Photos by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Text by Ye Charlotte Ming
In traditional Chinese beliefs, the gates of hell will be unbolted during the entire seventh month of the lunar calendar, releasing ghosts and spirits to roam the world of the living. This is why the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated on the 15th of the month, after two weeks of wandering leaves the ghosts starved and spooked.
To comfort the suffering ghosts and prevent them from becoming malevolent, people will offer food tributes and perform rituals to appease them. It is also a time when families pay homage to deceased relatives.
The 2,000-year-old tradition traces its roots to Buddhism and Taoism, and is still practiced in many parts of East and Southeast Asia. Many regions have their own unique iterations blended with local folklores.
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In Hong Kong, locals celebrate the Yu Lan festival by entertaining the dead with a night of traditional opera. Although everyone is welcome to attend, the first row of seats are left empty for the ghosts to sit.
Besides feeding the hungry spirits of dead relatives, people will also burn incense and paper items in the streets and other public spaces to ensure the deceased enjoy a happy and enriched afterlife.
Paper tributes are typically seen in the forms of dim sum, banknotes and gold ingots, but in recent years, the rituals have embraced a modern twist. Paper replicas of flashy gadgets and luxury goods such as iPads, Louis Vuitton handbags, cars and even mansions have soared in popularity.
On the last day of the month, water lanterns are lit to guide the ghosts back to where they came from.
In 2011, the Yu Lan Ghost Festival was listed as an intangible cultural heritage by the State Council of China. The festival is held at over 60 places on Hong Kong Island as well as Kowloon and New Territories. While you’re out there experiencing this unique cultural event, leave the food offerings alone. They are not for you.