A burning devotion

Times Staff Writer

Cars, bank notes and TVs were going up in flames one chilly winter morning in the parking lot of Universal Chung Wah Funeral Home in Alhambra.

Thirteen white-clad relatives of Dam Lam, 87, formed a circle, each cradling a stack of paper models: a foot-long 747 jetliner, a black-and-gold car sitting in the courtyard of a 2-foot-tall, red-tiled paper mansion. One by one, the items were thrown into the fire licking out of a 4-by-4-foot wheeled container, charred from years of use.

Lam would need the items in heaven, his family said.

Chinese mourners have been burning funeral paper -- known as joss paper, or dzi-dzat -- for centuries. Traditionally, stacks of bamboo or rice paper bank notes were burned in braziers before the body of the deceased was lowered into the ground.


Practitioners of the ritual, derived from a mix of Taoism, Buddhism and regional folklore, believe that burning paper money equates to making advance deposits into an afterlife bank account that the deceased’s spirit can access in heaven.

Sales usually jump around Chinese New Year, which fell on Thursday this year. Shops also offer deep discounts during Ghost Month, often referred to as the Chinese version of Halloween, which this year begins Aug. 1. Many believe that spirits spend the month sniffing for souls to take, prompting the superstitious to crowd dzi-dzat stores looking for offerings to appease dead relatives.

Demand for increasingly extravagant dzi-dzat models is booming in Asia and in Southern California’s large Chinese community, fueled by devoted family members who regularly burn care packages on festival days, birthdays -- even the day after they dream about the deceased.

The Chinese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between the 1950s and the 1970s are beginning to die, and their relatives are flocking to funeral homes to brush up on the ritual.

“For some people who cannot buy the actual items, they pursue the desire in the paper-goods form,” said Xin Zhao, a professor of international marketing at the University of Hawaii. “It’s like vicariously having them.”

Lately, Southern California Chinese have become very particular about what they take to heaven, opting for fashionable upgrades of older dzi-dzat models, funeral workers said. Which explains the paper cellphones, paper DVD players, paper jewelry and clothing. It also explains why mourners purchase paper laptops: so their dead kin can keep track of the paper credit cards that came with them.

At Lam’s funeral in December, several paper cars, including a gray sedan with a red-jacketed chauffeur behind the plastic windshield, were parked on the altar amid mounds of pears, apples and pomelo.

Lam was a simple man with a gentle soul, according to his son, Konn Lam, 37. Born in Guangzhou, China, he got married in Vietnam, raised his four children in Hong Kong and moved to Alhambra in the 1980s. He made some money in the import-export business but also endured some financial difficulties. Now, Lam’s family wanted to give him all the luxuries that eluded him in life.

Before relatives stepped outside the funeral home to burn the paper offerings, Buddhist monks chanted sutras to allow Lam to travel peacefully to Buddha’s world. White flowers framed a large photo of Lam on an altar, which about 25 mourners approached with incense sticks, bowing as the sutras continued playing over speakers.

Smoke from incense sticks curled under the gold and silver paper bridges that Lam’s spirit was expected to cross, near a golden servant boy and a silver servant girl. Strips of yellow paper listing Lam’s name and the date of the ceremony hung from each offering, like a letter to be sent to an afterlife address.

Outside, during the burning, two attendants chanted Lam’s name after each toss, also reciting the name of the object and a short verse symbolically delivering the goods into the afterlife.

Within minutes, the intricate models settled into ash. The mourners bowed three times toward the bin, then went back inside to finish the funeral.

Paper funeral goods can be found in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, as well as in Chinese enclaves in Alhambra and San Gabriel.

A wide variety of paper goods -- kitchen utensils, trendy paper pumps -- are strung up like pinatas over spreads of candles and religious figurines. Red-wrapped boxes of paper dim-sum dumplings crowd shelves next to a paper rice cooker and treasure boxes brimming with paper playing cards.

In one corner of the Commonwealth Trading Co. in Chinatown, near a paper bathroom scale shrouded in plastic, the screen of a boxy gray paper TV with a “multi-system Penesonic” label shows a printed panorama of an Asian city. Perched nearby, a papier-mache tabby with plastic whiskers and a lush coat of paper strips glares through beaded eyes at a paper microwave.

Owner Carol Kwan, 42, drifted among her clientele -- mostly middle-aged women chattering in Cantonese -- as she pointed out a hollow $25 “Afterlife Airlines” airplane emblazoned with a blue phoenix emblem. The paper products usually cost between $5 and $30, she said.

In the back of a dark shelf in Kwan’s shop, a bulky blue paper land-line phone with a removable receiver collects dust. A more prominently displayed set features a sleek black cellphone with a “Moropalo” sticker that is similar to Motorola’s logo. The pack also includes paper batteries, a charger and a pager with lucky 6’s and 8’s splashed across the screen.

Kwan started getting custom requests: a paper wheelchair for someone who was disabled, paper fishing poles for an avid fly-fisher. And, appropriately for car-crazed Los Angeles, Kwan is often asked for a specific paper Honda model with silver rims, or a BMW in a particular color.

She usually rejects individualized requests because the range of paper materials needed to construct models is limited in the U.S., as is the pool of qualified artisans, she said.

Occasionally, Kwan takes orders for specialized paper houses and contracts them out, but because each takes 14 days to make and costs at least $500, those requests are rare.

But mourners in Asia have no problem burning -- literally -- through money. In affluent Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macau, they want their dead to live a good afterlife, sending lavish models of paper villas with manicured gardens, cutouts of security guards and full-size replicas of BMW motorcycles up in flames.

And although China’s economic renaissance has softened most regional authorities toward the ritual, burning paper replicas is still officially banned in most of the country.

Communist ideology does not recognize filial piety and life after death. The air pollution from burning paper also doesn’t help, said Zhao, the professor.

The Communist government has also commented on what it views as inappropriate items for burning. Apparently the afterlife has a booming red-light district. In April 2006, China’s deputy secretary of the Ministry of Civil Affairs prohibited the burning of “adult” items such as paper condoms, karaoke hostesses and Viagra.

The practice is more muted in the U.S., where the feeling that Americans are less than accommodating of Asian funerary rituals has left Chinese Americans less enthusiastic about burning paper, said Rose Hills funeral director Henry Kwon.

Rose Hills learned to accommodate the ritual when fires began breaking out with regularity in the cemetery’s trash cans in the mid-1980s.

The bins now bear signs prohibiting fires, and mourners receive 5-gallon containers in which to burn dzi-dzat.

The paper goods may be in demand now, but funeral directors and merchants predict the ritual is headed for a downturn as the community becomes more assimilated. Younger, American-born Chinese avoid Kwan’s shop, she said, because many do not understand the paper-burning tradition.

“Even though Chinese people are willing to pay more for funerals, I’m worried that fewer people will be buying the paper goods,” she said. “People born here just don’t believe.”

Kwon, the funeral director, said that with younger Chinese Americans turning toward Christianity, funerals are often carved into separate ceremonies -- a Buddhist one with burning paper one day, a Christian one with Bible verses the next.

Kwon tries to educate the uninitiated about the ritual’s cultural importance. But he said he understands where they’re coming from. He is, after all, a Southern Baptist.


Staff writer John Glionna contributed to this report from Beijing.