Tradition of tragedy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 September, 2005, 12:00am

Alarmed home affairs officials were scratching their heads about what to do when an elderly woman died after queuing at a rice handout during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

The annual month-long rice handouts by neighbourhood charity groups have been much criticised because hundreds, even thousands, of elderly inevitably show up for the 'blessed' rice at each giveaway, causing long queues, frequent chaos and occasional injuries in the summer heat.

But the incident on September 2 was by far the most serious in recent memory, when an 82-year-old woman collapsed and later died after waiting in a queue at Kowloon Park, Tsim Sha Tsui. So far this year, there have been at least 35 - mostly minor - injuries at the events run by more than 60 charity groups.

The fatality has put the charity organisations on the defensive and compelled the government, at least for a short time, to consider imposing an outright ban on the practice, long criticised as a form of torture for the elderly.

Choi Hin-to, president of the powerful Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organisations which helps co-ordinate charity and neighbourhood groups across the city, went in front of TV cameras to declare: 'Some people and a section of the media have accused us of trying to torture old people by making them wait in long queues in hot weather. This is completely false and untrue. The rice handouts are nothing but a show of respect for old people.'

Last Monday, Yiu Yau-hung, who has helped organise rice handouts in the Western district for more than three decades, went with Mr Choi and other representatives of more than 60 charity and neighbourhood groups for an emergency meeting with Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping.

'There was not a single injury or collapse at our handout event on August 26,' Mr Yiu said. 'That was a real breakthrough - zero injuries, but you don't get reported for doing things right.

'Look at my hair - it's turned white because I spent so much time worrying and thinking about ways to minimise risk and make it comfortable for elderly people to collect their handouts.'

After the meeting, Dr Ho said that no concrete agreement had been reached, but both sides had agreed to work together to improve safety and comfort at future events.

In reality, the groups scored a victory by compelling Dr Ho to declare support for the festival and its rice handouts, and by pouring cold water on various government reform proposals, such as delivering the rice directly to the homes of pre-registered elderly and passing out rice coupons for the old people to collect rice packs at their leisure.

They argue the festival has a long history, represents a significant local religious tradition, and serves as a tourist attraction. Beside the handouts, there are also stage performances based on myths associated with the festival, and other religious ceremonies and offerings.

Rice charities generally look on the queuing problem as a matter of crowd control for the police and other volunteers to handle.

Dr Ho appeared to have conceded to all their key points. After Monday's meeting, he said that there would be no ban, that this was a tradition that deserved government support, and that he would work with police and other government departments to manage the crowds better in future.

'The bureau under Ho generally supports public events with a long local tradition, especially those with tourist appeal,' a Home Affairs Bureau official said on condition of anonymity.

The official cited the example of the revived Cheung Chau bun scramble, which was resumed in May this year at the football pitch in front of the Pak Tai temple. It was banned in 1978 after 100 climbers and onlookers were injured when a bamboo tower collapsed.

Contestants now climb using ropes and steel towers, instead of without ropes up bamboo towers. Dr Ho went to great lengths to promote the bun scramble as a tourist attraction, and for a while even tried to promote it as a regular sports event.

Government officials have a remarkable tolerance for traditions with questionable safety records. Another dangerous tradition is grave sweeping during Ching Ming Festival, in April. The day-long event causes traffic congestion at major cemeteries across the city, uses up manpower and causes hundreds of potentially deadly hill fires each year, resulting in extensive damage to surrounding areas.

The Security Bureau could not provide a breakdown of the hectares of land destroyed and the number of hill fires started during Ching Ming. There also seems to have been remarkably few prosecutions, despite the fact that in many cases police and district officers would have a good idea about those responsible from prominent clans in established New Territories and island villages.

Even the poor old wishing tree at Tai Po, perhaps getting its own back for the tonnes of oranges hurled at it over the years, injured a 62-year-old man and a four-year-old boy when a sagging branch collapsed under the weight of citrus bushels.

The tree is now fenced off, which is no problem for the tourists, but some old locals apparently are much harder to convince. Hang the plight of the centuries-old tree - this is tradition, after all.

But some old traditions are a little deceptive. Despite all the talk about old customs and history, the Hungry Ghost Festival is actually relatively new. According to Chinese University historian Cheung Sui-wai, the event started in the second half of last century with refugees, especially those from Chiu Chow and Huizhou .

'The festival aims to appease two groups - disturbed spirits or hungry ghosts and poor neighbours,' Mr Cheung said. 'Poverty and crime, after all, disturb a community far more than ghosts, if you believe they exist.

'Migrants imported the festival to Hong Kong. In that sense, it's not local to Hong Kong, or even the Pearl River region.'

According to the classical myth, the mother of Mu Lian committed a crime against heaven and so was condemned to hell. As a hungry ghost, she was chained from head to foot and could not eat food set before her.

Mu broke through the gates of hell, fought with the guardians of the underworld and only stopped when Buddha intervened. He agreed to pray for his mother's crime throughout the seventh month of the Chinese calendar - which usually coincides with most of August in the western calendar - and eventually freed her spirit.

Mr Cheung said rice handouts and other festivities used to cater only to neighbours in the local districts, and so there were fewer people taking part. The oldest and largest festivities are held in Wong Tai Sin, San Po Kong and Shekkipmei.

As time went by, the events were better organised and broadcast by the media - which attracted more people, especially elderly, from other districts to queue up.

Seasoned old people now travel from district to district to collect so-called blessed rice to bring prosperity and peace to their loved ones. Friends and relatives subsequently found several rice packs in the home of the woman who died in Kowloon Park.

Some have been seen changing clothes to make themselves look like newcomers in order to collect more rice packs at the same event.

Given Hong Kong's mania for queuing, the popularity of the handouts may be just another instance of that. The government has apparently adopted a policy in line with general public support for the festival despite widespread criticism about chaotic handouts. On the day the elderly woman died, Home Affairs Bureau officials decided to gauge the public on its support for the practice.

In a phone survey of more than 1,200 people, more than 67 per cent thought the festival should be allowed to continue with rice handouts. Less than one in four supported ending the practice. However, 89 per cent favoured new arrangements to reduce or eliminate queues.

So far, the bureau has tabled several proposals. In addition to home deliveries, it has asked organisers to consider giving out smaller rice packs for those who only collect it for religious reasons, while the needy can request the normal-sized packs.

Rice charity groups have been lukewarm to Dr Ho's ideas, but the ones who may resist most may be some of those they are designed to help.

Chan Kam-sang, 74, went to queue for rice in Shamshuipo on the last day of the Hungry Ghost Festival last weekend. 'It is difficult to change the traditional way of rice distribution, because people do not mind queuing for a long time,' she said. It was her first time queuing for rice. She woke up before 5am and took the first bus from her home in Tsuen Wan to Shamshuipo.

'My friend asked me to come,' Ms Chan said. 'It's not easy [to queue for rice] at all. I only ate an instant noodle for breakfast and till now [5pm] I have not yet eaten anything. I'm so hungry now.' Although she had seen the chaotic scenes on TV, she said she still queued for rice because of greed.