Who are these ghosts and what are they hungry for?
The first rule of the Hungry Ghost Festival is don’t talk about the Hungry Ghost Festival. Seriously. If you want to stay lucky and avoid offending the spirits then no ghost chat for the whole of the seventh lunar month. However, today is actually the 15th day of the seventh lunar month so if you’ve been slagging off the spirits since 22nd August, which is when the gates of hell opened, then the damage is probably already done and you may as well keep reading.
During this month, restless souls roam the earth haunting the living but it is also a time for benign spirits to visit their families for feasting and fun. The restless spirits are generally considered to be those that were not ready to leave the earth, those who did not get a proper burial or those seeking revenge for those who wronged them in life. The festivities come to a head tonight when after two weeks of wandering the earth the ghosts are, understandably, ravenous. Food offerings (keep these outside of your home unless you want otherworldly intruders) represent a feast for your ancestors but also serve to appease those other wandering spirits and it is very bad juju to sweep these offerings up.
If you are in Hong Kong you may already have seen some of the other rituals associated with the festival which is celebrated by the Chiu Chow community in particular. At this time of year, health and safety take a break and it is commonplace to find people burning paper in cans curbside in the middle of densely populated residential streets. Hell money and paper goods are burned as offering for ancestors, visit the shops along Queen’s Road West to find everything to treat your dearly departed from paper sneakers and hairdryers to paper ‘designer’ bags and cars.
One of the highlights of the festival is Chinese opera. Usually held in swiftly constructed, yet impressive, temporary bamboo theatres, these are a colourful way to experience some of the city’s living culture. Check out the theatre built every year under the Hill Road flyover for a real Blade Runner moment, and if you see empty chairs at the theatre, let them be, those are for the ghosts.
A few more tips to avoid being haunted by hungry ghosts:
- Don’t go swimming. Previously drowned evil ghosts might pull you under.
- Kids are easily possessed so they should come home early and avoid wandering alone at night (although that’s probably a good tip for kids year-round).
- Don’t pick up anything from the street (including money) and especially don’t bring it home.
- Don’t whistle after sunset, this can attract ghosts.
- Stay away from walls (ghosts apparently congregate on walls).
Good luck out there!