Facing Death: The World’s Most Popular Festivals for the Dead

Please note this article was originally published in 2015. 

Designers Paola Sinisterra and Ignacio Garcia used to hate Halloween – until they started throwing an annual party for Duddell’s, the Central art bar. “We get to choose amazing music, invite a crowd that is craving genuine disorganized fun and get to dream up some pretty crazy ideas for decoration,” says Sinisterra, who has lived in Hong Kong for seven years. Last year, Igancio dressed up as a Jiangshi, or Goeng Si, a Chinese vampire – the kind of ghoulish figure that hops around in classic Hong Kong movies like 1985’s Mr. Vampire.

There’s something about autumn that makes people think of the spirit world.

Maybe it’s the transition between the light months of summer to the dark days of winter. Maybe it’s the time spent reflecting on life — and death — after the annual harvest. Whatever the reason, this is the time of year when a big part of the world is focused on questions of mortality, the supernatural and how this all relates to the mortal plane.

Here in Hong Kong, we have the Chung Yeung Festival (重陽節 cung4 joeng4 zit3), which normally falls in mid to late October. A national holiday, Chung Yeung is the time for families to get together and take hikes up hills and mountains as well as visit gravesites to practice ancestor worship. Chinese traditionally believe that the dead continue to exist alongside the living and need to be taken care of as they can influence the fortune of the living.

Chung Yeung is observed on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. It can be found mentioned in written documents that date to before the East Han period (before the year 25). The double nine date is considered a particularly inauspicious time and to counter the possible bad luck on the day in the valleys where people lived, families customarily climb to high ground, where they drink chrysanthemum wine. Today, Chinese families also take the opportunity to visit gravesites, which are often located in rural areas.

Halloween comes after Chung Yeung, on October 31. Though it is now a worldwide phenomenon of scary costumes, trick-or-treating and parties, it was originally the first part of a three-day Christian remembrance of the dead: Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve) is the day before All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day), which is followed by All Souls’ Day. The current date for All Saints’ Day was moved from the original May 13 to November 1 by Pope Gregory III (731–741); some scholars believe this was an attempt to usurp the traditional Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter.

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day is still widely celebrated in predominantly Catholic countries, including Mexico (where it is known as Día de los Muertos) and Macau, where All Souls’ Day is a public holiday. Saints and martyrs are traditionally honoured on November 1, while families visit the graves of their ancestors on November 2, in order to pray for those who haven’t reached sanctification and are still roaming the emptiness of purgatory.

Whereas All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day remain important religious festivals, Halloween has taken on a life of its own with mass secular appeal, thanks largely to the global influence of American traditions. As a former British colony, Halloween was never widely celebrated here until recently, but Hong Kong now makes up for it with gusto. Ocean Park draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to its annual Halloween bash which runs until November 1, while St. James’ Settlement offers spooky ghost tours of haunted sites in Wan Chai

“Sometimes people become so scared they feel ill and leave the tour,” says tour guide Wong Sau-ping. “’Ghost stories let you imagine what happened; we can’t actually show you the ghost, so you have to fill in the blanks yourself.”

Meanwhile, Paola Sinisterra and Ignacio Garcia are preparing for their latest Halloween party, which will be held on October 31 at Duddell’s. Don’t expect a solemn occasion: modern Halloween is a hedonistic celebration of letting loose. “Every time the party lights up and people start dancing, it’s that magic sudden moment when all the stress or running around and setting up dissolves,” says Sinisterra. “You never know if it will happen until it does and every time it feels great.”


Halloween vs. Chung Yeung vs. All Saints’ Day


Halloween is a major money maker around the world. Total spending on Halloween is expected to reach US$6.9 billion in America alone.

Chung Yeung Festival is one of the four major festivals celebrated by Chinese people around the world, including those in mainland China, Taiwan, and the overseas diaspora. It is on par with the other major festivals of Spring Festival, Ching Ming Festival, and Tuen Ng Festival.

All Saints’ Day is one of the three days of Hallowmas, a solemnity that is celebrated as a national holiday in many Catholic countries and the origin point for modern Halloween.


Modern Halloween is all about allowing your alter ego to come out through costumes and exaggerated make up. There’s a hedonistic party atmosphere, especially in Central, Lan Kwai Fong neighbourhood.

Chung Yeung Festival is a time for hopefulness and auspiciousness, as well as honouring of the dead.

All Saints’ Day is a solemn and spiritual time for honouring and remembering all the saints in Heaven.


Kids looks forward to collecting a big haul of Halloween sweets each year and get pretty upset when anything comes between them and their sweets.

Traditionally, sweet puddings are prepared for the Chung Yeung Festival as the Chinese character for puddings 糕 is pronounced “gao” (in Putonghua Chinese) and sounds the same as the character 高, meaning “height, high, rise.” The pudding is thus an auspicious food for those aiming to rise to a higher station in life.

Alms known as “soul cakes” are traditionally given out on All Saints Day in Europe. Made with sweet spices and marked with a cross, the cakes are given to “soulers” who go door to door asking for alms. The practice is linked to the origin of trick-or-treating during Halloween.



Halloween: Getting drunk at a costume party for adults and watching scary movies, while the kids go trick-or-treating.

Chung Yeung: Hiking up a high vantage point is a must. Not only is it wise to leave the home and head far away into nature to avoid any potential trouble on this inauspicious day, but a visit to ancestors’ graves is even better. Cleaning and tidying the graves, making offerings and prayers, all these actions will help in bringing good fortune back into the lives of the living.

All Saints Day: Many Catholic families will attend mass on this day to remember the good deeds of the saints as well as send prayers to their loved ones in Heaven. Graves of the dearly departed are visited and candles are lit for them as attending mass, visiting graves, and lighting candles as an offering.

Myths, legends and beliefs

Halloween originally was seen as a liminal time when spirits could easily visit the mortal world.

The practice of hiking to high points during Chung Yeung is rooted in a Han dynasty legend in which a man is advised by a fortune-teller to take his family to high ground on the ninth day of the ninth moon. When the man returned from his hike he found that all his fellow villagers had died of the plague while he and his family were away.

The legendary stories of Christians saints are remembered and honoured during All Saints’ Day.


Pumpkin for Halloween

Chrysanthemum for Chung Yeung and All Saints’ Day


Halloween: House-proud North Americans decorate their yard and facade of their houses with Halloween lights to create a festive atmosphere. The frenzy of decorating can get competitive amongst neighbours.

Chung Yeung: Incense and long Chinese candles are lit as offerings at graves for the souls of the ancestors.

All Saints’Day: Candles or “soul lights” are lit for a happy afterlife.


Scary Halloween costumes are worn. The custom of dressing up in costumes stems from the Scottish and Irish tradition of “guising” when children would wear disguises and go from door to door asking for sweets. Kids today still do this — trick-or-treating.

Light colors suitable for hiking are often worn on Cheung Yeung day as Hong Kong hillsides have a lot of mosquitoes. Light colors are said to keep the hiker cool and thus attract less insects.

Kids might get dressed up in saints costumes on All Saints’ Day for parties and feasts. This is a fun activity for Catholic parents to do with their kids and help pass on religious knowledge in a lively manner.


Traditional symbols

The classic Halloween jack-o-lantern was traditionally made from a turnip. The ancient practice of hollowing a turnip and lighting it from the inside comes from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack who played a trick on the devil and was cursed to walk the earth for eternity with only a turnip lantern to light his way, unable to enter either Heaven or Hell. In America, pumpkins were used instead of turnips to commemorate Stingy Jack as these were more readily available.

Chung Yeung Festival takes place on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar. It is thus also known as the “99” or “Double Nine” festival. The number 9 is a highly auspicious number as it symbolises longevity, completeness, and never ending fortune. Chrysanthemums are also a marker of the Chung Yeung Festival as they are placed as graves as well as used to make wine and cakes for the day.

The saints’ halo, the crucifix, chrysanthemums for the gravesites and candlelight are all symbols of All Saints’ Day.                                                                                                                                        

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