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When hungry ghosts appear on Hong Kong streets

WHEN THE SEVENTH lunar month arrives every year, there are many smoky “stoves” on the streets of Hong Kong: the Yu Lan Festival is going to begin. People tell us not to go to Yu Lan Festival venues, where you face the threat of hungry ghosts and wandering spirits who may gather around you.

Some people further tell us that the Shengong opera performed at Yu Lan Festival venues are for the hungry ghosts and wandering spirits.

And the evidence is that the first row of the audience seating area is always left empty.

The front row chairs are left empty, for invisible guests. Picture taken by L Joo at a Hungry Ghosts event in Malaysia


But is the Yu Lan Festival really about threats to people? Activities related to the Yu Lan Festival are held all over the territory during the seventh lunar month. But most of the people are doing such activities as an act of paying their respects to our ancestors and appeasing the dead.

Among them, the Yu Lan Festival of the Chiu Chow community in Hong Kong has a history of almost 120 years, and rituals are conducted according to the tradition of their native places in Chaozhou and Shantou in South China.

For example, there are rituals to help deceased fellow townsmen to go on to an afterlife instead of hanging around in this world.

And people would feed the wandering, homeless spirits, and also offer respects to the deities. The hope is that those ancestors can give them blessings and protection.

The Chiu Chow community has upheld their indigenous tradition to this day by holding the annual Yu Lan Festival activities in more than sixty neighbourhoods in the city. As a result, the festival has become one of the important events popularly observed by local residents in Hong Kong.

Ghost festival events, such as this one in Ping Chau, are performed on the streets. Image by WS227/ Wikimedia Commons

Actually, the word “Yu Lan” came from the Sanskrit “梵文”, and indicates the provision of help to the deceased. It came from a story of a boy who called Mulian who entered hell to save his mum. In the Chinese tradition, hell would open its gates at the start of July and close it again at the end of July. Today, the Yu Lan Festival has become one of China’s Intangible Cultural Heritages, appearing on the National and Provincial List.

Mulian entered the land of the afterlife to save his mother. In some versions of the story, Mulian asked Satan to take his mean-spirited mother to Hell but then felt guilty and entered the after life to take her place. (Picture from a 19th century scroll, part of the KE Brashier collection at Reed College)

In Hong Kong, there are at least 60 organizations which will organize this event every year. Most of them are in Kwung Tong, Kowloon City and Sham Shui Po, which are old districts. There will be a ritual which is used to invite the gods to come to our world, and provide blessings. This event is like a parade which moves along the streets around temples. As well as invitations to the gods, some Chinese operas are held in different districts. And finally, the people who join the events can get a bag of rice as a mark of being kept safe.

These days, some of the events are treated in many districts as charity work in which daily necessities are sent to elderly people. Many charity organizations will raise donations of items such as rice, oil, biscuits, noodles and even drinks, to give to older people.

The Yu Lang Festival is now often used as an opportunity to show kindness to the elderly in society; image by Alison Pang/ Unsplash

Although doing these acts can be treated as expressions of kindness, they may violate the original meaning of this event. The giving out of rice and oil originally meant that the people present who get the items will always have enough food to eat and things to use.

So the question we have to think about is whether the Yu Lan festival is only used to commemorate the deceased, or can be used as an opportunity to do charity work to benefit more people in society.

Au Chi Kin is Deputy Director of the Research Center of Chinese History at Shue Yan University on Hong Kong Island.

LINKS: For more interesting essays on Chinese culture and history, click here.

Image at the top is Midnight Rituals by Kenneth Leung Chee Keung/ Wikimedia Commons

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