Halloween is easy sell when ghosts are everywhere

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 October, 2010, 12:00am

There's something undeniably creepy about Nam Koo Terrace, an abandoned red-brick mansion on Ship Street in Wan Chai.

Nearly 70years ago, the house was used as a military brothel during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, and the ghosts of so-called 'comfort women' are said to still haunt the house. to this day. In 2003, a group of teenagers made headlines when they sneaked into the mansion and became so distraught that they had to be admitted to hospital.

However, when Wong Sau-ping takes ghost-seekers on a tour of Wan Chai, it's not Nam Koo Terrace that scares them the most - it's the hill behind it. 'There's a place in the woods where people say a woman hanged herself,' she said. 'When we went to investigate, we found a big urn, and nearby is a shrine where people perform rituals to chase ghosts away.

'Sometimes people become so scared they feel ill and leave the tour, she said. 'Ghost stories let you imagine what happened; we can't actually show you the ghost, so you have to fill in the blanks yourself.'

Wong works as a tour guide for St James' Settlement, a social welfare charity in Wan Chai. Although most of her tours focus on other aspects of the neighbourhood's history, it's the ghost stories that are most popular.

'Wan Chai has a long history and suffered a lot during the war, when there were bombings,' she said. 'The stories keep coming; people know me as the ghost lady; they come to me with stories I haven't heard before.'

The past week has been really busy as people prepared for Halloween, but Hong Kong's fascination with ghosts dates back to the traditional Chinese belief that considers ghosts to be the spirits of people that died violently.

Each year, on the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival is meant to put angst-ridden spirits at ease with paper offerings that are burned every night.

In Hong Kong, where Halloween is a multimillion-dollar entertainment extravaganza, traditional Chinese beliefs about ghosts have been fused with the West's penchant for supernatural entertainment.

When Ocean Park launched its first Halloween Bash nine years ago, it took a conventional cobwebs-and-jack-o-lanterns approach. The next year, the amusement park focused the celebration around the Taoist concept of an afterlife wedding.

'It was a hit,' Vivian Lee, Ocean Park's marketing director, said. 'So instead of having too many Western elements we decided to do something more relevant to the market.'

The Halloween Bash has attractions based on local ghost stories and settings, such as a haunted public housing estate. Attendance over the month is up from 200,000 in 2001 to nearly 550,000 today. 'It's popular because it has to do with daily life,' said Lee. 'People can relate to that.'

Ghosts - or at least ghost stories - are more of an everyday phenomenon that you might think. They're are enough of a local concern among superstitious Hongkongers that one property website, HK Property King, lists dozens of supposed hong zak - haunted houses in the city.

In one Ho Man Tin estate, 13 flats are listed as haunted, based on violent deaths in the 1990s and 2000s; dozens of flats in old neighbourhoods, such as Sham Shui Po and Wan Chai, are said to be haunted.

'If people say a place is haunted, the price goes down and people avoid it,' said Lisa Leng, a property agent in Prince Edward, whose office is located around the corner from a 1930s-era building that - according to rumour - is home to a ghost.

Flats that were the setting for a particularly gruesome death often sit empty for years. In 1999, the head of a 23-year-old woman, who had been kidnapped by debtors, was found stuffed inside a Hello Kitty doll in a flat at 31 Granville Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui. The apartment remains boarded up, but nearby CCTV cameras are said to have caught glimpses of her ghost late at night. 'If something happened in a house we're showing a buyer, we'll always tell them,' Leng said. 'Sometimes they'll have a fung shui master come in.'

Fung shui master Ng Pui-fu said 20 per cent of his work has to do with ghosts. The busiest months are around Ching Ming, the Hungry Ghost Festival and Chung Yeung - 'when ghosts are most active and people are most sensitive', he said.

In one case, Ng was hired by minibus drivers that felt their bus terminus was haunted by a ghost that had caused several accidents. He performed a ceremony with offerings so that a god would watch over the terminus 'like a security guard'.

Schools are particularly fertile places for ghost stories. In St Francis' Canossian College, Wan Chai, a headless priest is believed to haunt an elevator, while the ghost of a nun lingers in the girls' bathroom.

Each school year, older students delight in scaring newcomers; the most popular ghost stories involve doomed romances. One story, set at a dormitory at United College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, tells of a girl who cooked oxtail soup each night and lowered it down to her boyfriend, living on the floor below.

They agreed not to see each other during exams, but the girl still made his soup; after exams, the boy found the girl had died - yet the soup had still been lowered each evening.

'These stories are popular to tell because they help students deal with this predicament between dating and studying,' said Joseph Bosco, an anthropologist at the university, who has spent years tracing the students' ghost stories.

Ghost stories often reflect the concerns and preoccupations of the people that tell them. The preponderance of wartime ghost stories was a form of oral history and a way to cope with 'guilty feelings of being a survivor', he said.

Bosco said fewer students are familiar with the old stories, such as the one set at United College, because the underlying romantic tension has disappeared as attitudes towards dating have become more liberal, but new stories take their place.

Most students that Bosco has surveyed for his research still believe in ghosts - even if they do not believe in traditional Chinese practices, such as fung shui. 'The stories themselves will change, but the interest in ghosts will remain,' he said.