Painstakingly, women of retirement age adorn sheet after sheet of yellow joss paper with gold and silver leaf and red paint to satisfy last orders for sacrificial cash offerings ahead of next month’s Lunar New Year festival.
Taiwan’s Chen Kun-huei, 82, is determined to keep alive an ancient tradition of making the “joss paper” by hand even as others have shifted to automated production at factories.
“I will continue making joss paper until I can’t move anymore,” said Chen, the third-generation owner of his family’s business in northwestern Taiwan’s Miaoli.
Altogether, the Chens have been making joss paper for around 100 years.
Joss paper, also known as “spirit money”, is one of the most common offerings in Taiwan, burned at temples and outside homes to honour deities and ancestors while praying for many children, prosperity and longevity.
It is used during all holidays in Taiwan – Chen says there is only one month of downtime in a year – with the most offerings made during Lunar New Year and the “ghost month”, or the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
“There are just too many temples in Taiwan,” said Chen’s daughter, Chen Miao-fang, explaining why demand for joss paper remains high. After growing up in and around the workshop, Miao-fang is now in charge of taking orders.
The Chens’ way of making joss paper is fading quickly due to a lack of people willing to do the repetitive work and competition from big commercial printers producing cheaper, colourful alternatives. Only a few other workshops also still make the sacrificial paper by hand.
“In the future this might all be replaced by machines,” Miao-fang said, looking around wistfully at the family’s small-scale operation. For now, the Chens have a loyal base of customers who value the high quality of their product.
The week-long Lunar New Year holiday begins on Monday in Taiwan.