Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In Case it Rains in Heaven: An interview with Photographer, Kurt Tong

A traditional Chinese belief maintains that the dead need sustenance, shelter and money in their next existence, and it becomes the responsibility of the living to care for their needs.  Paper effigies of bank notes, food, clothing and personal items are burned with the belief that these items become real and can be used by our dead relatives.

The idea that the existence of the dead is very similar to that of the living, that they need food, clothing and shelter, must have a profound effect on how life and death are envisioned and lived out.  They effect the way we live just as a belief that the quality of our after life is determined by our adherence to certain beliefs ,the performance of certain actions in life, or the idea that in death we have no need for food or clothing does.

Photographer, Kurt Tong created a series of images depicting the various paper items currently  available to those who aim to provide for their dead.  This series has been on display in galleries across the world, and is documented in the book 'In Case it Rains in Heaven'.  Mr Tong has graciously agreed to share a conversation about his work on The Daily Undertaker.

Patrick McNally: Today, as you document in your photographs, paper effigies of cellphones, airplanes, designer athletic shoes, and fast food can be found along with more traditional items like joss money servants and houses.   You suggest that the practice of burning paper items may be a form of compensation for a life of hardship and depravation.  What do these high status effigies mean to those who burn them?

Kurt Tong: I can only speak for people of Hong Kong, even though it has been one of the richest city in the world, there is a huge amount of poverty in the city.   The government estimates that nearly 20% of the population live in poverty. People spend their lives living hand to mouth and in tiny apartments. The idea that they can have a mansion, and no more money worries was the driving force behind the traditional effigies; the houses, the money. However, as materialism takes hold of the younger generations and especially in mainland China, often the effigies might be things that they already have had when they were alive, and it’s becomes an extension of enjoying the high life after death. A couple of years ago, there was a businessman who bought a Bugatti veyron at 1.5 million dollars to be burned at his funeral. They had the engine taken out for safety reasons.

PM: Beyond the idea that the dead need sustenance shelter and amusement in the afterlife, items such as umbrellas and rifles,  along with your suggestion that items of value could be used to bribe the authorities, suggest an existence that can be perilous and unfair.  If this is what awaits us after death, what expectation do we have of fairness or safety in life?

KT: I only found out about the bribery aspect of the paper money when I was doing the project, I found that fascinating. It really reflects how bribery is part and parcel of the Chinese society. Let’s face it though, I don’t think life is fair in this life either, and people are rightly voicing their frustrations at the moment. I think bribery happens all over the world in one form or another. Maybe it’s not a wad of cash anymore but it’s still around.

PM: A common translation of the Christian Bible quotes the son of God saying “In my Father’s house there are many mansions (sometimes described as ‘rooms’), I go to prepare a place for you…”  In this light there is a very real similarity to the idea of the dead needing a place of comfort and shelter after death, even if it is provided for them by God.  Additionally, there is the practice in Christianity and especially in Catholicism of praying, petitioning and begging for the favorable treatment of the dead which mirrors in some ways the idea that the living are responsible for the care of their dead in the afterlife, and that authorities in the Christian version of the after life may be susceptible to the influence of the living.  How do you think beliefs such as these and in the Chinese tradition effect the relationship we have with our dead?

KT: From a personal point of view (being a non-religions person) the idea of being able to provide for your loved ones in the afterlife is the perfect extension of the grieving process. It’s comforting for the living to know/think that they can still do something after they died. During my research, I met people who talked of their late husbands coming to their dreams years after they have passed and asking for specific items. It empowers them in some way.

PM: Out of all of the many items available for purchase, what led you to select the items you wanted to photograph?

KT: I initially picked a ranged of items for my grandmother, people are quite sensitive and superstition about the Joss items, so I timed it so that all the items were burned and offered on the anniversary of her death. But then I figured the project should paint a cross section picture of what’s available and how that might represent the society of China, so I went back to get items such as the machine gun and the ipod.

PM: The photographs in this series have been exhibited in galleries across the UK and the States, and are featured in a book, In Case it Rains in Heaven from Kehrer Verlang Publishers.  What kind of reactions have you received from the public and from other artists?

KT: The response to the work has been amazing. On the surface, the project shows a traditional practice that is relatively unknown outside of China. People can take the light-hearted side and funny elements with them. I have also had people crying at the exhibitions, given the space and time, people tend to start thinking about their departed loved ones and what they might need in their afterlife.

PM: Have your thoughts about this practice changed through being involved in this project?

KT: I initially considered it just a superstitious practice but I now believe it’s a great tradition which makes the grieving process just that little bit easier.

PM: What role do you think the arts have to play in helping us come to terms with our inevitable deaths and the overwhelming  unknowns of what lies beyond?

KT: I think making work about death, in whatever form, enables people to talk about it more openly and ease some of the fears and uncertainty around it. 

PM: Thank you for sharing your work and your thoughts with us, Mr. Tong.  For more of Mr Tong's work, visit his website the book is available through Amazon and other retailers.   All images used in this post are the copyrighted property of Kurt Tong.

originally posted Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Charles Cowling said...

"I initially considered it just a superstitious practice but I now believe it’s a great tradition which makes the grieving process just that little bit easier."

Me too. At last it makes sense - perfect sense. For everyone. Thank you for this very helpful interview.

Lenette said...

Mr. Tong just inspired me to light a fire. Thanks for sharing this, Pat.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Contact Me

My photo
Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization. dailyundertaker@gmail.com