CREEPY CORNER: Those Hungry Chinese Ghosts

When I am a ghost, I will order Chinese take-out.
Publish date:
July 27, 2016
food, creepy corner, urban legends, ghost stories, beliefs, Hong Kong

The Creepy Corner really loves my neighbors.

You know, the "Red Light Neighbors" who wave their arms and snap their wrists as if in the midst of some sort of trance-ritual, all by the glow of a mysterious red light? Yes, them.

Almost every email I get asks me about them. Along with Gef the Mongoose they just might have to be incorporated into the Creepy Corner Coat of Arms (which incidentally, one of you actually sketched and sent to me — I adore you wonderful weirdos!).

I don't really have an update on them, aside from the fact that I occasionally see them in the middle of the night, sitting at their table, backs straight, staring at each other, red light glowing. Sometimes I see an arm in action, but not often.

But the reason I bring up my secretly-Internet-famous neighbors is that I found this Hong Kong ghost story that made me think of them. I'd heard versions of this story before, but now that I live where I live (and with the Hungry Ghost Festival around the corner) the chills are all the chillier.

Or maybe it's just because I've been ordering way too much delivery lately — food and ghosts are on my brain.

Plus, my mom says she has a spirit communicating with her through her trash can. More on that later.

So I present to you, Creepy Corner Creeps, a good old-fashioned ghost story. Some say it's true, some say it's just a legend that's been transposed into an urban environment. Either way, turn the lights low or head out to your porch, and enjoy.

Credit to teacher/translator Fred Lobb and his site, for offering the primary source from which the re-telling you're about to read is drawn. Lobb's translation came from this source as well as this one.

The story supposedly happened in 1953 at a building on Nathan Road, a major road on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong (very close to where I live).

Before we proceed, remember that the number "4" is considered an unlucky number in Chinese culture. The word for the number four, and the word for "death" are nearly the same word. Keep that in mind.

An old woman lived on the fourth floor of her building. One evening she started seeing a disturbing scene repeat itself over and over again in the window of the fourth floor apartment building facing hers.

Through her neighbor's window she could see four or five people sitting at a table playing mahjong. One of the people always sat near the window, "as if on lookout duty." This alone was not what upset the old woman. It was that the mahjong players were all dressed in white (Chinese funereal garb) and HAD NO HEADS.

So she took to closing up her curtains come nightfall.

And since she did not have the benefit of the Creepy Corner Community, nobody believed her. (Can you imagine if I brought this story to the Creepy Corner in all earnestness? PIZZA PARTY!)

But as it turns out, the woman wasn't the only person who witnessed the strange goings-on in that fourth floor apartment.

A restaurant received an order by phone for delivery. The customer requested four bowls of congee (rice porridge) to be brought to a fourth floor apartment on Nathan Road. When the delivery boy knocked on the door to the apartment, it only opened a crack, not enough to see inside, and a single hand took each bowl of congee, one at a time, into the apartment.

Once all four bowls were inside the apartment, the same single hand reached through the cracked doorway, "clutching the correct amount of money" to pay the boy.

When the boy got back to the restaurant, he looked at the money he had been given and realized that they were not Hong Kong Dollars but Hell Notes, "money to be burnt for the dead as an offering to the deceased in the world beyond." The restaurant owner was obviously not happy, and he was especially not happy when the exact same thing happened the next night: same order, same apartment, same manner of taking the four bowls, same manner of paying.

And again, though the delivery boy thought he'd gotten real money, when he got back to the restaurant the money turned out to be Hell Notes.

Not pleased to be swindled, when the same order from the same apartment came in again the next night, the owner sent a more experienced delivery man — "someone who might be better able to spot a sleight of hand and to deal with any miscreant."

When the delivery man got to the fourth floor apartment's door, the same thing happened. The door cracked open, one hand took each of the four bowls one at a time, then paid by passing a handful of cash through the doorway. When the delivery man got the money, he was careful to count and inspect it before the door closed. All was in order; he had received Hong Kong legal tender.

When the delivery man got back to the restaurant, he reached for the Hong Kong Dollars he'd received at the apartment. However, when he took the money out, they were not Hong Kong Dollars, but Hell Notes.

At this point the restaurant owner called the police.

This is where the story has a few endings, each creepier than the last.

In one version, the police actually went to question the old woman who lived opposite to the mysterious apartment, and when she told them what she'd seen, the officers refused to enter the home. Instead they sealed it up, and nobody was ever allowed in or out of it. Eventually the building was demolished and the mystery never solved.

Another version says that the police went to the apartment and when nobody answered the door, they broke it down. Inside they found four headless corpses along with the remnants of the food delivery orders. According to the authorities, the bodies had been dead for about a week, but the food in their stomachs (the congee from the restaurant) had been consumed in the past couple days.

Still other versions say that the apartment was investigated by police and thrill-seekers alike, but anybody who entered the apartment mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.

I will continue to make sure my Red Light Neighbors have heads.

But food and ghosts are not an odd pairing in Chinese folklore and belief. Just walk down the streets of Hong Kong during the Hungry Ghost Festival and you'll see whole FEASTS laid out on the sidewalk for the spirits to consume. Feeding ghosts and showing respect to deceased ancestors through food are integral parts of Chinese spirituality. Food can be a gateway to the spirit world.

Which brings me to my mom's trash can.

A few days ago she sent me an email telling me about her Fai Zi Gwai or "Chopstick Ghost."

One morning my mom was taking the trash bag out of her kitchen trash can. When she lifted the bag out of the tall, metal bin, she saw two chopsticks arranged in an "x" at the bottom. Immediately she assumed that the bag had broken and she quickly inspected it to make sure she wouldn't leak garbage-liquid all over her floor. There was no leak, no tear.

Looking back down into the trash can, my mom picked up the chopsticks and found that they were unused, clean, the cheap kind you get with Chinese take-out. My parents never use those chopsticks; they don't trust the manufacturers (long story).

But there they were: two cheap restaurant chopsticks, out of their wrapper, placed at the bottom of her trash can in an "x", underneath the trash bag.

My dad had no idea what she was talking about, and the cats were like, "We don't have thumbs! We didn't do it!"

Mom has decided to take it as a sign from the Chopstick Ghost or Kitchen Spirit. She'd always been taught that the kitchen has a spirit watching over it. The Kitchen Spirit gives you "blessings of abundance" but also warns you not to waste food.

"Chinese people believe that as long as you have food, you do not have to worry anymore," my mom explained.

To my mom, it was a hint that she and my dad had been too wasteful with food lately. So she put the chopsticks back at the bottom of her trash can as a reminder to never take a full belly for granted.

Take my mom's story as you will. Chopstick Ghost or not, I like it. If nothing else, I'm always in favor of reminders not to waste food.

I hope the Kitchen Spirit watches over each and every single one of you creeps.

Do you have any stories concerning ghost stories and food? Folklore or cultural beliefs and food? Tell us!

I mean come on, food and ghost stories? I'm having a hard time thinking of anything better.

Want more Creepy Corner? Visit the Creepy Corner Facebook page!