Traditions may go on list in bid to safeguard living heritage

The 'devil-beating' ritual in Causeway Bay, lantern-lighting ceremonies for newborn boys in indigenous villages, and celebrations for the birthdays of various Chinese deities are among the traditions being considered for a list of the city's intangible cultural heritage.

The list, being drawn up by the University of Science and Technology, also includes fung shui, wing chun - a form of kung fu that originated in southern China - and the skill of creating a bamboo stage for Cantonese opera shows in the open air.

The university is gathering information about 200 arts and traditions. It will pass on a list to a panel of experts, who will recommend which to submit to the Ministry of Culture for national recognition, and possibly to the United Nations.

The public has also been asked to name those arts and traditions it feels are being neglected for addition to the list.

Some traditions are at risk of disappearing. Underneath the flyover on Canal Road near Times Square in Causeway Bay, a few old women continue the ritual of 'beating the devil'. For HK$50, the women will curse your enemies by beating paper images of them with a shoe or slipper. One practitioner said fewer women were taking up the tradition after experienced 'beaters' died out in recent years.

The 70-year-old, who previously performed the ritual on the roadside in her home city of Zhongshan in Guangdong, said people there did not 'beat' the devils but 'worshipped' them in the hope they would go away. The 'devils' are often a client's colleague or boss. She said she did not know how to pass on her skills. 'It is a matter of belief,' she said.

Leung Mei-ngan, another devil-beater, complained about the annual business registration fee of HK$2,450 she had to pay. It was also unfair because a few others in the trade did not pay the fee, she said.

Practitioners of other traditions up for intangible heritage status have in the past expressed concern that their knowledge and skills will die with them. Last year, the leader of the annual fire dragon dance in Tai Hang - an event held to keep evil sprits away from the area - complained it was hard to get good young apprentices to make the dragon.

Masters of paper craft - the skill of making traditional lanterns and paper offerings for worship - faced the same problem. Craftsmen are getting old and there are few to pass on the skill to.

There are no quick solutions, say experts in the field. Such cultural heritage was a new topic for Hong Kong researchers and few academics were enthusiastic about it, said Chau Hing-wah, curator of the Heritage Museum under the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

In a tender exercise last year, the department wanted two organisations to each investigate in nine of the 18 districts in Hong Kong and come up with a list of possible heritage items for further research. Only the university answered the bid.

'Intangible cultural heritage is very much about the life of ordinary people and is passed on orally. It is different from academic research, as there is little written about it. A lot of field studies and interviews are needed,' Chau said.

The department is going to re-tender for the study of the remaining districts this year. To step up publicity, it will invite all the district councils and members of the public to nominate more items and provide information on practitioners. The Heung Yee Kuk, which represents indigenous villagers' interests, will encourage villagers to put forward their suggestions.

'After all, intangible cultural heritage is owned by ordinary people and it is not up to just experts to judge,' Chau said. He said many traditions, which had disappeared on the mainland because they were regarded as superstitions and not encouraged by the government, survived in Hong Kong.

The stock-taking is only the first step on a long road to preserving and promoting the traditions. The city-wide study will produce a database of all the heritage items in 18 months. An expert committee will then go through the records and recommend selected ones to the Ministry of Culture for the status of national intangible cultural heritage.

In the long run, Chau said a mechanism would be necessary to ensure the survival of the crafts and traditions. Reference could be drawn from the mainland and Japan, where masters of recognised arts and crafts are paid living allowances and are required to pass on all their skills to a certain number of apprentices.

The history men

Experts will be asked to recommend traditions worth preserving

The number of arts and traditions from which researchers will draw up a shortlist is about: 200