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A woman burns offerings on the street during Hungry Ghost Festival. Some other customs during the festival, however, aren’t necessarily grounded in tradition. Photo: Winson Wong

How Hong Kong gets Hungry Ghost Festival all wrong, following superstitions not rooted in its Buddhist origins

  • Hong Kong celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival a day earlier than Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and there are a couple of theories as to why
  • From avoiding char siu restaurants to making lavish offerings for spirits of deceased relatives, some city customs are the products of confusion and pop culture

The Hungry Ghost Festival, or Yu Lan Festival, falls on August 12 this year in Hong Kong, and will no doubt bring many residents and shopkeepers to the streets to burn incense and joss paper offerings for the spirits.

Occurring in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the festival marks a period during which certain things are to be avoided in order to not attract unwanted attention from ghosts.

These include: opening new businesses, moving house, swimming at night, and getting married – historically, hotels would offer discounts for wedding banquets at this time of the lunar year.

The interesting thing is that Hongkongers have misconstrued the entire occasion, and some beliefs, practices and taboos surrounding Hungry Ghost Festival in the city are merely a mishmash of local superstitions that have little grounding in the origins of the festival.

A man burns paper offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai neighbourhood. Photo: Winson Wong

The most monumental misconception by Hongkongers is the date of the festival. It is widely known that Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and that date is consistently adhered to in places like Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

However, Hong Kong marks the Hungry Ghost Festival on the 14th day of the seventh month on the lunar calendar.

A proposed reason for this difference is down to the Chinese zodiac sign hour chart, which separates a day into 12 two-hour blocks. Some think that confusion may have arisen because the last segment of the day, or Zi hour, is from 11pm-1am, and so runs into the following day of the Gregorian calendar.

Another, simpler explanation for the discrepancy is that in Cantonese, the number four is a homophone for the word death, and having the festival fall on the 14th day of the lunar month just makes the whole occasion more ghoulish.

It definitely worked wonders for the marketing of the Thou Shalt Not Swear movie franchise – called “14th day of the seventh month” in Chinese – in the 1990s and early 2000s.

For more inconsistencies surrounding the festival, we need look no further than where it comes from. Hungry Ghost Festival has its roots in a story from the Fo Shuo Yulanben Jing – a Chinese translation from the Western Jin dynasty (AD265-316) of the ancient Ullambana Mahayana Buddhist sutra.

Hong Kong’s Hungry Ghost Festival: all you ever wanted to know

It tells the story of Mulian – a close disciple of the Shakyamuni Buddha – who is endowed with supernatural powers and goes to search for his mother after she dies, only to find her doomed to the hungry ghost realm.

With the help of the Buddha he stages a ritual on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month with chanting and sacrificial offerings, and descends into Hell to save her.

Lavish food offerings for spirits of the deceased are common at the Hungry Ghost Festival. Photo: Nora Tam

When he finds her, she has already transformed into a hungry ghost, and the food that he gives her turns to ash in her mouth. Such is the cursed existence of a hungry ghost.

Accordingly, every year on this day, spirits suffering in hell – like Mulian’s mother in the story – are allowed to return to the realm of the living to see their descendants and have their hunger satiated.

What’s interesting, however, is that Buddhists believe in reincarnation and typically identify six stages of rebirth and existence: gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells.

‘Chinese Halloween’ sticks to its roots, unlike this week’s celebrations

The story of Mulian is one of the rare times anyone crossed the Buddhist realms of existence – strictly speaking, in Buddhism these paths of existence do not overlap.

It is the Taoists who believe in spirit immortality and that a person’s soul splits into three and one of them lingers on earth, but hungry ghosts do not exist in Taoist texts.

In Hong Kong, then, the concept of hungry ghosts condemned as a result of eternal damnation is neither here nor there; between the belief systems but not really in true alignment with either.

Char siu restaurants are thought by some to be a place where hungry ghosts gather during Hungry Ghost Festival. Photo: Jonathan Wong

The modern festival practices even mistake what foods should be offered to hungry ghosts. Traditionally, items like bean sprouts, tofu and longan – items with a high water content – are to be given out of kindness, so that ghosts can consume a little bit of the watery food before it turns to ash in their mouths.

However, during Hungry Ghost Festival, Hongkongers generally confuse satiating the hunger of ghosts through watery morsels with honouring their ancestors with lavish foods.

It’s like replacing the small change you were going to give to a needy person on the street with a key card to a five-star hotel room.

While there is nothing wrong with helping our fellow man, in the supernatural world, treating random ghosts so generously would encourage them to stay – something you certainly do not want.

A still from The Eye (2002). Photo: Palm Pictures

There’s also a belief in avoiding roasted meat restaurants during Hungry Ghost Festival, as hungry ghosts are said to enjoy licking the essence from the slabs of roasted meat that invariably hang in their shopfronts around Hong Kong.

Rather than having roots in historical folklore, however, this superstition didn’t enter the public consciousness until the late 1980s and 1990s, when musician – and now UFO enthusiast – Danny Summers appeared on late-night variety shows claiming to have had a supernatural experience.

Summers claimed to have an inner eye allowing him to see spirits, and shared a childhood memory of walking past a roast meat vendor and seeing a mother and daughter standing outside, facing the stall.

When he took a closer look, he could see that the mother and daughter were licking the char siu with extremely long tongues – it was then that he realised they were spirits.

This story was immortalised in The Eye (2002)– a Hong Kong-Singaporean movie that was a box office hit, leading to the filming of some sequels.

So should you pay heed to all of the taboos surrounding Hungry Ghost Festival? Well, if you’re a Buddhist, a Taoist, or a UFO enthusiast, maybe.