April 2, 2009 / 3:34 AM / 10 years ago

In Malaysia, even the dead can't escape the recession

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - The paper motorcycles are staying on the shelves and less money is being burned during a traditional Chinese festival to honor the dead who, like the living, have not been spared by the economic downturn.

The Ching Ming Festival or Grave-Sweeping Day, which falls on April 4 this year, is an important date in the Chinese calendar and one that is dutifully observed to ward off bad luck.

On the day, Chinese families visit the graves of relatives to clean tombstones and burn offerings aimed at appeasing the dead in the afterlife, so that they do not come back to harm them.

But this year, many of the shops stocking paper versions of possessions such as “hell notes,” and the more indulgent laptops and digital cameras, say sales are not as brisk as usual.

“Yes, the business has been affected. It’s down about 15 percent from last year,” said Mak Weng Lian whose family has been running the Mak Chin Nam Incense Shop for 60 years.

“Folks are still buying because it’s in our tradition to pay respects to our ancestors, but they’re buying the standard items like shirts and ties and cutting back on some of the unnecessary items like motorcycles,” added Mak’s wife, Wong May Chun.

Ethnic Chinese make up about a third of the 27 million people in mainly Muslim Malaysia, whose export-dependent economy is expected to fall into recession this year on weak global demand.

Ancestor worship has been practiced for thousands of years among Chinese communities and according to tradition, it is the responsibility of the living to ensure the departed are taken care of in the afterlife.

Many Chinese believe burning paper products sends them into the other world for the dead to use.

Mak’s store sells paper cars at 15 ringgit ($4) each, a pair of servants are 18 ringgit, a six-pack of beer costs 2 ringgit while a mansion or bungalow costs up to 35 ringgit.

There are also credit cards issued by The Otherworld Bank.

At Bann Poh Prayer Supplies, also located in Kuala Lumpur’s Pudu market, it’s a similar story.

Proprietor Yew Eng Joo said shoppers are still buying basic items, but they’re also being more thrifty.

“There’s no drop in sales of standard items but the more showy items, like cars and mobile phones are up to individual taste. We’ve seen a drop of about 10 percent in sales,” he said.

But one shopper, who only gave her name as Mrs Lim, said the economic slowdown would not prevent her from fulfilling her duty to her parents this weekend.

“It is our duty to be filial, to observe this tradition because our parents have sacrificed so much to bring us up. We must honor them even after they are gone,” she said, as she picked up a paper umbrella and some paper gold bars.

“I’ve bought more paper money and gold bars so they can buy whatever they like down there. Maybe there’s no recession in hell,” she said jokingly.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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