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This San Francisco Shop Sells ‘Luxury’ Goods for the Dead

Sep 01, 2023

In Chinese culture, if you dream about your loved one who has died and they tell you that they have no place to live, you may need to buy a “mansion” for $188 and “send” it to them.

This superstitious practice may strike people raised in other spiritual traditions as peculiar, but many Chinese immigrants are loyal followers of this religion. And in San Francisco Chinatown, a store sells all kinds of “luxury” goods meant to comfort the dead in the next life.

These fancy items are actually paper replicas, or “Zhizha 纸扎” in Chinese. The replica can be anything, such as mini-houses, sports cars, designer bags, fancy wines—even the latest iPads and Apple Watches. The cost may vary, but of course, the paper version is much cheaper than the real one.

The way to send these items to the dead, who now live in the underworld, is by burning them.

Vincent Fung, the manager of Buddha Exquisite Corp. on Jackson Street, is the second-generation owner of this family business, the largest store selling Zhizha in Chinatown.

“We burn these things for our ancestors,” Fung said, explaining that the practice is closely related to Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy that believes in “spiritual immortality,” where the spirit of the body joins the universe after death. “We have these items that they need, just like [in] the life here.”

Traditionally, Chinese people used to burn the “underworld money” to the dead. But now their options include a lot more modern items along with different types of currency, like fake Chinese yuan or ersatz U.S. dollars.

During Ghost Month, the seventh month of the lunar calendar—usually falling in August—it is believed that restless souls and spirits come from the underworld to visit humans. Pointing at stacks of “currency,” Fung said that money is prepared for the ghosts coming to visit you.

The scary festival is also being reimagined for the modern era. This weekend, Chinatown will host a Ghost King parade to boost tourism and local businesses.

Buddha Exquisite Corp. has been in Chinatown for more than two decades. Fung is confident that the tradition will continue because many Chinese cling tightly to their beliefs.

“Some people believe it; they'll stick with it," Fung said. “There's not much preaching going on.”

756 Jackson St., SF415-391-2806Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Han Li can be reached at [email protected]

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