It’s currently ghost month in Hong Kong, the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar (August 3rd-31st in 2016). Ghosts fearsome and friendly roam among us. The gates of hell are open allowing restless spirits to haunt the living and the gates of heaven have also been thrown wide allowing benevolent spirits to visit family. In 2011, the ghost month was listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage. In Hong Kong, the occasion has been closely associated with the Chiu Chow community for over 100 years and is very tangible. All over the city roadside fires are lit, bamboo stages are erected for Chinese opera performances and lion dances.The peak in festivities occurs on the 15th day, (August 17th, 2016) which is the Yu Lan or Hungry Ghost Festival. The first sign of ghost month is people tending roadside fires where they burn joss sticks (incence), candles and paper replicas of material goods to send them to relatives on the other side. Paper offerings range from hell money (faux banknotes) and paper gold ingots to paper versions of houses, cars, domestic helpers, the latest iPads, iPhones, designer handbags, brandy and cigarettes. Food including fruit, pastries and meat is also left out to feed the hungry ghosts.
In past years we’ve seen a bamboo structure hung with colourful flags, fabric and paper pop up overnight on Staunton Street, near the intersection with Aberdeen Street in Sheung Wan. A few days later, before we had a chance to examine it, it would disappear. Last year I was determined to work out what was going on, and found that Walk in Hong Kong run a Hungry Ghost Festival Special Walk in Sheung Wan which ended at this very spot to see the burning of the King of Hell. With a description like that, how could I resist.
The tour covers sickness and death in Hong Kong, the 1894 plague, and the history and roles of hospitals, cemeteries and temples. It was fascinating though slightly spooky to be walking the streets of Hong Kong at night, potentially surrounded by ghosts. Finally we arrived at the hot, smoky and noisy Staunton street site where the King of Hell awaited his firey demise.
Many people stopped to pay their respects, burn a joss stick or leave an offering at this ancestral altar.
Taoist priests in bright yellow robes and black hats chanted liturgies.
The structure was hung with flags, fabric and lights. Sacks of paper ingots and offerings would all burn at the end of the night.
Beside the structure stood paper models of the Eight Immortals, Chinese saints. These too would be burnt later in the night.
The heat and smoke came from several fire sheds where for days now locals had been burning offerings. Our guide distributed small pieces of gold paper and showed us how to fold them into an ingot shape which we threw into the flames. As we waited for the burning of the King of Hell, our guide ran us through ghost month dos and don’ts:
- Do visit temples or churches to pray for the deceased.
- Do feed ghosts with offerings outside the home. (Done)
- Do keep the lights on at home, and on balconies or other outside areas as ghosts lurk in the shadows.
- Do sprinkle rock salt on the floor outside your front door as spirits fear it.
- Don’t disturb offerings left out for the spirits.
- Stay away from trees and walls which harbour spirits and especially don’t wee on them, as it will offend the spirit living inside. (We’d been leaning on walls all through the tour.)
- Stay away from quiet paths too, as ghosts like to target those who are alone.
- Don’t swim, the ghost of a drowned person might pull you under the water. (Whoops, we’ve been swimming all month.)
- Don’t take photos at night in case you capture a spirit. (See any in these pictures?)
- Don’t leave external doors open at night. It is an invitation for ghosts to enter.
- Don’t leave clothes outside to dry. A ghost may try them on and leave behind its negative energy.
- Don’t whistle, as it is a signal that gathers spirits who’ll follow you home.
- Don’t talk to yourself, as ghosts might think you are inviting them to talk. (“Do I talk to myself?” I muttered.)
- Don’t talk about ghosts during their special month because it may cause offence. (Does this article count?)
- Don’t react to bizarre sounds or smells or turn and answer if you hear someone calling you from behind, as this is a ghost trick to possess you. (What counts as a bizarre sounds or smells in the Fragrant Harbour?)
- Don’t pick up coins as any dropped coins belong to the two guards of the underworld, “Cow Head” and “Horse Face” who need to be bribed in order to enter the mortal realm.
- Don’t wear red or black, especially don’t paint your nails black as you will be recognised as a ghost. (I wore a red shirt on the tour.)
- Don’t get married duing ghost month – you won’t live happily ever after.
This enormous blue faced effigy is Taai Si Wong, the King of Ghosts/King of Hell. As leader of the Hungry Ghosts, he keeps a notebook and acts as the “policeman” for the festival to ensure that the ghosts are behaving and that everything has been completed properly. The effigy is burnt with the eight immortals and all the hell money to send all back to hell when the Hungry Ghost Festival has ended.
An interesting twist in the Staunton street festival was watching the bearers drag the King of Hell onto the ground and beat the heck out of him with bamboo poles. Our guide tells us that one year after the festival all the bearers fell sick, so to prevent this from happening again, the King of Hell is given a beating. He is then skewered on the poles and carried to the fire.
And boy does he burn.