THE Chinese are celebrating Qingming on April 4 this year. Also known as "Tomb Sweeping" Day, the annual festival honours the departed. It the time when families turn up at cemeteries to clean the graves of loved ones and offer prayers, food and other items deemed useful to the dead.
Decades ago when the Qingming was less commercialised, prayer offerings comprised simple stuff such as paper houses, figurines, horses, and clothes. The most important items were paper "gold" and "silver" ingots (known as kim and geen respectively in Hokkien ) which were considered currency for the Netherworld, to be burned as offerings at the graves.
During the run-up to the festival, which is celebrated 10 days before and after the actual date, families got together to fold the paper ingots with sheets of gold and silver joss paper. The art was dutifully handed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter, although boys also got to learn it.
Depending on the wealth of the kin, usually at least a gunny sack each of the "gold" and "silver" ingots had to be offered to the dead annually.
The act of folding the ingots not only allowed family members to strengthen ties with one another but it also symbolised filial piety for departed family members.
These days, I am not sure how many people know how to fold paper gold and silver ingots. These prayer items are seldom sold because Hell Bank notes of various denominations have taken over the role of legal tender in the Netherworld.
The convenience of modern living has also opened up a whole new world for the dead. Manufacturers have come up with every imaginable product for the dead that have been inspired by real life stuff and it is big business, come Qingming and the Hungry Ghosts festival.
Last year, paper iPhones and iPads were very much sought after, just as replicas of LCD television sets and satellite dishes were the previous.
This year, umbrellas are popular. One vendor of prayer items said, because of the wet spells here of late, the kith and kin of the departed are sending over paper umbrellas in case the weather over there is equally bad.
At the creative extreme, flattering replicas of luxury cars of famous German marques have been spotted. Superbikes, too, have found buyers, and so have mountain bikes.
And, if local products are not good enough for the dead, vendors here look overseas.
Last week, a news report featured a shop in Penang selling imported paper bicycles costing over RM100 each for Qingming. Apparently locally made ones were of poor quality, hence the vendor had to import them from China.
How the vendor knew which bicycles were suitable for the Netherworld, I am not sure. But according to the report, there were buyers for the imported bicycles. This goes to show how much some people were prepared to pay in the name of filial piety.
Many years ago when my grandmother was still alive, I asked her opinion of people who burn truckloads of replica items for their departed during Qingming.
She said something that we can all reflect on: "Treat the living with kindness and respect, for when they are gone, no amount of tears or generosity will make any difference to them."