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Artist's creative products bring loved ones closer to the departed

By LI LEI | China Daily | Updated: 2024-04-05 08:56
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Guo Chaojun makes a creative souvenir to memorialize the deceased at his workshop in Jiangxi province. CHINA DAILY

A hairdresser-turned-artist from Jiangxi province has offered comfort to hundreds of people who've lost loved ones over the past year, by making necklaces and decorations using items such as locks of hair and even ashes.

"The souvenirs allow us to reminisce about our loved ones anytime, anywhere," said Guo Chaojun, who six years ago quit his hairdressing job and started a business with friends hand-making mementos, first for newborns and then for those wanting to remember loved ones that have passed away.

"People don't have to wait for the winter solstice or Qingming Festival to visit graves. Of course, we can follow these traditions, but sometimes, we may not have the time or energy to do so," he said.

In the beginning, Guo's signature products included calligraphy brushes made of baby hair and bracelets decorated with beads made from breast milk, which he sold through channels on social media platforms such as Xiaohongshu, Douyin and Kuaishou.

Guo said the newborn-themed souvenir game was a cutthroat business where "competition turns the water blood red".

The idea to make souvenirs for loved ones of the deceased didn't come to the 45-year-old until 2022, when a colleague's grandfather — to whom he was also close — died.

Guo remembered the man as a good cook, who would treat him and his friends with tasty dishes during their visits on holidays. Guo even planned a trip with the old man to Sanqing Mountain, a local scenic area, which they never made because of pandemic restrictions.

"My colleague and I were both very sad," he said.

To remember his friend and to comfort his colleague, Guo carved the grandfather's portrait on a leaf from an apple tree, which he placed on a blackwood pedestal and adorned with mini-rockeries and plants.

The whole process was shot in footage that Guo posted on his short-video channels, and received hundreds of comments. Some viewers sent Guo messages asking if he could make souvenirs for their deceased family members based on their requests.

After a few trial orders, Guo's team of six quickly stopped making newborn-themed souvenirs and focused solely on products remembering the dead.

"There were so many orders for our new product that we simply had no time to take more orders for newborn-themed souvenirs," he said.

Unlike the "blood red" market of newborn souvenirs, Guo said making souvenirs for the loved ones of the deceased was a "blue ocean", which is vast, deep and powerful — in terms of opportunity and profitable growth. Doing a job that involves death is somewhat a taboo in Chinese traditional culture. That partly explains why well-paid positions such as undertakers and morticians still struggle to find recruits.

Self-identified as an atheist, Guo said he never thought his new business would bring him bad luck.

However, he admitted stopping the original service was partly out of concern that customers might dislike that he sells souvenirs for newborns and the dead at the same time.

Over the past year, he's been confronted with requests as varied as making an impression of a stillborn baby's footprint, and a button from a deceased father's worn-out jacket. He delivered some with customers perfectly fulfilled, and declined others that he doubted he could accomplish.

Guo recalled a girl who sent him strands of her dead mother's hair. Being told the mother loved sunflowers, Guo sketched Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers on a plastic wafer, which he decorated with the hair and sealed with resin. "The girl said she wanted to take the souvenir to a concert of Li Jian, her mother's favorite singer," he said.

He compared his works to the technologies that can animate portraits of the deceased, both of which can provide immense emotional value.

"Be it ashes or peach blossoms, they all eventually become a material, composed of certain elements. For me, they are just that," Guo said.

"However, for the loved ones of the deceased, the mementos hold significant, extraordinary and precious meanings. As I often say, these, like our departed loved ones, take on another form and accompany us."

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