Spook feast

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 June, 2006, 12:00am

Do you believe in ghosts? Not everyone does, but for those who do there is a time every year in Hong Kong that could make such people anxious.

It's called the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Are these ancestors?

No, they are not. They are the restless spirits of people who, traditionally, did not have a funeral, or whose descendants have all died. So there is no one visiting their graves and they do not receive the gifts that you would take to your ancestors to pay respects during certain times of the year.

They miss out on food and spirit money. So, these ghosts are hungry. Once a year they venture out of the underworld and roam the Earth for a month.

To stop them causing problems for the living, many communities provide them with food to placate them. A major festival takes place in Aberdeen Street in Central.

Is it just in Aberdeen Street?

No, Aberdeen Street is perhaps the most traditional festival in the way that the community raises money and works hard together to organise it. But there are events elsewhere. There is often Chinese opera as part of the festival that can be seen at King George V Memorial Park in Kowloon and Moreton Terrace Playground in Causeway Bay. You'll also notice people burning paper by the side of the road across Hong Kong. And there will be temporary sheds set up for the festival in the New Territories in places such as Sha Tin and Tai Po.

When is the Hungry Ghost Festival this year?

It is on August 8, or day 15 of the seventh month on the lunar calendar.

It is a colourful few days as the ghosts come back to roam the Earth for a month, during which the local community goes all out to feed them, hence the title, to ensure that they depart happy and leave people alone for another year without causing any problems. The community also provides them with several days of opera to keep them happy.

How do ghosts eat food?

Well, they do not physically eat the offerings, but they are able to spiritually take from the proffered oranges and other food, all they need for sustenance. However, the food does not get wasted and is often eaten by people afterwards. Other presents for the restless spirits are sent to the underworld through fire. So the food, paper clothing and spirit money are all burned for the ghosts at the end of the festival.

As well as ghosts, are there any gods at this festival?

Yes, although she appears as a small statue at this festival, the popular Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, is present. She is said to have been the first to offer food and other presents to the ghosts, but at the first festival the apparitions behaved so badly that she asked for the help of the King of Hell to keep them in order.

So, as well as Guan Yin, there is now a huge paper statue of Taai Si Wong, that appears at these festivals. He has a notebook and acts as the festival's 'policeman' to ensure the ghosts are behaving and everything at the festival has been completed properly.

So he is carried by residents up and then down the street where the festival is happening and to the bonfire where all the paper offerings will be burned at the end to send to the ghosts in the underworld. Some people believe that Guan Yin and Taai Si Wong are the same.

While the ghosts get fed, what about me?

Aberdeen Street and the surrounding area have a few small Chinese-style cafes, so you will not starve.

For more details about what's happening during the Hungry Ghost Festival this year, e-mail the Hong Kong Tourism Board: info@discoverhongkong.com