In Regard to Filial Duties Performed in Stairwells.

Being that it’s Chinese New Year, and filial-minded Chinese everywhere are either fulfilling – or planning to fulfill – their duty to honor passed relatives by burning ghost money, I thought I’d share an email received over the weekend from a friend in Shanghai.

3:45 this afternoon and I’ve just wakened from a nap, still lazing on the bed with [W] and… I smell smoke. I ask her, but she’s sure I’m just my dopey self. A few more minutes and… yep, that’s smoke, and even my wife is up now. First I think it’s our heat pump giving way and the compressor is burning up but, nope, nothing in the room but the smell of smoke and a glance outside the window shows the heat pump operating as well as it can in below freezing weather. I open the apartment door and the smell is unmistakable, there’s the smell of smoke and it seems to be coming from the apartment next door. I put on my shoes with wife now nervously shouting behind me to hurry (am I that dumb? I need to be told to move faster?) and take the elevator 13 floors downstairs (In Case of Fire Do Not Use the Elevators) and tell the guy on duty in the lobby there’s smoke on our floor. He grabs a walkie-talkie, I thought it was a flashlight so you can understand my state of mind, and we go back up in the elevator (will flames lick through the doors?) to the 13th floor and, yep, smoke alright. He’s on the walkie-talkie pounding the apartment door, rattles the cowbell they use as a door knocker but no one’s home, so he leaves to go back downstairs and find out their phone numbers. Some while passes, the smell of smoke is still there, we’re in our apartment wondering just how severe this will be, and after some while longer someone pounds on our door. Breathlessly my wife opens expecting to see the fire department, but it’s only the building management telling us someone on the 7th floor was burning paper money in the stairwell.

The old woman who lives next door to my Shanghai apartment likes to burn ghost money in the hallway in front of my door – and our relationship suffers badly because of it. Just to be clear: I think the burning of ghost money is a wonderful, beautiful tradition. It’s just that I have issues with doing it indoors. Last Spring, in advance of the tomb sweeping festival, China Daily did a piece on internet-related means of honoring relatives. Given, electrons speeding to the router aren’t as otherworldly as smoke rising to heaven, but at least one is safe to do indoors.


  1. And it happened again today, Friday, 28 March, Shanghai time, ghost money burned in the stairwell (probably 20th floor) but this time calling forth two fire trucks, fireman in full gear with respirators, and a large crowd of the idle and curious. The management company now seems less tolerant.

  2. No ghost money pyres by the neighbors but they burn some other things that dont add to the quality air I breathe.

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