Luisa Tam
SCMP Columnist
My Hong Kong
by Luisa Tam
My Hong Kong
by Luisa Tam

Your Hungry Ghost Festival survival guide: don’t ‘borrow’ an umbrella, use a bus shelter at night or tap someone’s shoulder

  • During the Hungry Ghost Festival, the deceased visit the living world. To avoid incurring the wrath of a spirit, there are things you should and shouldn’t do
  • Don’t ‘borrow’ an umbrella – it might be housing a wandering ghost; don’t tap anyone’s shoulder (and don’t let anyone tap yours); and don’t schedule a wedding

The rainy season is in full swing in Hong Kong, and most of us have probably picked up someone else’s umbrella by mistake or “borrowed” an unclaimed umbrella because we’ve misplaced ours.

While this might seem like an innocuous mistake, it’s a very big no-no during the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival.

In Chinese culture, the entire seventh month of the Lunar calendar – July 29 to August 26 on the Gregorian calendar – is known as the “ghost month” and is dedicated to the dead. The last two weeks of August – which is from August 12 to 26 this year – is the peak time for the deceased to visit the world of the living.

During this period, people honour the memories of the dead by presenting food, as well as burning “hell money” and paper representations of luxury items such as expensive jewellery, flashy cars, opulent mansions and even the latest smartphone models.
During the Hungry Ghost Festival, people honour the memories of the dead by presenting food, as well as burning “hell money”. Photo: Shutterstock

All these rituals are meant to keep us on the good side of our ancestors. There are also certain things we should abide by to avoid provoking malevolent beings.

For example, it is believed that spirits live inside umbrellas – so you shouldn’t open them indoors, as this is a direct invitation for ghosts to enter your home. If you bring home a stranger’s umbrella, that’s even worse – you are unwittingly providing shelter for wandering ghosts.

Hungry Ghost Festival dos and don’ts in Hong Kong, and what it gets wrong

You should also avoid standing under a tree or bus shelters at night, especially when you are alone.

There are other everyday habits you need to adjust during this period. Never hang your clothes outside overnight – spirits will try on your clothes; this means when you bring your dry clothes in, you’ll be bringing them into your home.

According to Chinese folklore, spirits prefer to fly along walls and in dark corners, so you should avoid standing next to or walking too closely along any wall.

During Hungry Ghost Festival don’t “borrow” someone else’s umbrella, or you could admit wandering ghosts to your home. Photo: Nora Tam

This one may seem like it was invented by concerned parents: avoid staying out after dark, since late-night transport is believed to be full of invisible passengers – and you certainly wouldn’t want to annoy a spirit by accidentally sitting on them.

The next rule often sends shivers down my spine; don’t leave your slippers pointing towards the bed because it is equal to giving a spirit directions to join you in bed.

I can still remember the many times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night just to make sure my slippers were pointing outwards. In the end, I gave up wearing slippers.

Photo-taking late at night is to be avoided at all costs if you don’t want to capture a ghost in action or trap one inside your camera.

Since the dark of night is peak time for ghostly activity, it is not advisable to draw attention to yourself, so avoid singing or whistling during nighttime.

It is also said that invisible flames rise from our shoulders to help ward off evil spirits, so you must not tap anyone on their shoulder during this month because it will put out the flames keeping the spirits at bay. And it goes without saying that you should stop others tapping your own shoulders.

Photo-taking late at night is to be avoided at all costs if you don’t want to capture a ghost in action or trap one inside your camera. Photo: Nora Tam

If someone does tap you on the shoulder and calls out your name from behind, don’t ever turn around or answer, otherwise the spirit may reveal itself to you.

Even if nobody taps on your shoulder, a vengeful or hostile spirit will find another way to make you turn around. So if you hear someone call out your name in the dead of night, don’t even think about turning around or answering back.

If you come across roadside altars and prayer items on the street, leave them be. The same goes for coins left on the street, as they are for the ghost to take, not you.

Hungry Ghost Festival quiz: How much do you know?

It is also unwise to crack jokes about, complain about, or make fun of the supernatural in any way.

Also, as you may have gathered, it is inauspicious for couples to get married during the Hungry Ghost month. It is believed that hosting such an event will attract “unwanted guests”, which nobody wants at their wedding – let alone otherworldly ones.

Finally, remember not to place chopsticks upright in your bowl of rice, as this placement resembles joss sticks, which are burned in front of shrines as offerings to the dead. It is in any case a practice that is frowned upon at any time of the year.

Rituals such as burning joss paper, or “hell money”, are meant to keep us on the good side of our ancestors. Photo: Edmond So

These superstitions may seem silly to those who have not grown up abiding by them; but regardless of whether you are a believer or not, many people choose to observe them as a form of respect for the dead. And, as I always say, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Luisa Tam is a Post correspondent who also hosts video tutorials on Cantonese language that are now part of Cathay Pacific’s in-flight entertainment programme