Best of Hong Kong

Hungry Ghost Festival: Paying tribute to ancestors by burning paper

Stella Ko and Georgia McCafferty, for CNNUpdated 23rd August 2016
Hong Kong (CNN) — What do you feed a hungry ghost?
If you live in parts of Asia, dim sum, noodles and even iPhones -- all carefully constructed from paper -- may do the trick.
The Hungry Ghost Festival, a month-long ancient tradition that pays respect to the spirits of the dead, is celebrated across many parts of Chinese Asia on the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
During the festival, ghosts are believed to return to Earth to haunt the living and people burn paper money and food -- as well as incense -- to pay respect to their ancestors and soothe wandering spirits.
Throughout the month, many communities host celebrations, hand out rice to people in need and stage traditional Chinese operas on temporary bamboo stages for people -- both the living and the dead -- to enjoy.
The underworld celebration reaches its peak with the Yu Lan Ji festival held in many parts of China, Singapore and Malaysia on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month -- in 2016 that's August 17.
Houses, cars and other luxury items are increasingly popular offerings.
Houses, cars and other luxury items are increasingly popular offerings.
On this night, the ghosts that have been roaming the Earth for two weeks are believed to be hungry, so people burn food, money and even luxury goods to make sure their ancestors, and any lonely spirits without a family, are cared for.
These paper items are often beautifully presented and constructed in minute detail.
Bowls of individual dim sum, crafted from paper of course, are carefully garnished and presented with accompaniments.
Luxury goods like iPhones, houses, designer handbags and flashy cars have also become increasingly popular in recent years.
CNN spoke to a Hong Kong resident to find out what the event means to him.
Calvin Wong, a university professor, has been celebrating the Hungry Ghost Festival since childhood.
CNN: What are you buying?
I'm buying luxury handbags. I also bought some smartphones, jewelry, and iPhones.
Who are the items for?
They're for my ancestors -- parents -- sorry, I mean for my grandparents. My parents are alive.
Can you explain the symbolism behind some of these items?
The lotus means purity, and bamboo means long life. Some of these Chinese objects mean good fortune, and the birds are for longevity as well.
They are both for the deceased and for living people. These airplanes, houses, yacht, iPhones are all recent trends. I didn't have these when I was young.
What do you do during this month of the festival? What other traditions do you practice?
Well, we burn incense on the street.
And there are basically two reasons: For the ancestors who passed away, and also for anonymous spirits who had no siblings or children.
That's why Chinese people burn things for them to give comfort to the wandering spirits.
For many in Hong Kong, it's about keeping old traditions alive.
For many in Hong Kong, it's about keeping old traditions alive.
courtesy stella ko
In my family, we also get fresh leaves, like Lotus leaves, to wash our body to purify ourselves after visiting spiritual ceremonies and funerals. We don't want those wandering spirits to follow us back home.
What's the meaning of this festival? What traditions are usually practiced? What's your earliest memory?
The first reason [we celebrate this festival] is to pay respect to the ancestors and another reason is to provide charity for wandering spirits.
I guess I've been doing this since I was a child, 5 to 6 years old. I used to do this with my grandparents. They passed away 10 years ago.
There are lots of interesting memories about the Hungry Ghost Festival. For example, I remember going to see lots of Chinese operas and they usually serve free congee [a type of rice porridge] and fruit as charity. And my parents used to buy candies for me.
You are actually supposed to leave the first row empty on the first night of the opera performance because that's for the ghosts.
What would you like in the afterlife?
A pint of beer would be nice.
And they really should burn me a bank. The entire bank. HSBC headquarters would be wonderful!