Halloween in Hong Kong

Its origins are far from Hong Kong,but Halloween has really taken offin the city, writes Annemarie Evans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2012, 3:29pm


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Hail to the headless horsemen, hobgoblins and vampires, all! It's the time of year for witches, and ghouls made of pumpkins which burn bright with manic grins.

Considering that zombies, werewolves, and one or two walking dead are likely to be filling her school playground in a couple of days, nine-year-old Tanya Mahtani remains unfazed." I'm going to be a vampire," she says, referring to costume plans for her school's Halloween celebrations.

Tanya and her friends in Class 4B of the Canadian International School of Hong Kong are big fans of the festival, and so are the teachers. Last year, senior staff at the CIS wandered about as Smurfs - not exactly a Halloween theme but part of a general dressing-up day.

Spurred on by theme parks, horror films and heavy marketing, Halloween has taken off in Hong Kong over the past two decades, While it is most widely, and wildly, celebrated in the United States, Halloween or All Hallow's Eve goes back hundreds of years to at least the 16th century, when it was marked in Scotland and Ireland on the eve of All Hallows, a Christian feast.

It was a time when the ghosts of the recently dead could revenge themselves on those who had wronged them. All Hallow's Eve was also a time of celebration, where communities would come together to play games, including "apple bobbing", where apples are put in a basin of water and participants try to lift them out with their teeth.

Belief in witches, elves and pagan gods still held sway, so Halloween became a mix of community festivals with some Christian elements thrown in. When the Scots and Irish immigrated to North America, they took Halloween culture with them.

Class 4B know all about confectionery and costumes - mummies wrapped in toilet paper, for instance - but have a shakier grasp of the historical aspects. "Um, it's a day that was created to go trick or treating," says Henry Bennett. "Last year we had to stick our hands in slimy spaghetti".

It seems the gorier it gets, the more fun it is. For young Grace Kingham, last year's party was memorable for the chance to dig into some "witches brains" that a parent concocted.

"Yes, they won't know much about the history. It's seen more as a fun day to dress up," says class teacher Robert Minor. "The school really uses it as a time to have a bit of fun, and as a community event. Parents come, and kids parade in the playground."

Some question the commercial motive behind the spread of activities such trick or treating, but Renate Boerner, who chairs the Parents Association at CIS, dismisses such notions.

"I think trick or treating is the least of our worries in terms of fostering materialism in Hong Kong," she says. "At the school, even the parents dress up. There's a real sense of community, if not much appreciation of what Halloween actually is. At home, we go out into our neighbourhood in Yuen Long."

Her two daughters, who are aged seven and nine, are allowed to go trick or treating in a tower block - but within limits.

"We don't let them go wild," Boerner says. "Previously, Halloween was seen as very expat, now it's massive. I think it's changed the perception for many Chinese in terms of ghosts and horror. People dressing up as ghosts and vampires was seen as most unpleasant. But that's all changed. Ocean Park did a lot of marketing on that."

Traditional churches sometimes frown on associations with the dark spirits. Minor, who grew up in a rural community in Ontario, Canada, recalls the minister in his village disapproved of the preoccupation with witches and the undead, so his family turned up for Halloween events at the church dressed as characters from the Bible.

But even dressing as a biblical character can be a bloody, ghoulish business, as Minor discovered. "One year, I chopped my finger while whittling the staff to be a shepherd."

This year he will turn up as the Tin Man, in line with the Wizard of Oz theme for Class 4 teachers.

Sarah Sturton-Gill, who has three sons at the Canadian International School, attributes its tradition of Halloween fun to the previous principal, the late Alan Dick. He went to extraordinary lengths for the dressing up day.

Dick was very community minded, Sturton-Gill says, and once got up at 4am to have his face made up by a professional artist so he could turn up as a terracotta warrior.

As Catholics, she says that she and her husband Alastair explain to their sons about the pagan origins of Halloween and focus on the friendlier aspects of the festival.

"We'll do pumpkin carving with the boys, a lovely family celebration. We don't have any of the gore. We have happy spiders with big smiles that are not hairy."

But this being Hong Kong, the nine-year-olds in 4B are already showing an entrepreneurial streak. Leaning forward conspiratorially, Henry reveals the key to a sweet haul while trick or treating. "The trick is to change costumes, that way you get more candy." His friends nod in emphatic agreement.

Tanya will go trick or treating where she lives in Repulse Bay. "In the block where I live, you can say whether you want to be a part of it, and if you mind if we come round trick or treating. Afterwards, there is entertainment with a magician."

For her, Halloween holds a bit of magic that is fostered by the school. "What's really special about the fun day is that you can be anything you want," she says.