Industry of the dead: young producers, old believers

By Long Nguyen   January 21, 2020 | 05:10 pm PT
Industry of the dead: young producers, old believers
Kieu watches a customer rummage through her abundant stock. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Huy.
While many progressive young people snub the business of joss paper offerings, older generations maintain their respect for the afterlife.

Ten days before Tet (Lunar New Year), Nguyen Duy Street in Saigon's District 8 is bustling with scores of motorbikes distributing hell notes, joss paper offered to both the deceased and deities, to dozens of Ho Chi Minh City markets, earning the area its "bank of the dead" monicker.

Most joss paper producers, usually in their thirties, commence work at 6 a.m. before Tet.

In Ba Dinh Block of District 8, over 15 families produce joss paper, the traditional skill passed down from generation to generation.

"I’ve known joss paper since childhood and used to assist my parents, who are now too old to do the work," said 34-year-old Huynh Thanh Ton, the owner of a family-run practice on Nguyen Duy.

There are two main kinds of joss paper: hell notes, which are replicas of currencies like dong, dollars or euros, and inclusion of commodities like TVs, smartphones, and cars, etc.

Joss paper is usually burnt during the seventh lunar month, known also as the Month of the Ghost, and Tet.

For many Vietnamese, burning joss paper symbolizes the quest for luck, health, and prosperity in the new year, the belief being that, when burnt, offerings would be delivered to the deceased.

While older generations try to maintain the tradition of producing inclusion of commodities manually, the young are only interested in printing hell notes because "it is easier, quicker and bring more revenue."

Ton, like many others, have stuck with the profession due to the great amount of revenue on offer.

"I don't know the exact numbers, but this Tet, we can make over VND200 million ($8,615)," said Tan, a 29-year-old printing and cutting operator. With 5 colleagues, he produces more than 150 kilograms of joss paper daily.

According to Vietnam General Statistic Office, a local household spent VND575,000 ($24.77) on joss paper and offerings in 2012, with the number increasing to VND654,000 ($28.17) by 2016. This means the country spends about VND16 trillion ($689,249,920) burning paper.

Several domestic firms make hundreds of billions of dong (VND100 billion=$4.3 million) per year thanks to the production and sale of joss paper.

"Traditional joss paper features Chinese characters alongside deities representing longevity, prosperity, and health. Modern varieties resemble foreign currencies," Tan said, adding his company makes "every type of hell note on the market."

His workplace, a 40-meter-square old house, is filled with machines, paper, the smell of sweat and chemicals. With no protection or safety measures in place, the topless workers partake in every process of production, from making the paper to delivery.

Printing hell notes and cutting them into small pieces to sell to local distributors, Tan admits is "a simple but tough task" because of the required amount and pace of work. "This job requires strength and courage."

Young makers, old buyers

Though more environmentally-friendly means of worship have become popular, burning joss paper remains a familiar ritual in many households still rooted in culture.

The paper is available at every market in Saigon, especially those in China Town, where shops have run for decades.

At Thiec Market in District 11, one of the most popular joss paper hubs, "a store could serve up to 500 customers a day since the start of January," according to owner Kieu, boasting 40 years of experience in the trade.

Among dozens of products, hell notes costs around VND20,000 ($0.86), clients having to pre-order large amounts.

In recent years, the long-standing tradition has been criticized for its impact on the environment, with many young people abandoning the practice.

Studies have shown burning joss paper produces harmful substances into the air, which is one of the factors causing air pollution. Authorities are not fond of joss papers either, urging people to abandon the ritual last year.

A week before Tet, Kieu's 10-square-meter store in Thiec Market is filled with customers, mostly housewives. Her son, who works at the shop, maintains sales remain strong despite the cultural shift among young people.

"Young folk don't believe in the afterlife, the other world, and don't want to harm the environment by burning paper, but the old generation is still here to pass down the tradition," Kieu noted.

To the young men producing joss paper for Kieu, there is nothing to worry about since the business is so deeply rooted in culture.

Tan hopes the dead appreciate the hell notes and offerings he made.

"I want all my products turned to ashes, so the deceased can have them all."

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