In Trendy SoHo, the Ghosts of 30 Houses Rise for a Remarkable Festival

This story was published in 2018. An update will follow the text.

Taoist priests participating in the 30 Houses Yu Lan festival 2017

You won’t find 30 Houses (saa1 gaan1 卅間) on any map. It traces its roots to 30 stone houses that were commissioned in the 19th century by a well-off Guangzhou merchant surnamed Mok. Bounded by Hollywood Road in the north, Caine Road in the south and Old Bailey Street in the east, it corresponds roughly to present-day SoHo, a traditional neighbourhood hiding beneath a modern one. Next week, it plays host to one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive celebrations of the Hungry Ghost Festival – but as the community ages, 30 Houses and its traditions risk disappearing forever. When the 30 Houses area was first developed, its residents were mostly migrants from eastern Guangdong. Being alone in a foreign land, they formed close-knit communities. If someone passed away, their compatriots would raise money to hold a ceremony, even if they were not blood related. “This tradition was first initiated by street vendors in the area and then shop owners joined in,” explains Wong Kun-oi, chairman of the Central 30 Houses Yu Lan Kai Fong Association.

Many of the shops in the area were “coolie agencies” (gu1 lei1 gun2 咕喱館) that recruited rural workers for manual labour in the city. The Chiu Chow migrants were joined by Cantonese-and Hoklo-speaking newcomers. When it came time to mark the Hungry Ghost Festival each August, they did so with unique style that fused traditions from all three groups. Although the original stone houses that gave the area its name were destroyed during World War II, the community they forged continued to exist.

Wong, who turns 70 next year, grew up in 30 Houses. His family owned a rice shop in the neighbourhood, and by running deliveries for his parents, he came to know the area like the back of his hand. His father was a well-respected figure in the community and became heavily involved in organising the area’s annual Hungry Ghost Festival. Wong followed in his father’s footsteps and was elected to his position in 1992. “I take it as my mission for the rest of my life,” he says.

Known as Yu Lan (jyu4 laan4 盂蘭), the Hungry Ghost Festival is a hybrid of Buddhist, Taoist and folkloric rituals. Different ethnic groups have their own Hungry Ghost Festival rituals — Cantonese, Hoklo and Chiu Chow — and these take place all over Hong Kong during the seventh lunar month of the year. The Chiu Chow community in particular are responsible for about 60 of the 100 celebrations that take place around the city. Whatever their origin, each of these Yu Lan rituals serve similar purposes: to pay homage to the gods and ancestors, to sooth wandering spirits, to care for the living by giving away goods, to bring good luck to the neighbourhood and to join people together.

Even though Wong’s ancestors came from Chiu Chow, the 30 Houses Yu Lan festival takes pride in its hybrid nature. It lasts for just one day, on the 24th day of the seventh lunar month of the year. The day before, a series of makeshift sheds are erected opposite the Yu Lan Association, at 62 Staunton Street. Among them is an altar for ancestors, known as fu6 zin3 toi4 (附薦臺), a temple (ging1 paang4 經棚), a banquet venue for spirits (baai2 jau1 zik6 擺幽席) and a home for the King of Ghosts (dai6 si6 wong4 大士王). Wong has taken pains to make sure the set up is impressive, even if it lasts for only one day. “I go the extra mile,” he says. “After taking over the reins, I replaced some of the flower plaques with the embroidered textiles as decorations.”

The day starts with the raising of six flagpoles and lanterns at different junctions around the neighbourhood, creating a perimeter for wandering souls to enjoy the festivities. Each of the six locations is guarded by Tudigong (tou2 dei6 gung1 土地公), the earth god. Next, a troupe of Taoist priests and musicians march through the neighbourhood, their presence a sharp contrast to the trendy bars and restaurants that have dominated the area since the early 2000s.

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The banquet venue for the departed is awaiting its guests – 30 Houses Yu Lan festival 2017

After lunch, a Banquet for the Departed — an awe-inspiring array of dishes — is laid out in front of the King of Ghosts. Then, as the day wears on, scripture chanting fills the air. The Taoist scripture Gwaan1 Dang1 Saan3 Faa1 Fo1 (關燈散花科) is half-sung, half-spoken in Cantonese, a ritual meant to lead wandering souls to the temple, where they can escape their torment and be showered by the poetic metaphor. The scripture tells of the life cycle of a flower and how it mirrors the impermanence and inconstancy of human life. In the hope of untangling any emotional knots for the tormented souls and releasing them from any unresolved resentment, grudges, or obsessions, the priests scatter blessed tokens.

Around 10:30 in the evening, it is finally time to say farewell to the spirits and to send them on their way. This is when a rare ritual that takes place nowhere else in Hong Kong is staged: the beating of the King of Ghosts. Fearing that spirits might cling to the human realm and cause harm to the living, a group of six male members of the community use long bamboo rods to tip over the huge effigy of the king. As it lies on its back, the men start vigorously beating it before throwing it in a furnace. As the King of Ghosts is engulfed in flames, he is meant to escort his ghostly entourage into another realm.

Getting ready to beat the King of Ghosts – 30 Houses Yu Lan festival 2017

Although their music and smoke punctuate the stifling heat of every August, Hong Kong’s Yu Lan festivals are quickly disappearing. A recent study noted that 20 of them disappeared between 2007 and 2015, and they continue to vanish. In the case of 30 Houses, redevelopment and gentrification threaten to put an end to the festivities. As SoHo became an entertainment district home to Central office workers and expatriates, many of its older residents have left, along with the businesses that once supported the Yu Lan festival. The area’s newcomers are not especially sympathetic to the festivities. In other neighbourhoods, noise complaints have led to the end of Yu Lan celebrations, and last year’s festival in 30 Houses received at least one complaint.

The newcomers aren’t keen to lend the festival any financial support, either. Traditionally, Wong and his team canvass the neighbourhood, looking for donations, but these days their efforts always come up short, which Wong blames on language and cultural barriers. “We have seen deficits for the last three consecutive years,” he says.

Hoping to build bridges between SoHo and the traditional 30 Houses community, the Central and Western Concern Group is organising a film screening and tour of 30 Houses the day before the Yu Lan Festival. Wong says he hopes these kinds of efforts can secure a future for the tradition. “I can’t let the community down,” he says. “I don’t want this tradition to end with me.”

Update: Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, a pared-down version of the festival will take place on August 31, 2021.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the origin of 30 House’s original inhabitants. We apologise for the error.

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