Frank Hann (韓定) knew his wife's father was sick and that the time to buy him a house was quickly approaching. He spent some time looking at what the market had to offer, but didn't like the generic designs he saw. After failing to find the ideal home, he struck on an idea: he should build one himself.
Hann realized this was risky because he had no idea how to go about it and knew that he was breaking from Taiwanese tradition. To pull it off, he would have to involve the entire family, especially his mother-in-law.
With a relatively stable economy and changing consumer habits, Taiwanese like Hann are demanding greater variety in the paper houses traditionally burned at funerals. To his surprise, the whole family got involved, and they eventually decided to build a small structure that resembled a hot spring because Hann's father-in-law had always dreamed of visiting Japan's hot springs. Poverty when he was younger and frail health before he died, however, made visiting Japan impossible. Soon after its completion, the family burnt it, sending it to the spirit world.
"This assuaged our regret at not being able to send my father-in-law to Japan when he was alive," Hann said in an interview with the Taipei Times. In the afterworld, Hann added, his father-in-law will be able to bathe in the hot spring whenever he wants.
During the process of searching for and eventually building the hot springs, Hann discovered that others were dissatisfied with the available selection of paper houses. Further investigation revealed to the marketing professional that perhaps personalized paper models were a niche market that hadn't been tapped. After drawing up a business plan and interesting six other investors, Skea (台灣燒趣王, www.skea.com.tw) opened for business in August.
A centuries-old tradition
Burning paper models - from Mercedes-Benz cars to houses - is a common practice at funerals in Taiwan. As many Taiwanese people believe the world spirits go to in the afterlife is a mirror of the human world, they also believe that the departed require a place to live, food to eat and money. Burning an object at a funeral in the human world transports it to the spirit world, which keeps the ghost of the departed happy and brings luck to the living.
"The tradition can be traced back to the Tang dynasty," says Tseng Kuang-hsing (曾光興), owner of Jixing Paper Art Co (吉興紙藝有限公司). Tseng began building paper model houses 40 years ago when he was 16 - a time, he says, when the industry was dominated by Taoist monks and priests.
Tseng oversees a staff of six employees at two different workshops on a narrow street in eastern Taipei. In the older of the two workshops, three craftspeople build traditional paper houses using long strips of bamboo for the structure and large pieces of paper with different patterns that can be found at any temple in Taiwan.
Deities from the Chinese pantheon adorn the larger of the paper houses, which range in price from NT$3,000 to NT$30,000. "The older generation prefers this kind of style," Tseng said, adding that it typically takes two days to construct the larger models.
Across the street at Tseng's second workshop, younger staff assemble more refined houses. Considerably smaller than the traditional houses, there are two- and three-story mansions (NT$25,000 and NT$55,000, respectively) as well as a Japanese-style bungalow (NT$20,000). These houses take between seven and 10 days to complete. There are no bamboo frames supporting these houses. Instead, the interior of each resembles that of a suburban North American home. Each room is meticulously designed and crafted. Some, for example, have armoires in front of a fireplace, a canopy bed in the master bedroom or a kitchen complete with refrigerator and stove.