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HONG KONG (Reuters) - At a workshop in an old Hong Kong neighborhood, paper craftsman Ha Chung-kin uses delicate sheets of paper and sticks of bamboo to fashion a huge, expensive boat that will soon be consigned to the flames.
The Hungry Ghosts festival that has prompted Ha's exquisite labors centers on a superstition that the spirits of the dead return to Earth during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, which runs from August 7 to September 4 this year.
Five meters (16 feet) long, Ha's boat is one of numerous paper offerings ordered by Buddhist temples at this time of year, when many Chinese around the world tread more cautiously and make an extra effort to appease the roaming souls.
All kinds of items made of paper - including clothes, "gold" and "silver" ingots, mansions and boats - are burned to ensure the ghosts have enough to tide them over until the next year.
"You can earn a living by making paper crafts," Ha said. "If you are good enough to turn paper into all kinds of things, you can make good money from it."
The paper boat costs HK$35,000 ($4,500) and takes a skilled craftsman 10 days to finish.
But fewer young people are willing to take on the job in Hong Kong after a boom period in the 1980s. Now the city of more than 7 million people has fewer than 10 all-round master craftsmen, Ha says, making it hard to meet demand.
Ha's shop supplies a sizable portion of the paper offerings to the local market. For this year's Hungry Ghosts festival, it had more than 40 orders, some worth more than HK$100,000.
Orders flow in through the year, as paper lanterns and other items feature in many Chinese festivals. Ha's shop also gets busy at Halloween - when Westerners celebrate ghosts, witches and goblins - to make scary items for theme parks and costume parties.
Slimmer profit margins due to competition from the Chinese mainland and long hours are major factors that discourage people from entering the business. At this busy time of year, Ha and his team toil up to 16 hours a day.
Fortunately, Ha's 26-year-old son enjoys the work.
"The fact we can use the materials to make cars, iPhones and other trendy products fascinated me," Sam Ha said as he stuck colorful tassels to the stern of the boat. "It prompted me to create new things so our customers will have more choices."