The most popular legend has it that zealous Christian missionaries warned all non-Christian Chinese they'd "go to Hell" upon death.
Hell Bank Notes come bundled in various numbers, depending on the currency. The paper ranges from smooth and thin to coarse and thick. The huge denomination notes were printed on low-grade paper — cardboard-like in consistency — such as this $2 billion note.
It doesn't matter, as they're made to be burned. The Chinese believe that when someone dies, his spirit goes to the afterlife, where it lives on, doing much the same things it did in life. Surviving relatives want to send gifts to make the afterlife as comfortable as possible. Aside from intricate paper objects such as houses, cars, clothing, watches, mobile phones, appliances and even domestic helpers, Hell Bank Notes are most popular. Burning sends them on their way.
Another delivery method is to toss it in the air during the funeral procession or leave it on the grave of the deceased any time one desires. A dead person needs some spending cash, right? Some believe burning Hell Money distracts evil spirits that would take the other goodies for themselves if given the chance. While they chase the cash, the valuable goods pass in safety to the intended relative.
What kills me is the notes come in such a huge variety of denominations: everything from one cent up to billions of dollars. This means one of two things: either everyone in the afterworld is wealthy beyond imagination and lives in lavish luxury, or inflation is staggering. Maybe the dead need a single $1 billion bill to buy a loaf of bread, rather like the 1923 German Reichsmark. Ouch!
Legend has it he was once a living Chinese Emperor. As a reward for his great leadership, he earned the right to reign over the afterworld. He's shown wearing a beard and a flat-topped hat with beads hanging from the front and back.
Sometimes these buildings are adorned with dragons or foo-dogs, and sometimes only the animals appear.
Foo Dogs are not just the protectors of sacred buildings, they're placed in front of government buildings, businesses, homes and estates to frighten away evil spirits. Perhaps they are guarding the Bank of Hell.
Only the fronts of these notes are shown, as their backs are identical to the three already shown.
Most of the Hong Kong-made notes are colourful and pretty. Some notes make an attempt to look like real money, with serial numbers, signatures and bank chops.
Many notes are fanciful and filled with loads of Chinese symbolism. The $50,000 note depicts a carp with a golden bowl strapped to its back. The bowl is filled with traditional Chinese gold ingots, polished red coral and ancient gold coins.
The carp is special because the Chinese word for fish sounds similar to have something left over (meaning extra spending cash). Often the carp will be shown in pairs or being held by children: symbols of good luck.
This $500 note is based upon real Hong Kong currency, in its shades of brown and in its choice of numerals. Instead of showing the temple on the back, this note has the Hong Kong Governor's mansion on the face.
The $100 note multiplies the Emperor of the Afterworld. Considering the word for four is a homonym of the Chinese word for death, which is viewed as bad luck, it's odd the note was drawn with four Lords of Hell.
The $10 note returns to a more colourful state. It depicts three more common themes in Hell Bank Notes, that of the junk, the phoenix and a pair of thistles. The phoenix is said to foretell good luck.
Though the bank of the note is drab, it features another common element, that of the Ch'i Lin, sometimes known as the dragon horse. It's said to promote luck, prosperity, success, longevity and best of all, grand success to one's descendants. In a sense, burning Hell Bank Notes with this creature on them should result in a boomerang of blessings — should you be the descendant, that is.
Check Chinese stores in any major city. If they don't carry it, chances are they'd know where you could get it. If you live in a smaller town, you'll have a more difficult time locating it.
By now you should have a good feel for Hell Bank Notes. Whenever you encounter them, you'll recognise them.
And if someone ever tells you to go to Hell, you can tell them you're looking forward to it.