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Celebrating the dead: The Yulanpen, the hungry ghost festival

Most of us are celebrating life…especially in today’s covid and rightly so. Many cultures around the globe including Hong Kong, observe a day or a period where the dead, ghost or spirits are in focus. This year our very own Yulan pen or the Hungry Ghost festival will be celebrated this month on the 21st of August. But before we get into its specificities let's widen our horizons to take a tour of how some other cultures celebrate the dead.

Dia de los Muertos or (Day of the Dead) in Mexico is a celebration that traces its earliest roots to the Aztec people in what is now central Mexico. The Aztecs used skulls to honor the dead a millennium before the Day of the Dead celebrations emerged.

For the Hindus, the ancestors are celebrated during Pitri Paksha, a lunar cycle that lasts for 16 days. Within this period, with prayers and rituals the Hindus pay homage to their pitrus or ancestors who have passed on. A variety of foods and dishes are offered to dogs, cows and crows during this time

Similarly, Christian celebrations of All Saints' Day held in November. It’s intent is to celebrate all the saints, including those who are no longer celebrated, or are not celebrated individually.

And then there is a festival round the corner which celebrates the dead in Hong Kong. Chinese people however have a belief that that dead with unsettled spirits pay a visit to the living in the seventh month of the lunar calendar for the Hungry Ghost Festival or Yulanpen Festival (traditional Chinese: 盂蘭盆節; simplified Chinese: 盂兰盆节). This year it will be celebrated this month, on Saturday the 21st of August. Prayers and rituals are done to pay respect and appease the ghosts of the departed, but also to show reverence and be pay respect to the spirits of your own ancestors.

These celebrations, whether Mexican, European, Chinese or in another culture, allow us another opportunity to appreciate the cultural diversity present in our world today. These is diversity that’s sure but more than that these celebrations also show how similar humans are. Indeed, all these celebrations are a good showcase of how humans associate with death, spirits, ghosts and to pay respect and remember the known and unknown ancestors.

In Pic: Festivities Yulan Pen in mid levels 2020. Source - PdF@ Team LocalHood

As we know in Chinese culture the respect for ones parents, elder family members and ancestors is very important and taken as a duty. You might have seen recently on the road side and in front of shops and homes, people providing offerings like food, drinks and faux money food for unknown wandering souls with no one to look after them, as well as burning joss paper in the form of paper products such as faux bank notes, clothing, cars, or other things ancestors enjoyed in paper form as a way to transfer them to the afterlife, so that departed loved ones will have spending money or continue enjoying the things they loved most when they were alive.

In their homes, families also usually serve food on the memorial tables in their homes to ask for their ancestors’ blessings as they believe the dead are looking after them in spiritual forms. Families who have altars or ancestral tablets and pictures set up at home will regularly offer incense and fresh food. The spirits visit their descendants because they haven’t received a proper send-off or been remembered well enough after their death.

In Pic: Chinese Opera (Source: wikipedia)

This article would not be complete without a list of things it is said best to avoid doing during this festival. Chinese people believe that in order to avois provoking the ghosts or incurring bad luck, we should:

1. Avoid telling ghost stories.

2. Avoid starting a new activity, or buying a home or getting married.

3. Hanging clothes outside at night

4. Don’t stand close to a wall

5. Don't take the last bus or train ride

6. Avoid taking photos at night.

7. Avoid standing chopsticks upright in your bowl when eating as this considered an invitation to the ghosts.

8. Avoid whistling at night

Finally, in various parks around Hong Kong, like the Victoria Park and the Sun Yat Sen park, in the evening in normal conditions- Chinese opera and dance performances are held at temporary bamboo structures decorated with lights. There are also temple rituals & music concerts to be seen in various places during the day time. Even though you might not be Chinese or do not understand Chinese it is always very insightful and interesting to attend these performances even if it is not to see it in its entirety. Unfortunately, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many events have been cancelled. It is always best to check official sites before heading to an event.


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