Halloween in a City of Ghosts

There’s something undeniably creepy about Nam Koo Terrace, an abandoned red-brick mansion on Ship Street in Wan Chai. Nearly seventy years ago, the house was used as a military brothel during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, and the ghosts of so-called “comfort women” are said to haunt the house today.

In 2003, a group of teenagers made headlines when they snuck into the mansion and became so distraught they had to be hospitalized.

But when Wong Sau-ping takes ghost-seekers on a tour of Wan Chai, it’s not Nam Koo Terrace that scares them the most — it’s the hill behind it.

“There’s a place in the woods where people say a woman hanged herself,” she said. “When we went to investigate, we found a big urn, and nearby is a shrine where people perform rituals to chase ghosts away.”

Sometimes people become so scared they feel ill and leave the tour, she said. “Ghost stories let you imagine what happened — we can’t actually show you the ghost, so you have to fill in the blanks yourself.”

Wong works as a tour guide for St. James’ Settlement, a Wan Chai-based charity. Though most of her tours focus on other aspects of the neighbourhood’s history, it’s the ghost stories that are most popular.

“Wan Chai has a long history and it suffered a lot during the war, when there were bombings,” she said. “The stories keep coming — now that people know me as the ghost lady, they will come up to me with stories I haven’t heard before.”

This week has been especially busy as people get ready for Halloween, but Hong Kong’s fascination with ghosts goes back far longer than its interest in the Anglo-American holiday.

Traditional Chinese belief considers ghosts to be the spirits of those who died violently. Every year, on the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival is meant to put angst-ridden spirits at ease with paper offerings that are burned every night.

But in Hong Kong, where Halloween has become a multi-million dollar entertainment extravaganza, traditional Chinese beliefs about ghosts have been fused with the Western penchant for supernatural entertainment.

When Ocean Park launched its first Halloween Bash nine years ago, it took a conventional cobwebs-and-jack-o-lanterns approach. The following year, the amusement park’s marketing team changed tack and built the celebration around the Taoist concept of an afterlife wedding.

“It was a hit,” said Vivian Lee, Ocean Park’s marketing director. “So instead of having too many Western elements we decided to do something that’s more relevant to the market.” Since then, the Halloween Bash has featured attractions based on local ghost stories and settings, like a haunted public housing estate. Attendance over the month has grown from 200,000 in 2001 to nearly 550,000 today.

“It’s popular because it has to do with daily life,” said Lee. “People can relate to that.”

Ghosts — or at least ghost stories — are more of an everyday phenomenon that you might think. They’re enough of a concern that one property website, HK Property King, lists dozens of supposed hong zak — haunted houses — throughout the city.

In one Ho Man Tin housing estate alone, 13 flats are listed as haunted, based on violent deaths that occurred in the late 1990s and 2000s. Dozens of flats in old neighbourhoods like Sham Shui Po and Wan Chai are said to be haunted.

“If people say a place is haunted, the price goes down and people avoid it,” said Lisa Leng, a property agent in Prince Edward whose office is located around the corner from a 1930s-era building that, according to rumour, is home to a ghost.

Flats that were the setting for a particularly gruesome death often sit empty for years. In 1999, the head of a 23-year-old woman was found stuffed inside a Hello Kitty doll in a flat at 31 Granville Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui. She had been kidnapped, tortured and dismembered by men to whom she owed money. Today, the apartment remains boarded up and abandoned, but nearby CCTV cameras are said to have caught glimpses of the woman’s ghost late at night.

“If something happened in a house we’re showing a buyer, we’ll always tell them,” said Leng. “Sometimes they’ll have a feng shui master come in.”

Feng shui master Ng Pui-fu said that 20 percent of his cases have to do with ghosts. The busiest months are around Ching Ming, the Hungry Ghost Festival and Chung Yeung. “That’s when ghosts are most active and people are most sensitive,” said Ng.

In one case, Ng was hired by minibus drivers who felt their bus terminus was haunted by a ghost that had caused several accidents. He performed a ceremony in which he set out offerings so that a god would watch over the terminus “like a security guard.”

Schools are particularly fertile grounds for ghost stories. In St. Francis’ Canossian College, a headless priest is believed to haunt an old elevator, while the ghost of a nun lingers in the girls’ bathroom.

At the start of each new school year, older students delight in spooking newcomers with ghost stories. The most popular have to do with doomed romances. One story set at a dormitory at United College tells of a girl who cooked oxtail soup each night and lowered it down to her boyfriend, who lived on the floor below. One day, they agreed not to see each other during exam time, but the girl continued to cook soup. After exams, the boy found out that the girl had died — but the soup was still lowered to him every evening.

“These particular stories are popular to tell because they help students deal with this predicament between dating and studying,” said Joseph Bosco, a Chinese University of Hong Kong anthropologist who has spent years tracking the ghost stories shared by students.

In a way, ghost stories reflect the concerns and preoccupations of the people who tell them. The preponderance of wartime ghost stories was both a form of oral history and a way to cope with the “guilty feelings of being a survivor,” he said.

Bosco has found that fewer students are familiar with the old stories, like the one set at United College, because the underlying romantic tension has disappeared as attitudes towards dating become more liberal. But new stories take their place, and most of the students he has studied still believe in ghosts, even if they do not believe in traditional Chinese practices like feng shui.

“The stories themselves will change, but the interest in ghosts will remain,” he said.

This story originally appeared in the South China Morning Post on October 31, 2010.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday October 31 2010at 12:10 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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