Hong Kong society displays possibly the greatest survival of openly expressed animism within any post-industrial society. Widespread belief in the spirit world is substantiated by the enduring popularity of ghost stories, endlessly retailed urban myths about “haunted” places and the sheer variety of protective rituals designed to propitiate gods, ancestors and wandering spirits.

Hong Kong's lovelorn are finding consolation in a bizarre ritual

Much like any casual stranger encoun­tered in the wider world, a roving spirit’s general temperament may be malevolent or helpful. While most ghosts remain neutral and merely hover about, they could go either way, depending on how they feel themselves to be treated. This makes it vitally important to keep firmly on the ghost’s good side, when-ever possible.

To help ghosts have a fulfilled afterlife, “weddings” are sometimes arranged on behalf of an unmarried deceased relative by living family members. “Ghost mar­riages”, as these rituals are popularly known, still occur – and with far greater regularity than those who only see Hong Kong’s “cosmo­poli­tan, international” side might suspect. And “ghost marriages” do not only take place among Hong Kong society’s poorer or less educated members. Those influenced by Christian belief sys­tems, however, tend to disavow these trad­itional practices as primitive superstitions, which neatly side­steps the obvious fact: that an imported supernatural belief system has simply replaced an indigenous one.

Till death do us wed

If a young person dies unmarried, their ghost – now roaming the other world – will be assumed to be lonely. Filial concern extends beyond the grave towards descend­ants as well as ancestors. Grieving families will seek to ensure that their son or daugh­ter, whose unfortunate fate decreed that they died before their natural time, should have the chance for a normal family life in the other world. Seen objectively, arrangement of a spirit marriage for a deceased child is a practical way of coping with grief and loss. As the Thomas Campbell poem Hallowed Ground poig­nantly states, “to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die”.

Traditional Chinese beliefs maintain that the “other world” is just like this one, except that ordinary mortals cannot see it. The living can, however, occasionally per­ceive the spirit realm’s existence through dreams, premonitions and other un­explained circumstances. Documented instances have occurred where a deceased son or daughter apparently appeared in a dream to one of their parents, or another close family member, to tell them about their life in the other world, and to ask for a partner to be found for them. Traditionally, marriages were family affairs, and young people had little say in their choice of spouse.

Spirit mediums – generally older married women – act as go-betweens between bereaved families, and set about finding a family with a deceased young person who would now be approaching marriageable age. Once a suitable match is discovered, the matchmaker liaises closely with the other family to provide everything necessary for the wedding.

Leon Comber, the former Federation of Malaya police officer (and ex-husband of renowned novelist Han Suyin), described these rituals as practised in Singapore and Malaya in the 1950s in his collection of monographs on Chinese culture and society, Through the Bamboo Window. In one account, Comber mentions that a recently married ghost returned in a dream to tell his mother that he was happy and settled, his wife was expecting a child and they had opened a goldsmith’s shop with a sideline in remittances, which was doing well.

Additional fascinating details about “ghost marriage” rituals can be found in Cantonese Society in Hong Kong and Singapore: Gender, Religion, Medicine and Money, a collection of anthropological essays by the late Dr Marjorie Topley.