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Honouring ancestors among the high-rises

By Paul Knowles

Hong Kong celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival... and so much more.


It was magical, mysterious, timeless. A combination of country fair, gospel camp meeting and community theatre. Before me was an elaborate, brightyly coloured, temporary theatre, erected on a bamboo superstructure; on stage, actors from a Cantonese Opera were loudly declaiming their lines, accompanied by dramatic flourishes of percussion instruments.

To the right was an open-sided temple, similarly constructed, tonight housing Taoist priests performing a ceremony; last night, Buddhist monks had occupied the same places, an intriguing example of the inclusive nature of religious beliefs here. Behind me smoldered three enormous pillars of incense, burning non-stop throughout the multi-day event, and beyond them were several shrines, elaborating outfitted, with worshippers bowing (three times or multiples of three), waving incense and making offerings.

To my left stood the towering, ominous statue of Toai Si Wong, record-keeper of hell ­ flashing eyes, horrible expression, but made considerably less frightening by the laughing children, ducking through the statue's legs.

This was one of many sites of the Hungry Ghost Festival.This spectacle had been created by a volunteer committee, all members of the Ch'iu Chau community, who work year-round, and raise $800,000 Hong Kong dollars ­ about $133,000 Canadian ­ to fund the festival. The goal of the festival ­ apart from camaraderie and entertainment, which are very evident ­ is to placate the 'kwai', or disembodied spirits who are allowed out of hell in the seventh month of the Chinese year, or September. The Chinese highly venerate their ancestors, honouring them with prayer and offerings; at the Hungry Ghost Festival, they offer the same honours ­ including paper replicas of clothing, money and, in this day and age, papers cars and paper plasma television screens! ­ to any ghosts that may have been otherwise ignored. A smaller version of these community events can be seen throughout the streets of the Hong Kong, as people burn paper offerings to their ancestors and to the unknown, disembodied spirits. Those are quiet, personal acts of reverence. But the Hungry Ghost Festival, with the bombastic actors, the music, the hubbub of the crowd, is in no way quiet. It is a carnival ­ bright, busy and noisy.

This felt like the Hong Kong I had come to see ­ entirely mysterious, entirely foreign to my western eyes, traditions reaching back millennia. Except, when I raised those western eyes above the level of the rooftops in this highly ornate festival setting, I saw all around me the brand-new, soaring skyscrapers that are also the symbol of today's Hong Kong, a modern city on the grow. The next day, the theatre, the temple, the shrines and the statuary would be gone, burned in the final act of obeisance to the unknown dead. All that would be left would be a few ashes, and the urban parking lot that had temporarily become a heritage site. But the skyscrapers would remain, and they are going up so fast, you could believe there might be new ones by nightfall!

And in fact, they do change at nightfall, as the office towers Hong Kong Island participate in a light and laser show that draws residents and tourists to the Kowloon waterfront for a spectacular display. Once again, Hong Kong is state-of-the-art. That audience can then repair to any of hundreds of restaurants for food from all the Chinese traditions, from Shanghai to Cantonese. Thoroughly traditional.

I travelled to Hong Kong expecting to find deep treasure troves of oriental heritage. And so I did, ­ but not in the way I anticipated. There are very few heritage buildings in this thriving metropolis ­ I did manage to visit an old walled village and an 19th century merchant¹s home, both in the New Territories, and part of the official 'Heritage Tour', and Taoist shrines and Buddhist temples throughout all areas of Hong Kong ­ but in addition to these few historic artifacts, the heritage is boundless, alive and well. The treasure trove is the people, and their traditions.

The skyscrapers climb to the skies, but at their feet, in crowded street after street, are the traditional markets, a timeless tradition. In Kowloon ­ across the harbour from Hong Kong island ­ you can explore the flower market, bursting with beauty. And the songbird market, where Chinese men ­ only men ­ sit quietly listening to songbirds, carefully assessing the songs before making a purchase. Or the goldfish market, street after street of goldfish and related beasts and accoutrements, purchased not first for their beauty, but for their symbolic meaning, and for their positive feng shui. Ah, yes, symbolism and feng shui ­ almost incomprehensible to the western mind. We buy flowers for beauty; the people of Hong Kong also buy them for their meaning ­ red for happiness, yellow for wealth and power, green for prosperity, peace and eternity. Goldfish are important because water is an essential element in a home.

Feng shui is taken anything but lightly in Hong Kong. In fact, those startling, new, soaring skyscrapers on the harbour include an impressive glass triangle, designed by the famous I.M. Pei ­ who ignored feng shui, built a building that thrusts sharply toward its neighbours, and immediately created severe rental problems in the threatened buildings! There are many other street markets in Hong Kong, such as the ladies' market (offering typical flea market kinds of goods); the Temple Street night market (an after-hours flea market with everything from knock-off clothing to knock-off watches to fruit to ... well, what would euphemistically be known as items for mature buyers. That is, of course, debatable).

And there are wet markets, streets and streets of edibles from the sea, many still alive and kicking so hard you may be struck, ankle-high, by an escaping shrimp or crab as you wander through the containers of tonight's dinner.

Hong Kong is a complicated place. Since 1997 officially part of the Peoples' Republic of China, it maintains a real and spiritual independence. It is thoroughly modern and completely ancient. Although quite small, it encompasses crowded urban areas like Hong Kong Island and Kowloon; peaceful seaside villages such as Tai O and Sae Kung; pristine beaches; unpopulated woods and hills; and contemplative sites such as the 'Big Buddha' at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island. Hong Kong comprises many islands, most unpopulated, but many with towns and cities, including Lantau Island and of course, Hong Kong Island, the centre for business and government.

Across the harbour, on the mainland, is Kowloon, surrounded by the 'New Territories' ­ added to Hong Kong in the late 19th century. What all districts have in common is the amazing mix of ultra-modern with timeless tradition. In Aberdeen Harbour, sampans sail before a backdrop of highrises. In Mongkok, the state of the art, cyber-bubbled Langham Place Hotel rises beside a street level wet market. On Lantau Island, an ancient fishing village offers dried shark only kilometers from the site of the soon-to-open Hong Kong Disneyland.

In Kowloon, local people (elbow to elbow with a Canadian journalist) eat a breakfast of congee (rice porridge, way better than it sounds) across the street from a disco, just now disgorging its contents of tired young people dressed in up-to-the-second fashions. Hong Kong ­ changeless yet always changing.