A few years ago, I found myself with an afternoon to kill in San Francisco, so I set off through Chinatown to find myself some Hell money.
I was looking for the fake banknotes which Chinese people burn at funerals or beside a grave to ensure their lost loved one has plenty of spending power in the afterlife.
I started my quest in the tourist shops lining Grant Avenue, but quickly hit a snag. All the young Chinese-American people I found there spoke flawless English, but had no idea what I was talking about when I asked if they sold Hell money. The alternate terms “ghost money” and “spirit money” produced an equally baffled response.
Even where Hell money did seem to ring some kind of vague bell, the young people I questioned had no interest in the subject, and clearly couldn’t understand why anyone would be curious about it.
I tried approaching one or two of the older people I found in the same shops, but their English didn’t stretch much beyond barking the price of various goods at potential customers, so I had no luck there either. But then, at the fifth or sixth shop, I found a charming young teenager who went to fetch her grandfather for me, and stood there translating back and forth as I explained what I was looking for.
His face cracked into a big smile at how daft gweilo tourists could be, and between the two of them they directed me to a store about seven or eight blocks away. This took me well away from Grant Avenue’s main drag to a backstreet where only the area’s native Chinese population went to shop.
The store was the size of a large living room, and staffed by an elderly Chinese man. When I think of it now, I remember a dark interior with dust mites dancing in the odd bit of sunlight that managed to find its way in. The place was crammed with display gondolas, each groaning beneath of the weight of goods piled higgledy-piggledy on its shelves.
In the back corner, I found a section packed with bundles of Hell banknotes in eight different designs. Each bundle was held together with a cellophane band, and contained about 30 or 40 identical notes. This was in 2004, when the cheapest bundle was priced at 35c and the most expensive at 50c. (1)
Next to the notes, I found a display of the paper replica goods Chinese people also burn at funerals, again with the idea of “transmitting” them to loved ones in the afterlife. At this particular shop, mourners could find paper telephones, games consoles, cigarettes and jewellery.
I took a few photographs, then made my selections and took them up to the counter. The old bloke there clearly thought I was mad as well, but we got through the transaction with a selection of smiles and benevolent nods, and that’s how I came by most of the banknotes and all the paper replicas you’ll see illustrating this piece.
A few months later, I repeated the process in London’s Chinatown, again finding it was only the smaller, slightly tattier, shops that could help me.
I didn’t find any paper replicas in London, but I did add a few new Hell notes to my collection, scans of which you’ll find on page three of this article. One day, I hope to find an example denominated in British sterling or (better yet) in Euros, but I haven’t managed it yet.
“Hell money is usually made in Hong Kong, China or Vietnam for the local market,” banknote dealer Joel Anderson told me. “Hong Kong uses dollars, and for a long time the US dollar was the preferred currency in the Far East, so most Hell notes are still denominated in dollars. For a long time, the Chinese yuan was not convertible, so I guess they figured it wouldn’t do them any good when they got to Hell.” (2)