A worker poses with a paper coffin for pets in Hong Kong
Bobby Yip  /  Reuters
An worker poses with a paper coffin for pets in Hong Kong Wednesday, one day before the opening of an exhibition of paper coffins with a theme of facing death without fear.
By Brian Tracey Associate editor
msnbc.com
COMMENTARY

An exhibition seeking to ease Chinese taboos toward death has opened in Hong Kong this week, featuring environmentally friendly paper coffins and multimedia artwork, including a casket "simulator" giving users a three-minute taste of death.

There was no champagne or glitz at the "Experience Death Through Art" exhibition's opening. Instead, the crowd was dominated by elderly Hong Kongers who sipped Starbucks coffee and milled around the death-themed exhibits.

"I think death education is something that is very meaningful here [in Hong Kong]," said Craig Au Yeung, the curator for the show.

This curatorial vision rubbed off on some elderly visitors as they strolled about a diverse array of open caskets — including a gold-hued Chinese paper coffin, a tiny "pet" coffin and one fashioned out of purple cloth from South Korea.

"I came to appreciate the artwork — after all, in life you've got to die at least once," quipped Fung Yuk-chun, 73.

"The coffins are beautiful, especially the ones from Canada and China," said Tam Wai-ching, an 85-year-old, with a laugh.

One of the highlights of the show, was a chunky black coffin "simulator" giving visitors a chance to clamber inside with the lid down. A short video on death then plays in the darkness, with a sonorous voice asking one to imagine one's own funeral: "Without death, none of our actions have any meaning," it said.

"Most coffins, when you enter them, you can't step back out again. But with ours you can," said Simon Yip, one of several students who created the so-called "Meet in Coffin" project.

"In Chinese culture, death is still a taboo. Of course attitudes have relaxed in the past 10-20 years, but for many people, death is something better left unsaid," Au Yeung said.

Note to our Chinese friends: The topic of being shuffled off this mortal coil isn't usually light-cocktail-party banter in other parts of the world either.


Pork pop tart
Do you love German food, but don't have enough time to fry your own schnitzel? A European firm has come up with a frozen version that can be cooked in a pop-up toaster in just three minutes.

"We came up with them because increasingly people want something that's convenient," said Dietrich Gumppenberg, spokesman for German meat-producer Toennies. "Who has time to go to the trouble of frying something themselves?"

The toasted version is made of pork coated in bread crumbs. It is sold frozen and can be cooked in any toaster in three minutes.

Toennies unveiled the product, which has been two years in the making, at a food and beverage fair in Cologne on Wednesday.

"There has been a great deal of interest," Gumppenberg said, adding that several large grocery chains, including some in China, are considering stocking them. "The schnitzels don't ooze grease or burn when you put them in the toaster."

"But how exactly that works will remain a company secret. We're patenting our invention."

They also better watch out for instant-schnitzel snitches.

Dining with Big Brother
Does service with a scowl put you off at lunch? Will you eat more greens if you are surrounded by plants? Does romantic, pink lighting encourage you to linger over your fruit salad?

A new research center — dubbed the "restaurant of the future" — at the Dutch university of Wageningen hopes to help answer these questions and more by tracking diners with dozens of unobtrusive cameras and monitoring their eating habits.

"We want to find out what influences people: colors, taste, personnel. We try to focus on one stimulus, like light," said Rene Koster, head of the Center for Innovative Consumer Studies, as overhead bulbs switched through green, red, orange and blue.

"This restaurant is a playground of possibilities. We can ask the staff to be less friendly and visible or the reverse," he said. "The changes must be small. If you were making changes every day it would be too disruptive. People wouldn't like it."

The stylish new facility has glass walls, black marble countertops, a polished bamboo floor and self-service devices which allow diners to scan their lunch while they and their trays are weighed by a set of scales built into the floor.

University staff who want to eat at the new restaurant have to sign a consent form agreeing to be watched.

From a control room, researchers can direct cameras built into the ceiling of the restaurant to zoom in on individual diners and their plates. They watch how people walk through the restaurant, what food catches their eye, whether they always sit at the same table and how much food they throw away.

"You're already watched by cameras everywhere like 'Big Brother' so what difference does it make here?" said Bert Visser, a plant scientist eating a chicken sandwich. "Presentation really influences what you choose."

The new research center — which cost almost 3 million euros ($4.26 million) — was set up in partnership with French catering group Sodexho Alliance and other companies interested in using the restaurant to test their products.

We'd being willing to make a reservation just for the opportunity to say:

"Waiter, there's a spy in my soup!"

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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