Behind the scenes at the Hungry Ghost Festival: how the living dedicate a month to honouring the dead

Also known as Yu Lan or simply Ghost Festival, it’s a time for the living to prepare food, perform plays, and offer gifts to weary souls before they are sent peacefully back to the underworld

Maggie Suen |

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Traditional cakes, fruits, flowers, and incense are offered to the gods to ask them to ease all suffering.

It is believed by some that every year the gates of Hell are opened on the first day of the seventh lunar month (this year it fell on August 22) which allows ghosts to roam the Earth for an entire month every year. After two weeks of wandering around, the ghosts start to get a little peckish. Hence on the 15th day of the month, we have the Hungry Ghost Festival.

During this festival, also known as the Ghost Festival or Yu Lan, you may see people burning offerings such as incense, paper money and other material goods for their ancestors and other ghosts to use in the afterlife. Food, of course, also plays a big part in the festival.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage and has been celebrated for more than 100 years by many Chinese people, in particular, the Chiuchow community.

Since 2005 The Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHe) have been actively promoting Hong Kong’s history and culture through tours and talks.

Young Post followed the director of CACHe and The Federation of Hong Kong Chiuchow Community Organisations Anven Wu on one of CACHe’s Community Heritage Cultural Tours last Friday to learn more about the ghostly goings-on.

Before the festival

Before the festivities can begin, volunteers set up temporary bamboo stages and sheds, usually on a football pitch or playground, where performers will praise and worship the gods, such as the God of Heaven and the auspicious gods.

Temporary stages are built of bamboo and decorated with papercraft and lights.
Photo: Maggie Suen

“We traditionally use bamboo to build but this has become less common in recent years due to government restrictions,” said Wu. Organisers were being fined because the bamboo would leave scratches on the floor but people still continue to use build structures with bamboo for the festival, despite the warnings.

To mark the opening of the festival, people shout, “Open the gates!” (referring to the gates of Hell), inviting the spirits to enter our world.

The first day

On the first day, people move incense burners from nearby temples to the festival venue to welcome in the gods and goddesses to the festival to hear confessions and give blessings. Prayer chanters also chant and perform music during this ceremony.

There will also be a stage-cleansing ritual on the first day, where a person dressed all in black clears the stage of any spirits with a pitchfork. Then throughout the day, there will be five plays where performers act and sing to entertain the gods and show their appreciation. The plays are traditionally performed in the Chiuchow dialect but are nowadays subtitled in Chinese next to the stage so that people who do not understand the dialogue can enjoy the show as well.

There is a myth that people should not sit in the first row as those seats are occupied by the ghosts. But Wu assures us that “the first row is not for the ghosts, but for the organisers and community guests, that’s why people aren’t sitting there”.

The second day

This fierce king of wandering ghosts reminds the living to give offerings.
Photo: Maggie Suen

On the morning of the second day, prayer chanters lead everyone as they begin to offer gifts to the gods and goddesses.

People go from shed to shed, leaving flowers, incense, fruits, and traditional cakes and wine for the gods, saying prayers along the way. In particular, people pray to Guan Yin, commonly known as the “Goddess of Mercy”, asking her to free all creatures from suffering.

The third day

The hungry ghosts need to be fed first, before the living. They are believed to have throats no bigger than a needle.

After praying to the Buddha and Guan Yin, the prayer masters chant as other chanters sprinkle blessed water around the altar to open the ghosts’ throats so they can eat.

At the end of this ritual, the masters throw dumplings made of glutinous rice flour from the altar.

Volunteers help burn a huge paper statue of the “Ghost King” and other paper statues of gods, as well as tablets bearing the names of ancestors, and paper money. The fire is said to represent the door to the other world, and by burning the statues, the gods and spirits are sent back taking the offerings with them.

This is also the day when you might see people giving away “free rice”. This rice is donated by people whose names would be listed on the “Golden Chart” for good merits. This happens at the end of the day and marks the end of the festival.

Despite limited resources and restrictions, Wu said the community still strives to preserve these rituals, not necessarily because they believe in superstition, but because the tradition represents the spirit of their community and helps to unite members of the community no matter where they are in the world.

Edited by Nicole Moraleda