British papers paired joss paper with Chinese New Year recipe – a taboo for Chinese

  • When it comes to Chinese New Year, there are several taboos to be observed – even more than every day.
  • British Sunday papers just insert foot in mouth when it pairs celebratory recipes with incense paper.
The Observer paired CNY recipe with joss paper (Photo source: The Observer [left]/ chineseamericanfamily.com [right])
The Observer paired CNY recipe with joss paper (Photo source: The Observer [left]/ chineseamericanfamily.com [right])

British Sunday paper The Observer’s lifestyle feature on Chinese New Year foods on 16 January has many Asian readers and netizens asking “Who died?”

Headlined “Char siu pork and General Tso’s golden hake – recipes for the lunar new year”, its prop stylist Pene Parker has juxtaposed festive Sichuanese, Cantonese and Taiwanese dishes with joss papers and ancient Chinese coins.

This has sparked both horror and bemusement.  In fact, the gaffe has gone viral, with netizens posting and sharing on both Twitter and Facebook.

South China Morning Post journalist Vivienne Chow tweeted, “TOO stunned to see this in @guardian @ObserverUK Lunar New Year recipes. You most definitely DO NOT pair a LNY dish w joss paper 金銀衣紙 which=hell money you burn for the dead. You DO NOT talk abt death in the New Year! DM me next time if you are unsure …”

She added that the coins used are also for the dead.

Ms Clarissa Wei, an American freelance journalist based in Taiwan, tweeted: “[I]f I accidentally did this arrangement at home, my (albeit super Christian) mom would slap me.”

Former Singapore journalist Stanley Ho’s post on Facebook says The Guardian “believes it’s a great exotic idea”. 


Chinese New Year is the most celebrated festive event by the Chinese all around the world. It is also a time for weird rules and taboos.

The Chinese believe that when it comes to the new year, what you do will affect your luck in the coming year. So, there are many things you should not be doing. For one, you should not be talking about death on the first few days of the new year as it is considered to be inauspicious.

Joss paper or incense paper burnt offerings common in Chinese ancestral worship. Also known as “hell money”, the official currency of the afterlife, the living offer them to dead ancestors by burning or placing them in coffins as a bribe to escape punishment or for the ancestors themselves to use in spending on lavish items in the afterlife.

So in order to write about celebrating the Chinese New Year, the writer and publisher need to observe such taboos. You may say that prop stylist Pene Parker is not Chinese and so may be justified for making the mistake. 

But in today’s age of technology, the Google search engine is at your fingertips, so there is definitely no excuse for an influential newspaper such as The Observer, which is under the Guardian Media group, to commit such a faux pas.  

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