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The Why's and How's: Yu Lan Pen aka Hungry Ghost Festival

As we fast approach the end of August, it signifies a festival that might be known to many, yet still a mystery to some. As you walk out on the streets of Hong Kong, it is a common sight during this month to have the locals burning joss sticks, paper offerings, candles, and food offerings. The Hungry Ghost Festival is an intriguing and culturally significant event celebrated by not only the people of Hong Kong but greater China as well. This traditional festival, deeply rooted in Chinese folklore and beliefs, offers a unique glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the region. Our LocalHood website content team volunteer Saravanan Subramaniam sheds some insights on In festival and this article, we will explore the origins, customs, and significance of the Hungry Ghost Festival, shedding light on this captivating celebration and the don’ts during Hungry Ghost Month.

In Pic: Hungry Ghost Festival celebrates the ancestors

The Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as Yu Lan Pen, has its roots in Taoism and Buddhism. It is celebrated on the 15th of the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar. According to traditional beliefs, around this time of the year, the gates of the afterlife open, allowing spirits and ghosts to roam freely among the living. This month-long festival is dedicated to honouring and appeasing these wandering spirits, ensuring their well-being, and preventing any misfortune or disturbances. Though its roots go back to China, this festival is widely celebrated in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia as well.

Throughout the Hungry Ghost Festival, various customs and rituals are observed by the people of Hong Kong. One of the most prominent practices is the offering of food, money, and other material possessions to the spirits. These offerings are made at makeshift altars or designated areas, believed to be the meeting points between the living and the deceased.

Elaborate ceremonies, such as the "Yue Lan" or "Feast of the Hungry Ghosts," are organized in many neighbourhoods. These events feature vibrant performances, including Chinese opera, music, and dance, aimed at entertaining and appeasing the spirits. Theatrical shows and puppetry are also common during this time, adding to the festive atmosphere.

Another notable custom is the burning of joss paper, also known as "ghost money." It is believed that these offerings will reach the spirits in the afterlife and provide them with comfort and prosperity. Additionally, people release floating lanterns or light candles to guide the spirits back to the spirit world at the end of the festival.

In Pic: Festivities of Yu Lan Pen in Mid levels

The Hungry Ghost Festival holds immense cultural significance for the people of Hong Kong. It serves as a reminder of the importance of filial piety and respect for ancestors. The festival also fosters a sense of community and togetherness, as families and friends come together to honour their ancestors and pay homage to the spirits. In recent years, the festival has undergone some modern adaptations. Alongside traditional rituals, contemporary activities like outdoor concerts, street performances, and food fairs have become popular. These additions have made the festival more inclusive and appealing to younger generations, ensuring its continuity and relevance in the modern era.

Having looked at what and how the festival takes place, we shouldn’t forget some of the things one shouldn’t do during the month of Hungry Ghost. First thing first, don’t hang your clothes outside throughout the night as the shapes of the clothing are said to attract the visiting spirits and they are more than happy to “borrow” your clothes. You are also recommended not to take the last bus or train ride and please do not take photos late at night. Taking the last bus or train is pretty normal if there are other commuters around, but if you ever feel like you are alone, you most likely aren’t. Coming to the second part of taking photos late at night, is said to trap vengeful spirits on the phones or cameras, so think twice about taking a photo late at night.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is a captivating celebration that showcases the deep-rooted beliefs and cultural heritage of the people of Hong Kong. Through its customs, rituals, and vibrant festivities, this traditional event offers a unique insight into the spiritual and communal values cherished by the locals. As Hong Kong continues to evolve, the Hungry Ghost Festival remains a cherished tradition, bridging the gap between the past and the present, and preserving the cultural identity of the region.


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