The Hungry Ghost Festival: keeping traditions alive at carnival for the dead
Carnival with origins in Buddhism and Taoism hopes to bring friends and families together for three-day celebration in city’s Victoria Park
A three-day carnival is being held in Victoria Park this weekend for the Festival of the Hungry Ghost, in a bid by Hong Kong’s Chiu Chow community to revive waning interest from young people.
The annual festival was brought to Hong Kong by the Chiu Chow people, who immigrated from Guangdong’s Chaoshan.
Also known as Yu Lan or Ullambana in the Buddhist tradition, or Zhongyuan in Taoism, the Hungry Ghost Festival originates from a number of religious fables.
What remains constant is its theme of feeding the restless spirits who burst open the gate of hell on the first day of the seventh lunar month of the year, with the party is in full swing on its fifteenth day – known as the Ghost Day.
The festival sees offerings of food, as well as the burning of paper and incense, to appease these restless ancestors. Special sheds are constructed for people to worship the gods in. This year, Ghost Day is on August 16.
Although the festival was listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage by the State Council in 2011, the number of festivals in Chiu Chow communities has decreased from close to 70 per year to about 50 per year.
Anven Wu Yim-chung, a director at the Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organisations, said the festival’s popularity had declined.
He said the Federation was experimenting with ways to revive interest and engage the younger members of the community, which numbers more than a million in Hong Kong.
“Less money is raised [to fund these celebrations], the sheds have been built smaller, and the tributes to the gods and the ghosts have been less and less over the years,” he said.
For old-timers, rituals are performed in the Month of the Ghost to placate the souls of their deceased “good brothers” – the early Chiu Chow immigrants who died without proper funerals. The spirits of those who were not properly buried are believed to be starving in the underworld.
Organisation chairman Ian Chan Yau-Nam said that there was a disconnect between today’s Hongkongers and the narrative of the “good brothers”. But he urged people to look at the broader meaning of the festival.
“Yu Lan Festival is not just a Chiu Chow tradition but a Chinese tradition. But in Hong Kong, Yu Lan Festivals are mostly held by Chiu Chow people,” Chan said. “The so-called ‘good brothers’ do not refer only to Chiu Chow people but any friends who died away from home. So the theme is really about ‘universal love’.”
Wu said while celebrations traditionally took place at the neighbourhood level, this year they have organised the carnival at Victoria Park, to educate people about Yu Lan customs, such as the Ghost Grappling Competition and Chiu Chow Opera.
“Besides having the celebrations in separate neighbourhoods all around the city, we want to put together a festival for all Hongkongers to enjoy,” Wu said.
The Ghost Grappling Competition is the main activity of the festival. With six people on a team and 21 teams in total, participants will compete to catch the highest amount of rice bags with their Gu Sings, which resemble lacrosse sticks. These rice bags, which symbolise culinary tributes enjoyed by the ghosts and blessed by the gods, will be tossed out from an altar.
“The tradition stems from a time when the priests toss out leftover food from the altar to the poor and people would fight to get their hands on it,” Wu said. “We have now modernised this tradition so that it resembles a modern friendly sport match.”
The Federation will also be experimenting with an activity named Family Basket this year. Teams of families will compete to stack the highest pile of tributes on a household shrine tray. Wu said engaging children and young couples was crucial in passing down the culture of Yu Lan to the new generation.
Wu said he had been preparing this event and inviting people for almost half a year. There will be teams representing Hong Kong Police, several high schools and social groups this weekend.
“The other intangible cultural heritages in Hong Kong all have some very engaging events such as the Bun Scrambling Competition and the Fire Dragon Dance,” Chan said. “We are hoping to have our festival with our own special events,” he said.
HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL
Location: Victoria Park
Friday, August 12
10am -11am: A ceremony to invite gods
2pm - 8pm: Activities at the cultural booths
2pm - 3pm: Yu Lan Culture 101 (Speaker: Anven Wu Yim-chung)
4pm - 5pm: The 2016 Yu Lan Ghost Festival Opening Ceremony
5pm - 8pm: An Introduction into The Ghost Grappling Competition
6pm - 7pm: Yu Lan Handcrafts (Speaker: Mo Cheuk-kei)
7pm - 8pm: Yu Lan Dolls (Speaker: Chan Kam-to)
Saturday, August 13
10am - 8pm: Activities at the cultural booths
10am -12pm: An Introduction into The Ghost Grappling Competition
1pm: Family Basket Competition - First Round
4pm: Family Basket Competition - Semifinals
5pm: Family Basket Competition - Finals
7pm - 8pm: Yu Lan Opera (Speaker: Chan Ming-ying)
Sunday, August 14
10am - 8pm: Activities at the cultural booths
10am - 12pm: An Introduction into The Ghost Grappling Competition
1pm: The Ghost Grappling Competition - First Round
4pm: The Ghost Grappling Competition - Semifinals
5pm: The Ghost Grappling Competition - Finals
5: 30pm: The Ghost Grappling Competition - MVP Competition
6pm: 2016 Yu Lan Ghost Festival Award Ceremony
7pm - 8pm: Yu Lan Rituals (Speaker: Tang Ka-yu)