Government pays respects to the dead in a virtual world

Memorial website EnglishA government department has decided to extend its responsibilities from this world to the next by launching a £100,000 memorial website which will require annual running costs of £78,000. It will give friends and relatives the opportunity to set up a page for deceased people on which they can pay tributes and make offerings.

I learned about this unusual government involvement in matters of life and death during a visit to Hong Kong from which I have just returned. An intriguing aspect of the fascinating culture in this former British colony is how ancient and modern beliefs happily co-exist, without apparent conflict.

Where else, for example, would a government assist its people in honouring the dead by setting up a special website, viewable in Chinese and English?

Worshipping ancestors has been a preoccupation of Hong Kong’s population for many centuries based, I understand, on a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. Many of the rituals involve making offerings and burning incense, in homes and at temples, to solicit help or special blessings from the dearly departed.

Roy with paper productsTo western minds, such customs may seem strange. Despite my attempts to be as open-minded as possible, I confess I found it impossible not to smile when viewing the items on display at a shop selling nothing but lookalike products made of paper that are destined to perish in flames soon after they are purchased.

Their purpose is to ensure that loved ones in the Great Beyond are kept well stocked with things they may need for a better afterlife. Once burned, buyers believe the offerings are magically transformed into the real thing. Specialist shops cater for all tastes: jewellery, dim sum (a well-known Chinese lunch food), clothes, beer and money, are just some of the items I encountered on its shelves. I even came across a paper version of false teeth (see picture). Well, I guess there’s no point in sending grandfather something succulent to eat in the next world if he can’t bite into it.

Cheuk Wing-hing, director of the department responsible for creating the website, describes it as an “easy, dignified and personalised way” of remembering ancestors. It might eventually replace the twice-a-year trek that many families make to tend their relatives’ graves.

As well as allowing up to 100,000 users to write about their loved ones and upload images and videos, it also offers a range of emoticons – graphic representations of fruit, flowers, candles, roast pigs, chickens and money, paper versions of which are popular as burnt offerings. Users can also upload emoticons of their own making.

The website has cost around £100,000 (HK$ 1 million) to create and is likely to be popular with the younger generation. Within two days of its launch on 10 June, 2010, around 1,600 people had registered an account and a thousand memorial pages had been set up.

What none of the media reports explained was why it was Hong Kong’s Food and Environmental Health Department (FEHD) that felt it necessary to spend part of its budget on such a website. I can only assume that it hopes to improve the air quality by reducing the amount of smoke escaping into Hong Kong’s often hazy atmosphere, and reduce the amount of food that is “offered” to the dead at public and private shrines and which, as far as I could see, never gets eaten by the living or the dead.

Where there’s a will …

Tony Chan Chun-chuenAnother belief I find difficult to swallow is the ancient art of fung shui, which seems to control or shape the lives of large numbers of Hong Kong’s residents. Buildings have to face in certain directions, rooms have to be furnished in a specific way, and all manner of other ” rules” must be observed in order to have the right life balance and derive the greatest benefit from one’s surroundings.

A staunch believer in this geomantic system was Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum, a Hong Kong tycoon, who apparently left her HK$100 billion estate to fung shui master Tony Chan Chun-chuen on whom she doted.

But her 2006 will was declared a forgery in February this year and Chan was promptly arrested and is now awaiting trial, which is awfully bad luck – or is it just bad fung shui? During my visit, I learned that Chan is seeking to have his own forensic experts examine the will in the hope of having the judgment overturned.

I’ll be returning to Hong Kong later in the year and look forward to reporting back on other beliefs and events in this always fascinating part of the world.

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