Header image courtesy of Ngo Thye Aun (via Shutterstock)
Originally published by Sophie Pettit. Last updated by Jen Paolini.
If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood... And there may well be on 12 August, when the Hungry Ghost Festival creeps up on us once again.
In case you’re new to this, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a Taoist and Buddhist festival that falls on the entire seventh month (also known as the Ghost Month) of the Lunar calendar. It is believed that the Gates of Hell fling wide open on the first day, allowing the spirits of our ancestors to wander among us—casual stuff, really, no need to be creeped out.
While some people believe that the Hungry Ghost Festival will be a dangerous time when ghosts are thought to visit their families and exact revenge on those who have wronged them (eek!), others believe these poor, restless souls are in fact roaming the earth because they did not receive a proper burial, or they passed away far from home.
Either way, we’re not taking any chances, so before you freak out at the prospect of spending the evening with your great-great-grandmother (rest her soul), here are the major no-nos to help you stay safe during this inauspicious period.
These two colours are believed to attract ghosts. Therefore, wearing them during the Hungry Ghost Festival is an open invitation for them to follow you home! On the bright side, this is a great excuse to go shopping and add some extra colour to your wardrobe.
Normally, opening umbrellas indoors wouldn’t be an issue during the height of summer, but with Hong Kong’s unpredictable downpours, you can never be too sure. Resist the urge to pop open your brolly before you’re well and truly outside, as a sneaky ghost may be hiding inside—eek! This also rules out drying off your umbrella overnight, so be warned.
Ghosts with a soft spot for fashion may bypass your brolly in favour of your freshly washed smalls. It’s not because they’re trying to nick your knickers—they just want to get inside them so they can sneak into your home when you gather your laundry!
If you are looking to take a romantic stroll, make sure to rule out late-night dips and moonlit walks along the harbour immediately. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, hungry ghosts are at their most powerful under the light of the moon, so try to get home before sunset if possible. Remember to avoid large expanses of water too, as ghosts who drowned in their past life might try to lure you under the surface, should they spy you in the water.
Tempting though it may be to pocket a rogue dollar—resist. You might accidentally anger a loitering ghost in the process by pocketing a sacrifice that was intended for them, and we all know that a disgruntled spirit spells trouble. Is pocket change really worth suffering the wrath of a restless soul? We think not. Keep walking, buddy...
This is somewhat difficult in a city where minuscule living spaces are the norm. Gravitate towards the middle of the room to distance yourself from any ghosts that have crept in—they are more likely to stick close to the walls to prevent exposing themselves.
Those who have their heels raised off the floor for prolonged amounts of time are thought to welcome spirits up from the underworld, so ditch the stilettos—it’s flats and sneakers all the way during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Your back will thank you, anyways.
If you do any of the above, then nearby ghouls might mistake your one-man show for an invitation to join in. Looking for an on-stage partner? Well, sing a little louder buddy—we can already hear the theme tune to Ghostbusters blaring out.
Make sure to put off special, life-changing events—such as weddings—until after the Hungry Ghost Festival ends. It is believed that marriages started during this time will not end well—we warned you! It is also considered inauspicious to start a business during this spooky period, so take the month off and go on holiday.
Okay, enough of the negativity. Here are some rather lovely things that you can do during Ghost Month to keep the spirits from knocking at your door—or walking straight through it!
Light nine sticks of incense and go through each room in your home to cleanse the spaces and ward off pesky spirits. Sorry, ancestor, but lingering around is not on your to-do list. Do this every week of the month to be extra safe—just think how gorgeous your flat will smell.
It is also a good idea to keep your home well lit, as wandering ghosts are said to be attracted to dark and gloomy spaces. Keep a table lamp or any light source turned on in common areas, and make sure you replace any blown light bulbs.
A difficult one, but try to stay calm when surprised and if you hear someone call you or tap you on the shoulder, don’t just look over your shoulder. It is believed that doing so causes an imbalance in your energy and will leave you susceptible to possession—yikes! Instead, turn your whole body around and face them head-on.
Finally, make efforts to appease these transient ghosts and your ancestors, particularly on the actual day of the Hungry Ghost Festival. This can be done by burning some faux paper money or other gifts or leaving food offerings to sate the appetite of the spirits.
The Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations are ongoing, with Cantonese opera performances—usually held on temporary bamboo stages—popping up across the city throughout the month, and traditional offerings such as incense, rice, and tasty foods being left for ancestors outside homes and in public spaces. Keep an eye out!