Hong Kong’s Hungry Ghost Festival: all you ever wanted to know

The origins of the festival (which peaks on Friday), the rituals that mark it, things you shouldn't do, and how to stay lucky - plus what to see of the festivities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 1:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 10:20am

Halloween lasts a single night, but in parts of Asia, including Hong Kong, ghosts are said to roam the earth for the entire seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Accounts vary but it’s generally believed that during the ghost month, the gates of hell open and restless spirits emerge to haunt the living. During this time, the gates of heaven are also said to be unbolted, allowing benign spirits to visit their families for feasting and entertainment.

The eerie activity peaks on Friday, August 28, the 15th day of the lunar month, known as   Yu Lan, or  Festival of the Hungry Ghost. After two weeks of wandering the earth, the spooks are weary and ravenous, so it’s especially important on this day to keep them appeased.

Although opinion on the origin of the ghost month is divided, it has evolved into a time to make offerings to ancestors, and appease malignant spirits walking among them.

Here are some things you should know about the ghost month and activities taking place around the city.

What are the everyday rituals?

The first sign of ghost month in Hong Kong is the smell of burning paper, usually in tin cans, often alongside incense sticks, candles and offerings of food on the pavement or in common areas of residential buildings. Hell banknotes and paper goods – ranging from cars and mobile phones to clothing and houses – are burned as offerings for ancestors and restless wanderers to use in the afterlife. Foods including fruit, meat and pastries represent a feast for ancestors, and ensure other spirits don’t get hungry or angry. Candles and lanterns help them find their way back where they came from.

Why would they be angry?

In Buddhist scripture, there are many realms of hell. Besides the inhabitants of the lowest realms, there are restless spirits who were not ready to leave the earth, did not get a proper burial, or were treated badly by their families. So the ghost month serves as a reminder to honour filial piety.

What are its origins?

The evolution of the festival is disputed, but its roots date back more than 2,000 years. In Taoism, the festival falls on the birthday of  Lord Qingxu, the celestial official of earth. This deity’s role is to judge the deeds of the living, who pray for his forgiveness during the ghost month, when he also releases the deceased from suffering. In Buddhism, the festival is associated with  Mulian (or  Maudgalyayana), a chief disciple of Buddha. The story goes that he organised a ceremony on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month to appease the spirit of his mother, who had been reborn in the hungry ghost realm of hell.

How significant is the ghost month in Hong Kong and China?

In 2011, the ghost month was listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage. In Hong Kong, the occasion has been closely associated with the  Chiu Chow community for more than 100 years. The community hosts events in many parts of the city, including a festival, lion dances and Chinese opera performances.

What to avoid during the ghost month:

Many activities are said to bring misfortune during this time, especially after dark. These include:

Disturbing offerings left out for the spirits – don’t sweep them up.

Leaving clothes outside to dry. A ghost might try them on and leave behind its negative energy.

Avoid swimming. The ghost of a drowned person might pull you under the water.

Don’t urinate on a tree, as it will offend the spirit living inside. Also, remember to stay away from the woods at night.

Don’t take photos at night in case you capture a spirit.

Don’t leave external doors open at night. It is an invitation for ghosts to enter.

Don’t get married – it won’t be a happy ending.

Don’t talk about ghosts during their special month because it may cause offence.

Stay lucky during the ghost month:

Most importantly, keep them well fed with offerings outside the home.

Keep the lights burning bright at home, and on balconies or other outside areas. Ghosts lurk in the shadows.

Sprinkle rock salt on the floor outside your front door. Spirits are said to be afraid of it.

Visit temples or churches to pray for the deceased.

What else?

The ghost month is observed in some form or another in many Asian countries, including China, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam and India.

Ghost month events in Hong Kong

One of the highlights of the festival is Chinese opera, usually held in pop-up theatres, to praise the deities.

The Yulan Festival of the Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community, at  Hong Ning Road Playground (Kwun Tong MTR exit A1).

The festival includes a ghost month exhibition that will run until Friday. A guided tour of the festival will also take place on Friday between 2pm and 4.30pm. There will be Chinese opera performances nightly from 7pm to 11pm, ending on Friday.

Additionally, tour company Walk in Hong Kong is organising walking tours around neighbourhoods during the ghost month.

Sept 3 from 7.30pm until 9.30pm, Tai Hang Hungry Ghost Festival Tour.

Sept 6  from 7.30pm until 9.30pm, Sheung Wan Hungry Ghost Festival Tour

Email info@walkin.hk for details.

Other Chinese opera performances:

Hong Kong Island

Sept 3 to 6, 3pm to 11pm at the soccer pitch of  Moreton Terrace Temporary Playground in Causeway Bay. Take exit B at Tin Hau MTR station.

September 9 to 11, 7pm to 11pm under the  Hill Road flyover in Shek Tong Shui. Take the tram to the Hill Road stop.

Kowloon

 Aug 29 to Sept 3, 7pm to 10.30pm at  Wai Chi Street Playground in Shek Kip Mei. (Shek Kip Mei MTR exit C).

 Aug 29 to Sept 3, 7pm to 11.30pm at  Argyle Street Playground in Shek Kip Mei. (Lok Fu MTR exit A).

Sept 6 to 9, 7pm to 11pm  at Tze Wan Shan Estate Central Playground (Diamond Hill MTR exit C).

New Territories

 Aug 29 and 30, 7pm to 11pm at Sham Hong Road in Sham Tseng (Olympic MTR station exit D2, then take bus 52X from Mong Kok bus terminus to Sham Tseng Village).