The Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (30 August in 2023), with Ghost Month running from 16 August to 14 September this year.
If you’re looking for cultural things to do in the city, it’s always a good idea to explore these beautiful Chinese temples, pick up your next reads at these Hong Kong bookstores, or check out different art galleries in Hong Kong. Starting from mid-August this year, the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated largely by the Chiu Chow community. Along with Chinese opera and the burning of paper gifts, there’s a list of things you should and shouldn’t do to not upset our spirit brothers and sisters.
Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong
What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?
The Hungry Ghost Festival is also known as Zhongyuan Festival (中元節) or Yulan Festival (盂蘭節), and is celebrated during a month-long period when various rituals and rites take place around the city to appease the ravenous ghosts. During this period, also known as Ghost Month (鬼月), twitchy troubled spirits are said to roam the streets and many people give out offerings for the visiting spirits of their ancestors to appease them, including ceremonial victuals, burned incense, joss paper, and hell money.
People also burn carefully crafted origami-like paper gifts constructed to resemble everything from clothing and designer bags to fast food and electronics. So, don’t be too concerned if you smell burning around town, or even in the corridors of your apartment block during this time.
Moreover, special sheds often go up around town during this month for locals to worship the gods and give out offerings in. Local neighbourhoods also hold nightly Chinese operas, with the front row seats always left vacant and reserved for the ghosts.
Why does Hong Kong recognise the Hungry Ghost Festival?
In 2011, the festival was recognised as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage. Its roots date back more than 2,000 years and it is celebrated by Buddhists and Taoists. In Hong Kong, it is celebrated by the Chiu Chow community in particular, many of whom trace their roots to Guangdong province.
Hungry Ghost Festival: Dos and don’ts
- Don’t touch the food offerings and apologise if you kick them accidentally
- Don’t stand your chopsticks vertically into your rice, as it resembles incense used when praying to spirits, and the starving ghosts might think you’re inviting them to your meal
- Don’t wear large amounts of black or red, as these two colours are believed to attract ghosts
- Avoid the number four, as it sounds similar to the word for “death” in Cantonese
- Keep your selfies to a minimum, unless you want to invite unexpected mysterious photo-bombers
- Keep away from the water if you can, as they say water spirits might drown people in order to reincarnate
- Don’t move to a new house, start new businesses, or marry, as the Ghost Month is considered to be an inauspicious time
- Don’t pick up money found on the street, and if you do, never bring any home as it’s believed that cash is used to bribe the guards of hell and, if you offend them, they might make the afterlife hard for you
- Don’t sleep facing the mirror or anything reflective, as it attracts spirits
Take note of all these things to avoid during the Hungry Ghost Festival in Hong Kong because hey, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
[This article was originally published in August 2018 and updated in 2023 by Elaine Wong.]