CREEPY CORNER: The Hungry Ghost Festival

It's ghost month! (And I'm not supposed to be talking about ghosts)
Publish date:
August 27, 2015
superstitions, food, ghosts, creepy corner, festivals, bad luck

I can't get the smell of smoke and incense out of my hair.

Every night since last Thursday, when I turn down my cramped, neon lit street to pick my way to the front door of my building, I am confronted with many small fires.

Mostly Chinese women kneel or squat on the sidewalk tending to little bowls or tins of flaming "Hell banknotes." Next to the their mini-bonfires are surprisingly large spreads of food in take-out containers. I've seen everything from simple but tasty-looking selections of fruit, nuts, and cookies to gleaming, crispy skinned chickens, plates of dumplings, and entire cakes.

It's a weird sensation to look at food sitting on the dingy city sidewalk and feel your mouth water.

The food is spread out on the edge of the sidewalk like a buffet, taking up anywhere between three to five feet of space. Amongst the food, tall, fat sticks of incense burn, stinging passersby's eyes and threatening to singe exposed knees.

But the "fire women" on my street, mixed in with a couple older men and the occasional young person, don't care. There is no attempt to be modest in their offerings, no attempt to "make room." They have set out a feast for some very honored, and potentially frightening guests.

It's "ghost month" in Hong Kong, culminating in the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Yue Lan. This is the time of year when, according to Buddhist and Taoist belief, the gate between the spirit world and the world of the living is open. Ghosts from heaven and hell burst forth and hungrily walk among us, needing to be satiated.

I can't quite get a straight answer, but the Hungry Ghost Festival seems to peak either today or tomorrow (August 27th or 28th). Either way, this just might have been the PERFECT time for ol' Louise to pack up and move to Hong Kong.

Did I mention I moved to Hong Kong?

There's too much to tell in one little Creepy Corner post, so stay tuned for a separate post on what possessed me (it wasn't Oiwa) to leave Japan for Hong Kong.

Just know that outside of traipsing through cemeteries or cozying up to Robert the Doll, I've just embarked on the scariest, pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming adventure of my life. And I'm as happy as a singing mongoose.

So that's why there was no light on in the Creepy Corner last week. I was kind of between countries.

But I'm back in the Corner now, and what better way to kick off our first Hong Kong edition of Creepy Corner than smack dab in the middle of the Hungry Ghost Festival?

And no, I'm not that obsessive. I didn't purposely move to Hong Kong during the Hungry Ghost Festival. That's just how the ghost-cake crumbled.

Food and ghosts – it's like I was born here or something.

Anyway, you creeps will have all year to read about my Hong Kong adventures and misadventures. We're in the Creepy Corner, let's get back to the creepy.

At the point we are at in ghost month, the ghosts have already been running around for two weeks and they are famished and cranky. So what's the best way to keep a bunch of hangry ghosts at bay? Food and money.

Since dead people still have needs, paper "Hell banknotes" in million dollar denominations (gas prices in Hell — YIKES!) are burned to keep the dead financed. The dead also need nourishment, so food is offered throughout the month.

Today (or tomorrow, depending on your source) it's especially important to make offerings to the dead, or else you might end up offending an evil spirit who decides to curse you with bad luck, or worse haunt you.

But the Hungry Ghost Festival isn't all about hangry hell-ghosts. It's also about the ghosts of your loved ones coming back to visit. Often a family will prepare a seat at the dinner table (the gates to the world of the spirits open at sunset) complete with food and beverage, for their deceased loved ones. This is a time to reconnect with your ancestors and deceased friends and family, a time to feast and celebrate.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is also a reminder to be good to your family — living or dead. Many ghosts end up angry or "in hell" because they were mistreated by their families, forgotten, or were not respectfully cremated or buried.

While many of the ghosts from the "lowest" realms of hell may be evil, some of the other hell-ghosts just aren't ready to leave earth due to unfinished business. Unfinished FAMILY business.

Entertaining the ghosts is also an important part of the festival. Chinese opera "pops up" in parks at night (I witnessed a little performance at the park by my house a couple nights ago) to please and praise both deities and ghosts. The dead are supposedly drawn to the loudness of the music.

Food, money, entertainment. It's like Ghost Vegas around here right now.

Of course, the aspect of the Hungry Ghost Festival that I find most eerie as I sit in the early evening gloom of my apartment, that is filled with the scent of incense that is coming from I-don't-know-where, on THE DAY when the ghosts are supposed to be most agitated, is that this is the time of year when ghosts go back to their homes; the homes they occupied when they were alive.

I just moved into a 30-something year-old building in one of the older neighborhoods of Kowloon, Hong Kong. I don't know my neighbors let alone WHO DIED HERE.

Heaven-ghosts or hell-ghosts, I can't help but wonder if my husband and I are alone in our tiny apartment right now. If I was Cole Sear from The Sixth Sense, would I look around my apartment and see a bunch of dead Chinese people in various states of offended, lounging around my apartment wondering why the white dude and the Chinese lady aren't offering them a cookie? Is a ghost peeking over my shoulder as I type this clicking her tongue at my grammar and word choice?

Hello. Welcome to my home. Thank you for coming. Sorry about the mess. Please don't haunt me.

Then again I might already be screwed. Like most religious or cultural beliefs there are some rules that should be followed to keep the living, well, living and the dead out of our hair.

Here are the rules for ghost month that I've broken in less than a week's time:

1. Don't walk around outside or "stroll" at night.

2. Don't move into a new home, it's an unlucky month for new beginnings.

3. Don't wear red, it's like a ghost magnet.

4. Don't whistle or sing, another ghost magnet.

5. Don't hang your clothes outside to dry, a ghost might imprint "negative energy" on your clothes.

6. Stay away from walls because ghosts stick to walls. Obviously.

7. No taking pictures at night, you might accidentally photograph a spirit.

8. And then there's the rule I'm breaking RIGHT THIS SECOND JUST FOR YOU: Don't talk about ghosts during ghost month. You never know what will offend them.

Then there are other rules for ghost month, rules I haven't broken. Yet. They are:

1. Don't disturb ghost offerings. Apologize to the ghosts if you do.

2. No swimming, the ghost of a drowning victim might drown you.

3. Don't pee on a tree, and stay away from the woods. You never know what ghost lives in the tree you pee on. Words to live by.

4. Don't leave doors leading outside open. This invites ghosts in.

5. Don't get married in August, no good can come of it.

6. Don't pick up money you find outside and NEVER bring it into your home.

7. Don't be born during ghost month. If you MUST be born during ghost month, and you MUST celebrate your inauspicious birthday, only do so during the day. Night time is ghost time. It's not about you, OK?

In case any of you want to take some precautions against visiting ghosts for the next two weeks (ghost month ends in about two weeks) be sure to leave the lights on at all times because "ghosts lurk in the shadows," sprinkle rock salt outside your front door to repel them, and visit a church or temple if you're so inclined.


Do you have a spooky story you'd like to share? A great urban legend from your area? A personal scary story? Tell me! Send your stories to, and you might see it in the next Creepy Corner Reader Roundup! For guidelines see here.