Songs the Drowned Men Sing: Hong Kong’s Chiu Chow Hungry Ghost Festivals Come Back to Life

When the gates of hell swing open on September 5, Hong Kong will be ready. Grand feasts will be left untouched beneath the harvest moon. The piercing sounds of Chinese opera will waft over empty seats. Incense smoke will thicken the warm, humid air. Fires will rip through joss paper effigies of mansions filled with servants.

The annual observance of the Hungry Ghost Festival stems from the tale of Maudgalyâyâna, a disciple of the Buddha said to have saved his mother from the harrows of hell with ritual chants. The story spread rapidly through local opera performances under the outward-looking Tang dynasty (618-907), when Buddhism peaked in the Middle Kingdom thanks to imperial patronage and deepening cultural and trade links with South Asia.

As the festival took hold in China, it become suffused with elements of homegrown religious traditions, from Taoist rituals to the ancestor worship and filial piety of Confucianism. But what defines the Chiu Chow version of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which predominates in Hong Kong, is its local deities and Buddhist practices, according to Selina Chan, a professor at Shue Yan University who has spent years researching the festival in Hong Kong.

Since it was elevated by China to the status of National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011, the version of the Hungry Ghosts Festival brought over from the Chiu Chow or Chaoshan region of Guangdong — a broad stretch of coastline that shares a culture and language distinct from the rest of the province — has received more promotion and attention than the Cantonese or Hoklo ones.

Chiu Chow migrants working the docks

As Chiu Chow migrants settled in Hong Kong in the mid-19th century, they congregated around Wing Lok Street in Sheung Wan. Early arrivals were mostly men who left their families behind to seek fortune in the British colony, working the docks and nearby warehouses in perilous conditions. Local lore describes how stevedores stumbled and fell to watery deaths as they heaved sacks of rice across a single, ramshackle gangplank connecting ships to the quayside. A similar story soon unfolded in Causeway Bay. There, Hong Kong’s longest-running Hungry Ghost Festival was imported by Chiu Chow merchants whose businesses at the East Point dockyards were haunted by the cold and bitter ghosts of coolies crushed under their cargo. The first Chiu Chow Hungry Ghost Festivals in Hong Kong were conducted by these labourers for deceased fellow “brothers” in the early migrant community, and embedded in such offerings was a fraternity morality that became the hallmark of local tradition.

Elsewhere, Confucian filial ethics made the Hungry Ghosts Festival a second kind of Ching Ming, a day to worship your ancestors and tend to their tombs. But for these early Hong Kongers, the distinction was clearer: the “hungry ghosts” were drowned men who died far from home, and whose remains would never return there and be cared for by future generations.

“Locals will tell you those ghosts are not their ancestors, but those who died of misfortune, or wandering spirits,” says Chan. “People will tell you during the festival that we have to commemorate those who died by suicide or in typhoons, traffic crashes and industrial accidents, as well as the victims of SARS or the Manila hostage crisis.”

Chan says this could be a way for communities to process trauma. In Fu Tei Au, Chiu Chow communities also gathered to tend to the drowned. In this northern New Territories village, it wasn’t dockers who were the victims, but refugees from the mainland who tried swimming to Hong Kong along the Ng Tung River. In the 1960s and 70s, locals told Chan, bodies often washed up on the banks and they had to pacify these troubled spirits and ferry them to the shores of the world beyond.

King of Ghosts – Photo by Chong Fat

Feeding spirits doesn’t have to be a literal action. It can also mean ritual chanting to purify or pacify them. One tradition sees operas for a spectral audience while still-breathing spectators crowd around the sides or behind a phalanx of apparently empty seats. In another, lotus-shaped lanterns are set afloat to draw lost souls over the sea to the afterlife. Over time, offerings have changed from being food for ghosts to food for the poor.

“Hungry Ghost Festival isn’t just about caring for wandering spirits,” says Anven Wu, one of the key organisers for Sai Kung’s Chiu Chow Hungry Ghost Festival. “It’s also about making offerings to the needy.” Wu says that the Chiu Chow word for the observance literally translates as “feeding the forsaken” and this extends to the living as well as the dead. A son of Sai Kung’s Luk Mei village, Wu’s ancestors hail from the the second-largest city of the Chaoshan region, Swatow (now known as Shantou). His father helped run the village’s Hungry Ghost Festival community events before him, and Wu and his brothers picked up the mantel after their father passed away to carry on his legacy.

He says that Chaoshan suffered a series of natural calamities and social upheavals in the late Qing era and that, left in the lurch by the crumbling dynasty, local gentry and religious institutions stepped in to help the common folk. On the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, Buddhist temples held fundraising events where sacrificial offerings doubled as relief goods, and were “distributed to the disadvantaged in both our world and the underworld.”

Like many traditions, the Hungry Ghost Festival has weathered decades of decline. Long sustained from the bottom up, it founders when the tight-knit communities of kinsmen that had kept it afloat dissolve. Neither the sea of strangers that replaced them, nor the hulking chain stores that commandeer their shopfronts, care to buoy up the drowned men.

“It’s also about making offerings to the needy.” Anwen Wu and his team preparing for the festival in their village in Saikung

But elsewhere, the tide has turned. While urban festivals have faded, rural communities in the outlying islands and New Territories have breathed new life into their day of the dead. At the Hungry Ghost Festival in Fu Tei Au, villagers are resurrecting long-forgotten Chiu Chow rituals. In the surrounding villages, the Cantonese used to complain about the “King of Ghosts” to whom the Chiu Chow people worshipped. They found the bony, flame-breathing incarnation of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy whose charred flesh, asphyxiated blue face and dominion over the dead too frightening. Outnumbered, the people of Fu Tei Au stowed away the shadowy sovereign to appease their neighbours. Now he reigns again.

All the same, organisers like Anven Wu have had to adopt the old ways for a new audience. A gamified version of the ritual rice giveaway was adapted from Taiwan, where the festival is also enjoying a renaissance thanks to the wave of “Taiwanification” that has followed years of Japanese and Kuomintang repression. Originally a deeply religious event, Hungry Ghost Festival has been repackaged a secular piece of traditional culture.  Wu also says he intentionally left out the word “Chiu Chow” when he sought company registration for the event, in an effort to welcome people from different backgrounds on board.

Reclamation has swallowed up the former harbourfront of Wing Lok Street, which is now as estranged from the harbour as it is from the men who toiled there. The site where some of Hong Kong’s first hungry ghosts were born may be buried, but their stories — and soon, their spirits — are all around us.

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