Southwest Iowa in decades. We were stuck in the hospital, all of us feeling helpless, but trying to make the most of our final days with the strong, silent man we loved so much.
I still wish Dad could have died at home, but now I wonder how that would have altered that two-story farmhouse for me and especially my Mom.
If Dad had died at home, what would it feel like to return there? Would those painful final weeks displace all the happier memories of putting up Christmas lights that could be seen for miles or drinking beer on the patio after a hard day’s work?
In preparing for this episode I reached out to my Mom, admitting that I am still haunted by the fact that we couldn’t give Dad the death he wanted. Through muffled tears, she assured me we did the best we could.
In the years since his death, and partly because of the excellent care we all received during that ordeal, Mom began working part-time for a hospice provider. When I told her the premise for this part of the episode today, she said she completely understood. In fact, she had worked with many families who had welcomed hospice workers into their homes, in order to provide their loved one a more comfortable passing, only to later struggle to recover the home as a space for the living. After the death, she said “It’s hard for some people to go home.”
As for Mom, she sold the house soon after Dad died. It was too big for her to care for, and too far from town. I take some comfort in the fact that she is also free from living in a space haunted by so many memories, both happy and sad.
When a loved one dies in a hospital, we can walk away. But when they die at home, we continue to live with that memory.
I guess what I’m still wondering is, What are we wishing upon our loved ones when we ask to die at home?
This episode of Home on the Dot was written and produced by Tang Hui Jun, Chan Weng Kin, and me. Our sound engineer was Ryan Ang. Thanks to Chua Yi Gang, Amanda Ong, and Stella Pear for the paper that inspired the episode, as well as Richard Lee for sharing his knowledge of Chinese funeral practices.
You can learn more about this episode, including related scholarship, photographs of burnable houses,and some 360-degree video from my local market, by visiting blog.nus.edu.sg/homeonthedot