A Spooky Month in Hong Kong
While walking along the streets or alleyways of Hong Kong at night in the past few weeks, have you noticed any local people burning incense, joss paper or making ritualistic food offerings? Sometimes they can be hard to miss.
What they are doing is appeasing the lost souls and random spirits who have been forgotten by their families. These street-side offerings are used to prevent these lost souls from entering homes and businesses as their spiteful nature could cause trouble, even when they are fed. Please be careful not to kick the altars or any food offerings, in case you anger any wandering spirits and provoke them into playing pranks on the living. You need to show them respect and allow them to eat in peace.
When next you see people burning incense or leaving food offerings on the pavement, you will know it is Ghost Month (鬼月, pronounced gwai yut), often called the “Hungry Ghost” Festival or “Yu Lan” Festival here in Hong Kong. The whole seventh lunar month is regarded as a ghostly one, where spirits come out from the underworlds and realms beyond. On the first day of the lunar month, all realms open – heaven, hell, ours on Earth – and deceased ancestors come to visit their living descendants. The 15th day of the lunar month is considered the apex of the festival period. On this day, it is believed that the bridge between the living and the dead is strongest.
Hungry Ghost Festival traditions are all about appeasing the lost souls wandering among the living during the length of Ghost Month. People honor their departed ancestors, with food and drink being offered at night inside homes. Families ask for their ancestors’ blessings as they believe the dead are looking after them in spiritual form. Tables are set with empty seats strictly reserved for the deceased. No one is allowed to sit in them. Besides offering food or burning incense, joss paper or hell money, paper effigies of things that their ancestors may need or enjoy in the afterlife, such as clothing, food, favorite packs of cigarettes, iPads and even luxury items such as sports cars and even mansions are often burnt as offerings – and in some cases handmade paper vaccinations!
Another form of appeasement is providing free entertainment for the wandering spirits. Many communities set up temporary outdoor stages for Chinese (Cantonese) opera and singing and dance performances throughout the Ghost Month. These performances are particularly popular with the living as well, especially in rural communities where live entertainment is not so common. One important point to note should you ever choose to attend is that you should never sit in the front row. These seats are strictly reserved for the ghosts. All are invited, but just don’t sit in the empty front row seats reserved for the ghosts.
On the last day of the month (6-September this year), the Gates of Hell close and monks chant to let the spirits know it is time to return to the underworld for another year. To celebrate this, many people release paper lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers or boats on water, to signify guiding the spirits back home.
This is not the only time of year that Chinese people pay tribute to their ancestors. This also occurs during the Ching Ming Festival (Qingming or “Tomb Sweeping Day”, in spring) and Double Ninth (Cheung Yeung, in autumn). However, the Ghost festival is special because it is the only time the deceased are believed to visit the living. Unlike Ching Ming and Cheung Yeung, the Yu Lan Ghost Festival is not a public holiday in Hong Kong. The Ghost Festival (called Zhongyuan in Taoism, Yulanpen in Buddhism, and informally known as the Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong) can trace its roots back 2000 years to Taoist and Buddhist origins. It was named part of China’s intangible cultural heritage. During the festival, it is recommended that you not wear black or red, as these colors attract ghosts. There are actually quite a few superstitious beliefs related to this festival and this link gives a summary of some of the more interesting.
How Other Cultures Celebrate
Many Southeast Asian countries with significant Chinese populations (like Singapore or Malaysia) share similar Ghost Festival rituals. Around the world, many cultures have festivals intended to honor the dead. Although they don’t last a whole month like the one here in Hong Kong and China, these celebrations can be jovial, spiritual, occasionally sinister but rich in their uniqueness.
In Japan, the Obon (or just Bon) Festival was introduced through Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) together with the Ullambana Festival. On this day, dead ancestors are believed to return to their living families, and people also perform Bon Odori, or a Bon dance, to welcome the spirits and pay homage to their sacrifices on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. However, the Japanese now celebrate it on a fixed date in mid-August. They also create food offerings called syouryouuma, (しょうりょううま) which are sculptures of cucumbers or eggplants with wooden stick legs made to resemble a horse or cow as transportation for the spirits to travel to the other world.
The word “Gai” means cow in English. In the Hindu religion, the cow is a spiritual animal and regarded as the goddess of wealth. “Jatra” in the Nepali language means street festival making the celebration of Gai Jatra a public and community affair. Gai Jatra (Festival of Cows) is a festival of dancing, singing, mirth and laughter and usually falls in August or September. According to local beliefs, it is the day that souls can enter the world of the dead without having to go through the suffering of multiple rebirths. Families with relatives that passed away must parade through the street leading a cow. Families without a cow would let a boy dressed as a cow lead instead. It is believed that cows can lead the way for the departed to heaven. Sharing sorrow and taking the comfort in knowing that their lost ones are safe is the true reason for celebrating this festival.
In Indonesia, there is an ancestor worship festival called Ma’nene. It is aptly known as “The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses” because that is exactly what they do. Every three years, for more than 900 years, the people of Lembang Paton Village dig up the mummified bodies of their loved ones to clean them, dress them in new clothes and then rebury them.
Pchum Ben is a two-week Buddhist holiday, three days of which are a public holiday in Cambodia. Similarly, Pchum Ben is the time when the veil between the living and dead realms is considered to be at its flimsiest, enabling the hungry ghosts to walk about freely. As with other festivals of the dead, food is offered to the souls of the departed, who it is thought return to earth to both connect with their loved ones and atone for past sins. White is the Cambodian color of mourning and to show respect during the time of Pchum Ben (usually in September or October), people dress in white.
Dia de los Muertos
You can’t talk about global festivals of the dead without mentioning Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Only after watching the Disney film Coco, did I learn and start to pay attention to how the dead are honored in other non-Asian cultures. It is typical of most Latin American customs to combine indigenous rituals with Catholicism that was brought to the region by the Spanish. Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, both of which are minor holidays in the Roman Catholic calendar (usually on the 1st of November).
Believing that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos (beginning on October 31 and ending on November 2) celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drinks, parties, and other activities that the dead would enjoy. It is done with family and friends coming together, to remember and pray for loved ones who have died, to support their spiritual journeys. Death is recognized as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and adulthood, where he or she can become a contributing member of the community. During these days, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.
The most familiar symbol of this festival is the calacas 和 calaveras (skeletons and skulls), which appear everywhere during the holiday. They can be seen as sweets, parade masks, dolls and as make-up on people’s faces. Calacas 和 calaveras are almost always portrayed as enjoying life, often dressed up in fancy clothes and placed where any form of entertainment is taking place.
To be honest, after having lived in Los Angeles for over four years, I felt quite embarrassed discovering I knew nothing about Dia de los Muertos. I guess that is because it is so close to Halloween which falls on October 31 every year. Halloween has become so popular and so commercialized and with both children and adults enthusiastically dressing up in costumes, attending parties, visiting haunted houses and trick and treating for candy, I was easily distracted! Its origins go back to the Celtic festival of Samhain when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts.
In contrast to the colorful and festive celebrations of the Dia de los Muertos and Halloween, Germany and Switzerland observe a Protestant religious holiday, called Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead) which is a far more somber affair. In fact, it is often known as “Silent Day” where dancing and playing music in public is forbidden. It is considered a day of remembrance, on which those who honor the occasion will typically pay a visit to the graves of their deceased loved ones.
As we have seen from the above, many cultures around the world have their own ways of honoring the dead. There are still many more like Pitru Paksha and Vijayadashami in India, and Thursday of the Dead in the Mediterranean which deserve a quick mention. Even though all these celebrations often share similar rituals, practices, dates and religious origins, they can also be unique in their choices of colors, food, music and the way they celebrate the lives of the departed. However, the one special thing they all have in common is that they serve to bring families together, to remember loved ones and rekindle often ancient customs.
Isn’t it fun to explosre different culture around the world? Immerse Language Institute is dedicated to make your language learning journey rich and fun. We emphasize cultural sharing in our courses, of course, not all have to be spooky. Contact us for more information.