Hong Kong’s Chung Yeung festival comes with cleaner air after furnace changes

Grave-sweepers queue to load bags of ‘hell money’ into furnaces for ancestors in afterlife

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2016, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2016, 11:39pm

Lugging bags of food and offerings, families headed to the hills on Sunday to pay respects to their ancestors for the annual Chung Yeung Festival.

The main difference from previous years was markedly improved air quality at some columbarium facilities. In Chai Wan, Tseung Kwan O, Tsuen Wan and Aberdeen, paper offerings are now burned at centralised outdoor stations, and indoor furnaces have been sealed off.

Earlier this year the managers of Hong Kong’s Chinese permanent cemeteries decided to close off the furnaces on each floor of columbariums, moving them outdoors to a central spot with staff, armed with pokers, on hand to help.

Sunday was the first grave-sweeping holiday since the new arrangement came into effect on September 1.

Grave-sweepers were seen queueing up to load their bags of “hell money” into the furnaces for their ancestors in the afterlife. They were also allowed to leave them in trolleys, where they would be wheeled away to be burned by staff, free of charge.

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The idea, according to a promotional video from the Board of Management of the Chinese Permanent Cemeteries, was to improve the environment and cleanliness at the columbariums. People can still burn joss and incense sticks.

The board urged grave-sweepers to consider burning less elaborate objects, or simpler offerings like flowers. Hell money is a type of joss paper burnt as offerings of wealth to the deceased in Chinese religious custom. A standard bag of hell money bought at a joss paper shop is thought to have a “value” in the afterlife of up to HK$800,000,000.

A Post reporter did not see long queues to the centralised furnace points at Cape Collinson Chinese Permanent Cemetery in Chai Wan. But after a few hours, the arrangement was altered, with staff stopping grave-sweepers from loading the hell notes into the furnaces themselves, instead asking them to leave them in the carts. Safety had apparently been a concern.

“It’s way too hot and too stuffy,” said grave-sweeper Vincent Chung, who had tossed four bags of wealth into one of four roaring furnaces lined up in a row.

“I’ve lost all the hairs on my arm.”

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And others didn’t mind the new procedure.

“Of course some people will want to do it themselves and watch all of it burn to ashes but it’s OK for me,” grave-sweeper Ho On said. “Maybe I lack that sort of piety. I just told the [staff] to be sure to do it properly and be respectful.”

But Ho said he was concerned whether such an arrangement would work as smoothly during Ching Ming, another grave-sweeping festival that usually sees many more people at cemeteries.

Others, such as Cindy Lau, believed the new arrangement improved the air around the entire facility.

“I think the air is a lot better as columbarium facilities are partially indoor and the ventilation isn’t always so good. It’s also good for the environment, as people aren’t burning stuff everywhere,” Lau said.

“I’m not so sure whether elderly people will be happy with the arrangement though, as this means they will have to walk further.”

Meanwhile, food and health chief Dr Ko Wing-man on Sunday tried to placate concerns over the dire shortage of public spaces in columbariums, saying new supply was on the way.

“From 2019 to 2025, we’ll see hundreds of thousands of niches become available for the public,” he said.

In June, the Ombudsman slammed the government for the slow pace of public columbarium development. In 2010, the government pledged to add 450,000 new public niches across the city’s 18 districts by 2022. Only 2,540 new niches were built as of last year. It is estimated that the average wait for a public niche space is now about four years.

Ko said members of the public should consider “green burials” such as having ashes scattered at sea, which the government was continuing to promote.