Flames of desire

The Chinese custom of burning replicas of coveted items at ancestors’ graves inspires Jonathan Margolis to pick the gadgets he would spirit to his late, technophile father to bring him bang up to date

December 11 2012
Jonathan Margolis

It will not amaze too many people that my father was a gadget man. Apart from his ham-radio hobby, which ensured that I had a soldering iron in my hand and was making simple radios, burglar alarms and so on by the time I was 11, he was also a devil for novel domestic appliances.

I remember a popcorn maker in the conservatory and a peeling machine in the kitchen that was powered by the cold tap and whizzed potatoes round in an abrasive interior until they ended up skinless but also mostly flesh-less, as it reduced them to the size of pebbles. We had transistor radios before most people had heard of them. My older brother recalls an early Pye set-top box with a big, brown knob to convert BBC-only sets to receive the new ITV station, which started the year I was born. And we both remember a hilarious – and fabulously useless – early telephone answering machine that physically lifted the receiver with a mechanical arm, played the caller a recorded announcement and asked for a message to be left.

My father died in 1973, however, so missed out on our golden age of technology. For the nearly 40 years he has been gone, I have had recurrent dreams in which I show him all the amazing gadgets we have today. He would be 89 now, and whenever I come across an older person who is into technology, such as the 91-year-old I met in Arizona recently who had multiple iPads, iPhones and iMacs, I have to confess I get a pang; our dad would have loved all this stuff, and doubtless driven us nuts asking day and night for technical support. Would it were.

So it was my father who came to mind during a recent lazy Sunday in Hong Kong with my youngest daughter, when we stumbled on a rare source of cardboard iPads. Perhaps I should explain. We had both recently watched the Channel 4 documentary – Gok Wan: Made in China, in which the TV presenter sets out to rediscover his Hong-Kong roots. In the programme, we learnt about the Chinese tradition of burning cardboard replicas of consumer goods at ancestors’ graves. The idea is to provide dead relatives with the kind of comforts – from washing machines to cash – that one might need in the afterlife, but find to be lacking.

Ellie and I thought these cardboard offerings were rather cool for novelty presents and that we would try to buy some. We hadn’t had much luck finding a supplier, though, until out at Shau Kei Wan, on our way to Shek O beach, my daughter spotted a shop across the road that she was sure was the one where Gok Wan had bought the replica goods to burn at his grandparents’ grave. She seemed to be right, too; if it wasn’t the same place that we had seen on television, it was very similar. So later, on the way back from the beach, we stopped by and filled a bag with cardboard iPhones, iPads, laptops, credit cards, money… everything a modern ghost might need. We would have bought a Bentley and a house as well, if they hadn’t been too big to take back to London.

And it was as we left the Wing Lee store that I had the notion of taking a cardboard iPad to my father’s grave to burn. OK, I love China, but I haven’t quite adopted traditional Chinese ways, yet. And, no, I don’t really think an incinerated cardboard iPad would somehow rematerialise in some ethereal dimension where my gadget-hungry old man was hanging out these days. And, since you wonder, no, I haven’t actually done it yet. So my idea was probably some way between a sentimental, and I hope rather sweet, gesture and the manifestation of a deep desire to show my father what’s been happening, technology-wise, since he’s been away.  

Which, mulling this over a couple of weeks later, got me thinking: if I suddenly discovered that my dad had rematerialised just in time for Christmas, what techie presents – four things, let’s say – would I buy to get him up to speed with the modern age?

The first, I’ve decided, would be a digital camera. He was a keen amateur photographer and always had a Leica or similar on the go. His favourite ever camera, though, apart from a 1940s Speed Graphic press model (still occasionally seen on eBay for a few pounds) was a Swedish Hasselblad 500c, which, when he bought it in the mid-1960s, cost £400. So top Christmas present this year would have to be a Hasselblad. The company is in the process of expanding its range to include more consumer models, but I would go for the one most like his 500c, the professionally oriented H4D-200MS, which, with the useful 35-90mm f4-5.6 lens, comes out at just under £30,000. I’ve played with this and it’s extraordinary, shooting pictures at 200 megapixels and achieving definition many times better than the finest film. I will have to warn dad, however, that at the highest resolution, it needs to be plugged into a powerful laptop. Note to self: remember to explain to him what a laptop is.

His next present would be something that allows him to enjoy an endless supply of films on TV. I suspect he would find the idea of on-tap movies (especially viewed on a decent 50-inch screen) the closest thing to magic technology had come up with. But I also think he, like his younger son, would find online download services simpler and more delightful than whole-house media servers that have to be pre-loaded with hundreds of films. So I would opt for the simplest and, for me, most elegant portal available for the online film world, the £99 Apple TV. There is a danger that even with the combined resources of the iTunes film library and Netflix, he still wouldn’t find enough truly awful 1950s cowboy films, but the tens of thousands of movies he would still have to choose from should keep him happy.

The mobile-phone question has exercised me a bit. The concept of portable telephones would delight him, but I think he would find even the best smartphones too fiddly and confusing. Also, coming from the age when ringing people up was the main communication method (something I find only older people, non-westerners and the powerful and wealthy now do), he would love a really good model for calls. Which has led me to the £4,100 Vertu Ascent – specifically the aluminium finish, with stainless-steel keys and orange vulcanised rubber. I was as sceptical as anyone about ultra-quality mobiles when Vertu started out over a decade ago, but its designs are getting ever closer to my taste, and I think my father would treasure and admire his Ascent, as one should, like a fine watch.

Finally, my dad – like me – was a great one for extreme convenience, no matter what effort is needed to achieve it. So I have a hunch that a product I spotted when I took my godson to Legoland last year would appeal to him. Alfie and I came off a ride together soaking wet and found they have walk-in-whole‑body dryers made by a British company, Haystack Dryers. I got very excited by the idea of no longer having to use a towel after a shower. Haystack mostly supplies places such as theme parks, but its one‑person £4,500 Breeze machine fits in a big bathroom. It may not be that high-tech, but I think my dad would agree that it is close to the ultimate luxury. It’s not available in cardboard, sadly.