The Last of the Hungry Ghost

Published by: Reported by Holly Chik and Michelle Ng; Edited by Sean Hsu and Jianne Soriano / Hong Kong Baptist University | 23-Oct-2018
The challenges of keeping the tradition alive: Reduced into cinder, it is the joss paper, not the tradition.
On a sweltering Friday afternoon, around 500 elderly people queue up for small packets of rice in Argyle Street Park Playground. The rice symbolises safety and health. The handouts mark the end of the annual Yu Lan, or Hungry Ghost Festival.

lt falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Believers worship deities, commemorate ancestors and supposedly help' wandering ghosts.

The Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community has been following this tradition for over 100 years.

"It is a festival for both humans and gods to enjoy themselves," said Anven Wu, the organiser of the event for the Chiu Chow Community.

The festival is not only a religious custom but also an exemplification of Chinese traditional values, such as filial piety and helping the weak and forlorn.

The faithfuls pay respects to ancestors and offer food to hungry souls who roam the earth.

At the same time, deities from neighbouring community temples, symbolised by incense burners, are invited' to take part in the festival.

The burners are placed on the altar for believers to offer joss sticks to the gods.

Each year, the month-long celebration across the city features the god's play in different districts, a kind of Chinese opera that includes five playlets in Teochew dialect.

To give the gods the best view of the opera, the stage faces the altar. Five playlets are performed each day was a show of thanks to the deities.

"It costs about $12 million to organise a three-day-festival", said the chairperson of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community

"Since it is very challenging for us to raise money, the scale of the event has definitely dwindled over the years," he added

"Residents in Shau Kei Wan, an old fishing village, crowdfunded to organise celebratory activities for the birthdays of different gods in the past," said Marianne Wong Pui-yin, Senior Tutor of the Department of Chinese and History at City University of Hong Kong.

"However, as the community developed, some of these obsolete traditional activities have fallen behind the times and people stopped organising them because fundraising became difficult," Wong added.

"To preserve the culture, it is crucial to continue organising the activities so that people will not forget," said Wong, "just like the Cheung Chau Bun Festival which is held every year."

To cut cost, actors and musicians of the opera troupe stay in the backstage instead of renting hotel rooms. When the heat is unbearable, they even sleep under the stage.

"There is nothing we can do," said Cai Zhuangrong, a flute player, "our boss doesn't have a huge budget."

"We used to have 50 people in the troupe," Cai recalled, "now we only have around 30 left."

"We have to cut down on everything because of the competition," he explained. "There are over 30 troupes vying for this performance. We are grateful that we've got the job."

Cai and many other performers joined the troupe when they were already middle-aged.

"I had to opt for a more stable and better-paid job when I was younger to provide of my family," he said.

A Chinese Opera troupe member earns between 1500 and 2500 yuan ($1790 to $3000 Hong Kong dollars ) a month. That is 4000 yuan less than an average of a worker in urban areas, according to the Japan Times.

The organizing committee for the festival is also having trouble attracting new blood.

"Most young adults would not take on the responsibility," Wu said. "Most of them merely copy what they saw their parents did in the past, and some won't follow the customs at all."

According to Wu, most of the committee members are in their 70s and 80s, while members in the New Territories chapters are, on average, 10 to 20 years younger.

Changing beliefs also hinders the passing down of traditions.

In the old days, the festival was held to help villagers gain self-confidence by worshipping and receiving blessings from the deities, said Wu.

"The older generation did not have a definite religion, so they worshipped any god," said the organiser.

Wu explained that worshipping different deities at the festival, be it Buddhism or Taoism, was a form of folk religion when everybody wanted blessings.

But as the city becomes more affluent and many young people have religious beliefs, the festival no longer serves the same purposes.

Now, the festival is regarded as an occasion to commemorate ancestors.

Still, many in the city saw the festival as an occasion when ghosts gather at the gate to the underworld as it opens at the beginning of the seventh month of the Lunar calendar.

For example, according to the organiser of the Hungry Ghost Festival, Yama, the king of hell in charge of the punishment of souls, would allow the tortured ghosts to visit the earth during the Ghost month, according to mythology.

Believers would not roam the streets alone and or swim at night during this month to avoid bumping into roving spirits.

However, Wu explained that there are strict rules in the underworld. Wandering hungry ghosts are supposedly so thankful for the offerings that they would not cause trouble on earth.

These misunderstood taboos have made many people from the younger generation to be avoiding the festival, said Wu.

Wu also believes that the insufficient organisation between different departments and limited venues support in the society contributes to the diminishing tradition.

"We no longer use bamboo scaffolds," he explained, "the Leisure and Cultural Services Department said we need to use metal frames to avoid from damaging the sports ground."

Traditions might not go parallel with laws nowadays, so the government is in a difficult position when balancing the dilemma, according to Marianne Wong from the City University, Department of Chinese and History.

In 2011, the Yu Lan Ghost Festival of the Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community was listed as an intangible cultural heritage.

The government has since taken steps to preserve the culture, for example, by promoting the festival on the Tourism Board's website and meeting representatives to discuss how to preserve the culture.

Wong also said the government has little responsibility in preserving the culture as it has long been a tradition driven by indigenous people.

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