Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Ghosts, Ghouls, Goblins and Sundry Spirits

It's that time of year again.  Ghost month.  It commences on the 15th night of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which usually falls around mid-August to mid-September on the Gregorian calendar.  It is the month in which Buddhists and Taoists believe that the gates of hell are opened, allowing all ghosts and spirits to emerge for food and drink and, most importantly, to visit the living.

Coupled with Qingming Festival (where you clean and pay homage to the grave sites of your ancestors) and Chung Yeung Festival (another festival dedicated to ancestor worship), one could easily think that the Chinese are a little bit obsessed with death and their dead relatives.

But unlike the other two festivals, ghost month, or Ghost Festival, has a noticeable presence in my every day life.  It encourages the people of Hong Kong to burn things incessantly, everywhere, throughout this over-populated region.  For an entire month, everyone is a pyromaniac.  The acrid smell of smoke and incense permeates the air.  Small fires emerge from incense containers, in garbage cans, and on sidewalks, all hopefully to be safely extinguished.

I stumbled on this while walking home last night.  At times the flames seemed so out of control, with singed paper and burnt cardboard bits wafting through the air, that I thought the great likelihood of a live person dying from this ritual simply had to cancel out all of the benefits derived from appeasing the dead.

Further along my walk home, I happened upon another burning.  While this fire was smaller than the others I saw in the alleyway, it was more surprising to me because this was a major street (Lyndhurst Terrace) in Central, easily one of the busiest thoroughfares in Hong Kong (although they are all busy...).  I can't help but marvel at how the police and the firefighters here don't even bat an eye at open flames in the streets.

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