Traditional festivals battle to stay alive

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 July, 2010, 12:00am

Supporters of local festivals set to win recognition as national intangible cultural heritage hope the status will give the traditions more respect and help offset threats from urban renewal and dwindling interest among younger generations.

The Yu Lan Ghost Festival is just one event fighting for its future. The festival is celebrated at 60 venues, often on soccer pitches or parks, by the Chiu Chow community, estimated to be 1.2 million-strong.

But some sites, such as Yan Oi Court in the heart of Kwun Tong, are being lost after hosting celebrations for decades.

The courtyard - a small triangular open space occupied by hawkers - has been the stage for the festival for the past 30 years, thanks to donations from believers.

The place is too small for live Chiu Chow operas for ghosts, a key component of the festival, but the corner is as boisterous as any other celebration sites in Kwun Tong, an area with a concentration of Chiu Chow people. During the festival in the seventh lunar month, paper offerings are burned, free rice is distributed and masters are invited to perform rituals to console ancestors and wandering ghosts.

Fung Kwong-wai, a hawker who has managed the festival for more than 10 years, says government departments keep telling them they receive complaints that the festival is superstitious, noisy, smoky and makes the streets dirty.

'I hope the state's recognition will make people respect our religion,' Fung said. 'It's only three days a year, and we clean up the sites the day after it's over. We are not here to make money. We just pray for peace and for fellow clansmen who died, in the hope of sending them to their hometown.'

But the bigger threat is redevelopment. Yan Oi Court also falls within the site of the Urban Renewal Authority's biggest redevelopment project.

The authority said the reconstruction process would inevitably disrupt the celebrations but it would try to help preserve the tradition after redevelopment was completed.

'We will let as many local businesses stay as possible. They could make use of the public open space in future and carry on with the rituals after getting permission from relevant government departments,' an authority spokesman said.

Urban renewal has already led to the disappearance of a major celebration venue in Sau Mau Ping, a neighbourhood adjacent to Kwun Tong that was used to build a public housing estate in the 1990s.

In other parts of the city, some celebrations have been shortened from five days to three or reduced in scale.

Some sites on Hong Kong Island are also under threat, according to Stephen Chan Chit-kwai, honorary adviser to the Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organisations, which helped prepare the heritage application for the Yu Lan festival.

One at-risk site is the park at Hill Road, which might have to make way for the MTR West Island Line.

'If Yu Lan is recognised as national heritage, the government should actively look for sites to keep the traditions,' Chan said.

He said the recognition would be an opportunity to modernise and manage the tradition by getting young people to manage the events.

Maintaining traditions is even more of a headache in Tai Hang and Tai O.

Chan Tak-fai, master of the annual fire dragon dance in Tai Hang, struggles every year to find the more than 100 male residents needed as dragon bearers because there are not enough young people in the area.

'The birth rate is low. Old buildings in Tai Hang are being torn down and people have moved out. It's getting more difficult to find enough youngsters to join us,' the 64-year-old said.

Similarly, Fan Sum-kee in Tai O said the three fishermen's associations holding the dragon boat water parade battle to find 300 men to row the boats every year.

'Sixty to 70 per cent of the teams have moved out of Tai O and are called back to help,' Fan, a former fisherman in his 60s, said.

The district council gave the little-known festival HK$8,000 in sponsorship this year but Fan said the parade cost HK$200,000 to organise, and the associations had to fight for funding from the business sector.

'We are all old people. I hope we have more resources to promote this to our young folks, so they'll remember their roots are with this fishing village and the parade will keep our homes safe,' Fan said.

The Cheung Chau Jiao Festival, better known as the Bun Festival, is on more secure ground. It has received more sponsorship from the private sector and government co-ordination since 2005, despite criticism that the event is too commercial and too modern.

Cheung Chau Rural Committee chairman Yung Chi-ming said the committee planned to organise workshops to teach school stu- dents about the festival and the next step was to apply to Unesco for world intangible cultural heritage status.

Disappearing past

The number of men needed each year to row in Tai O's dragon boat water parade: 300

Heritage gems

Four annual festivals in Hong Kong are expected to be recognised as national intangible cultural heritage after being shortlisted from more than 3,000 nominations from around the country

Cheung Chau Bun Festival

The week-long celebration, which dates back more than 100 years, culminates in a parade that ends near the Pak Tai Temple, where three 18-metre high towers are studded with 200,000 sweet white buns. At midnight, contestants scramble up a tower to grab the top-most 'luckiest' buns.

When: Starts on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month (April or May)

Where: Cheung Chau, once a place where South China Sea pirates hid their spoils

1978 Bun scramble is banned after a tower collapses, injuring 100 people

2004 Steel towers are erected to revive the competition

2005 First bun scramble is held since ban, with 48 contestants whittled down to 12

Tai Hang fire dragon dance

The tradition began more than 100 years ago to ward off a plague that broke out in 1880, with villagers planting 25,000 joss sticks into a giant dragon made of grass, which is then paraded through the village and firecrackers are lit.

When: 14th, 15th, 16th of the eighth Lunar month (September/October)

Where: Tai Hang, originally a Hakka village, next to Tin Hau and Causeway Bay

Tai O dragon boat parade

The Pa Teng Hong, Sin Yu Hong and Hop Sum Tong fishermen's associations hold a deities parade on water. Three dragon boats tow sacred sampans, carrying the deities and altars, through the stilt houses to pacify wandering ghosts as 1,800 residents burn incense.

When: The fourth and fifth days of the fifth lunar month (June)

Where: Tai O village, Lantau Island

Yu Lan Ghost Festival of Chiu Chow

Some 1.2 million members of the Chiu Chow community celebrate the month-long tradition, which involves the burning of incense and joss papers, live opera and drama performances, and the distribution of free rice.

When: Starts in the seventh month lunar (August/September)

Where: Parks, sportsgrounds and piazzas in more than 60 places across Hong Kong