Hell on Earth during Hungry Ghost month

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am

According to Chinese legend, ghosts roam the Earth during the seventh lunar month. And last month, on the seventh day, the 'Gate to Hell' opened and restless spirits were let loose.

It is whispered that on that day, hungry ghosts wander the Earth in search of food and to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them in life. To discourage them from disturbing the living, believers burn joss sticks, candles and 'hell money' by roadsides and on street corners. Performances of Chiu Chow Opera are held.

Across the city, believers pray in front of large, vividly coloured papier mache statues of the 'King of Hell' and his bailiffs, which are then ceremonially burned.

In Hong Kong, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a major Buddhist and Taoist event. Many treat it as a novel tradition not to be taken too seriously, similar to Halloween in western countries.

According to legend, Buddha's elder disciple Mu-Lin discovered his mother was a hungry ghost suffering in hell because of her misdeeds in life. The monk used his magical powers to offer her food but the food turned into charcoal in her hands.

Mu-Lin sought the advice of Buddha, who told him to gather other believers and recite sacred scripts and perform rituals to temporarily release all hungry ghosts - including his mother - to receive food.

The festival was originally seen as a day for filial piety and merciful giving.

Although Chinese have celebrated the festival for hundreds of years, according to a recent exhibition at the University of Hong Kong's Centre of Asian Studies, celebrations in the city only began in 1897, when the boss of a sugar factory saw unusual objects 'flying' outside his office window. He was told the unidentified flying objects were ghosts.