Ghost Festival孟蘭節/鬼節


Trigger warning:

This post might not be for the faint-hearted, listeners’ discretion is advised. If you are scared or offended for any reason, please turn to other episodes of mine that you might enjoy.

It’s again the time of the year for 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet). If you have never heard of it, it is essentially our ghost festival; some people also refer to it as 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet). First thing first, ghosts in Cantonese is 鬼(Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai). 節(Dummy PY: Jeet) like all other festivals I have talked about is festival or can also mean “a certain time period”. It’s nowhere similar to Halloween in the western culture. For us, 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet) lies on the week of the fifteen of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar,農曆七月十五(Dummy PY: Nung Lick Chat Yuet Sap Um). 農曆(Dummy PY: Nung Lick) means Chinese lunar calendar, 七月(Dummy PY: Chat Yuet) mean literally seven month, or also means July for our current gregorian calendar. 十五 (Dummy PY: Sap Um)means ten and five, so fifteen. For this year, 2020, the ghost festival lies on the week of September 2. The story behind this 孟蘭節 (Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet) ghost festival is that people in our culture believe that on this day of the year, the gate in the underground world will be opened. In Cantonese 鬼門大開(Dummy PY: Gwai Moon Die Hoy), literally ghost door big open, so the ghost door is now opened. The king of the underground world 閻羅王 (Dummy PY: Yeem Lo Wong) allow the ghosts that are trapped underground to come into the human world once a year, and these ghosts are often people who passed away but couldn’t cross over, some of these ghosts are deceased people who might not have any family or friends that will visit their graves, or burn them any incense or give them any offerings. These poor ghosts that are stuck in limbo, are often referred to as 游魂野鬼 (Dummy PY: Yau Won Yeah G-why/Gwai) basically referring them as wandering wild ghosts and spirits. These 游魂野鬼 (Dummy PY: Yau Won Yeah G-why/Gwai) some are good, some are bad, some are playful, and some are evil. It depends on their background. However, when they are stuck in the underworld, they are not allowed to eat. If they ate, their throat would burn so bad. So it kind of sucks for them because if these ghosts don’t really get any offerings, they will starve I guess. But once a year on 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet), when the 鬼門大開(Dummy PY: Gwai Moon Die Hoy) ghost door open wide time, they are allowed to come out and eat. Their throats won’t burn even when they eat, but only once a year.

So this is basically how this festival began. Some people back in the days understood how sad it is to not have any living individuals to care about or think about the deceased, and how they are unable to cross over and stuck in limbo, hence they started making offerings for these ghosts 游魂野鬼 (Dummy PY: Yau Won Yeah G-why/Gwai).

There is another version of how this 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet) began. For this version, it apparently stemmed from Buddhism 佛教(Dummy PY: Fut Gao). Some people believe that when Buddha Shakyamuni was still alive, he had 10 disciples in total. One of which before he got transcended his parents already passed away. This disciple really missed his mother, through some powerful Buddhist magic, not sure if that’s the right word but you get the idea, he saw his mother in the underground world living terribly. He was really hurt and he decided to use his “magic” to send some food for his mother in limbo. Unfortunately, once food touches his mother’s mouth, it turned into fire. Buddha then said it was because of the sin that the disciple’s mother committed when she was still alive. This kind of sin also could not be resolved with only the Buddha’s power, they had to join forces. Therefore, they gathered many powerful monks and people who had transcended to start a ritual for giving offerings and attempted to help transcend these ghosts that were stuck in limbo. Since then it has become a cultural practice. Every year in the 7th month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, people will kill poultry, burn stuff, in order to give offerings for these hungry ghosts 餓鬼 (Dummy PY: Ngo Gwai) 餓 (Dummy PY: Ngo) means hungry, so then these 餓鬼 (Dummy PY: Ngo Gwai) won’t be as bitter and resentful, eventually, this becomes the 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet) we have today.

So let’s talk a little more about what we usually do during the week of 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet). Keep in mind, these rituals that we do can vary from family to family, although only very small differences. As much as it is eerie and superstitious as some might say, as a child, I had always looked forward to 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet). That is because it is the one time of the year, where families and friends sometimes, would gather together and start preparing for this festival. Some of the things we do would be to first purchase these papers that are specially made for the deceased people. In Cantonese, we call these papers 金銀衣紙 (Dummy PY: Gum Ngan Yee Jee). 金 (Dummy PY: Gum) means gold. 銀 (Dummy PY: Ngan) means silver, 衣 (Dummy PY:Yee) is the formal way of saying clothes and 紙(Dummy PY:Jee) means paper. So as you can imagine, these papers are kind of golden silvery, people believe these 金銀衣紙 (Dummy PY: Gum Ngan Yee Jee) are essentially currencies in the underworld. We would fold these papers into ingot shapes, that just means it looks like the olden day Chinese gold bricks shapes. It’s quite a fun thing to do as a family, we will have to fold about 1-2 garbage bags worth of these 金銀衣紙 (Dummy PY: Gum Ngan Yee Jee). At the same time, we would also acquire these other paper bills, not the actual money that we use, but ones that are specially made for 鬼(Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai) ghosts. Oh yes. I would like to mention, if you are in Hong Kong, if you had no previous conception of this festival, beware of the paper bills you might see on the ground, try to actually determine if it’s a Hong Kong paper bill or if it’s these ghost bills, usually on these ghosts bills, the dollar amount is large, like $10,000, $100,000 something like that. Don’t pick these ghost bills up and bring them home because you certainly wouldn’t want to bring these unwanted spirits home. As a child back in the days, when I saw these ghost bills, I was of course really fascinated by these bills. you know, as a kid, I thought I was going to be rich! But no, please resist the urge to pick these ghost bills up, they are not for living beings. Then once all of these paper bills, these 金銀衣紙 (Dummy PY: Gum Ngan Yee Jee) are collected and prepared, we would need to prepare some food. These can be rice飯 (Dummy PY: Farn), tofu 豆腐 (Dummy PY: Dau Fu), Chicken 雞 (Dummy PY: Guy) Roasted pig 燒肉 (Dummy PY: Shew Yuk), vegetable 菜 (Dummy PY: Choy) or whatever you think the ghosts might enjoy. Finally don’t forget to get some incenses, 香 (Dummy PY: Heung) literally means smells good, same 香 (Dummy PY: Heung) as香港(Dummy PY: Heung Gong), Hong Kong. 香 (Dummy PY: Heung) the incenses are like long thin sticks, and you also burn them to get the aroma. Definitely take a shower afterward because the smell of the incense will stay with you for a long time if you don’t wash it off. These are very often seen in temples and shrines. However, personally speaking, I definitely don’t think they smell good. Then after we have all of these prepared, finally we will take them out on the street. Set up a small shrine, or go to the shrines that previous people already set up, put down the food, then we start doing our ritual.

The ritual includes first burn the 香 (Dummy PY: Heung) incenses, just light them up, find a spot to stick them upwards, sometimes on the food if there is no such place for you. Then after placing the incenses, you can put your hands together and do several small bows, I usually do 3. Then starting a fire, sometimes some people have buckets for the fire, then we start burning the 金銀衣紙 (Dummy PY: Gum Ngan Yee Jee) and the ghost bills, usually one by one but if it takes too long then you can throw in multiple at a time. Once you finish burning all the stuff, the ritual is pretty much done. You can leave the food there because sometimes the ghosts won’t come until later. During the week of 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet) it is fairly a common sight of people coming out doing these rituals. In Cantonese, we call this street burning and offering cultural practice, 路祭 (Dummy PY: Low Jai). 路 (Dummy PY: Low) means street, 祭 (Dummy PY: Jai) means like a ritual to give offerings, in Japan this word can also mean a festival. After the end of this week, the street cleaners will clean everything up. Keep in mind, since you are dealing with public fire, of course during this week for doing this ritual it’s legal but definitely not like arson, that’s illegal for sure. Making sure you are safe. I will tell you some personal stories of what my father told us as children. Back when my father was a child, during this week, sometimes people would also throw in coins, these are actual coins that living people use. Kids would get very excited and go around picking up these coins. But sometimes they were not as alert. One of my father’s childhood friends actually got very seriously burnt from doing that so for sure be very safe.

I would like to share some places in Hong Kong that are said to have had major events of either people dying or haunted. Some people might think I am superstitious but to be fair, in Canada, I mean at least in Ontario, I have never sensed the presence of unwanted paranormal activities as of yet. Even actually some of the people I know from mainland China that came to study in Hong Kong also noted that Hong Kong is especially eerie, even though it is a vibrant metropolis. Of course, certain parts of Hong Kong are especially uncomforting and some parts are not as unsettling. One of the reasons why you can trace back to the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong time, many people died with a lot of resentment etc. There are places in Hong Kong such as Tiu King Ling 調景嶺, this place was originally called 照鏡嶺 (Dummy PY: Jiu Geng Lang). 照鏡 (Dummy PY: Jiu Geng) means checking or looking at the mirror. Apparently, it’s because at the time the Hakka farmers would wear farmers hats that could reflect the sun like a mirror. But the place later changed its name after the New Territories was lent to England at the time, and later a foreign white person who took his own life by hanging, this place was later named 吊頸嶺 (Dummy PY: Dew Geng Lang), meaning hanging neck cliff. So apparently this guy was a Canadian retired civil servant, his name was Alfred Herbert Rennie, who owned a flour factory in this place in 1905. Unfortunately, the factory got shut down 3 years later and he hung himself at the factory in April 1908. This place was later named to a closely pronounced name, the one we have now, Tiu King Ling 調景嶺 because calling this place the hanging neck cliff just sounded really unsettling for people. Another place that was said to be haunted is Wan Tao Tong 運頭塘in Taipo, it literally means “transporting head pond”. It was said to have been the place where the Japanese army would send the dead bodies to bury.

Finally, at the end, I would like to share some personal ghost stories with you in Hong Kong. Back when I was still a university student, I was living in Hung Hom紅磡, Kowloon. I had been essentially living in Hung Hom my entire life but I later moved out to an area very close to where all the crematoriums and funeral places because the rent was cheap and I was still close to family. In the beginning, everything was fine and okay, although of course, it was not so comforting when every day I had to go home and go through all these streets that sold coffins and like things to burn for ghosts. I had a cat then, and he is still with me here now in Canada. I loved to take my cat out although mom already warned me that cats in our culture can attract spirits. Anyway, it was just before the time of 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet), I noticed my cat staring at certain things, making such heart-wrenching meows. At the time, I was reading on my bed. At times I would feel someone grabbing onto my arm, then the next day the whole arm would be numb. Sometimes I would feel someone staring at me, and sometimes at the corner of my eyes, I could see a shadow going by very quickly. I would also hear door knocks, and when we opened the door, no one would be there. At first, I suspected it was the kid next door who was being naughty and pranking on the neighbors. I even put up a notice on my door asking the parents to bring the kid down to the playground or park to play. Eventually, when I was talking to the security guard at the building, we realized most tenants on our floor had already moved out, including the kid’s family. On our floor at the time, there were only 4 families left. Also noticed that outside of our building someone also set up some shrines as if to pay respect to something, not sure what. At the time, my boyfriend, now my husband, would try to use Chinese meditation methods to try to force the ghost out. But it didn’t work. So it got to the week of 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet)or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet), my then-boyfriend now husband revealed to me that since he hadn’t wanted to scare me any further before, but he felt it was important enough now that he actually had a tiny, almost childlike teeth mark on his arm. Of course, instantly I freaked out. My husband as a Canadian living in Hong Kong at the time did not believe in ghosts. Then I talked to my parents, they then went to Taiwan and got us some Buddhist beads at the temple. Later also got us the Buddhist song player, where it just kind of chants 南嘸阿彌陀佛, the Buddhist chants. Then once we started playing the recording, my cat instantly puked within 30 seconds. Of course, we had no idea if my cat was possessed or whatever, we had no way to figure out. But just thought that was pretty strange and my cat was perfectly healthy. Basically, since then my husband actually believes in the existence of ghosts. Everything calmed down a bit for several weeks, then one day I got home going into the elevator, an older uncle was already inside. He asked which floor I needed to go, I told him the 8th floor and he said he also lived on the 8th floor. He then asked me this really odd question, “Did anyone attempt to open your door late night last night?” I was like no? He then went like “yea, someone tried to open my door at 11pm last night. The door was pushed open but no one was outside. Then at 1am, someone pushed open my door again and I chased the person, got to the elevator lobby, only saw that the elevator stopped on the 8th floor but there was no one there.” I got home, basically double and triple locked my door, was scared. Soon after we moved out. But my mother told me, as she sometimes would come up to our place, said once she was leaving when she stepped inside the elevator and heard someone called out “等埋!” meaning “Wait up”. She waited but no one came in, she looked outside and there was a dark shadowy figure lurking at the corner of the elevator lobby. She left immediately.

Yea so that was just one of my paranormal experiences in Hong Kong. I hope I didn’t startle you. Despite everything, I am still safe and sound, was just terrifying is all. Ok, let’s go through these vocab we talked about today.


Ghost festival - 孟蘭節(Dummy PY: Yu Larn Jeet) or 鬼節 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai Jeet)

Ghost - 鬼 (Dummy PY: G-why/ Gwai)

Hungry - 餓 (Dummy PY: Ngo)

Hungry ghost - 餓鬼 (Dummy PY: Ngo Gwai)

Wandering wild spirits or ghost - 游魂野鬼 (Dummy PY: Yau Won Yeah G-why/Gwai)

Opening of the ghost door - 鬼門大開(Dummy PY: Gwai Moon Die Hoy)

King of the underground world - 閻羅王 (Dummy PY: Yeem Lo Wong)

Rice - 飯 (Dummy PY: Farn)

Tofu - 豆腐 (Dummy PY: Dau Fu)

Chicken - 雞 (Dummy PY: Guy)

Roasted pig - 燒肉 (Dummy PY: Shew Yuk)

Vegetables - 菜 (Dummy PY: Choy)

Incense - 香 (Dummy PY: Heung)

Papers to be folded for ghosts - 金銀衣紙 (Dummy PY: Gum Ngan Yee Jee)

Street - 路 (Dummy PY: Low)

A ritual to give offerings- 祭 (Dummy PY: Jai)

Street burning and offering cultural practice - 路祭 (Dummy PY: Low Jai)

Chinese lunar Calendar - 農曆(Dummy PY: Nung Lick)

Checking or looking at the mirror- 照鏡 (Dummy PY: Jiu Geng)

Hanging oneself - 吊頸 (Dummy PY: Dew Geng)

Wait up - “等埋!”

The Buddhist chant saying - 南嘸阿彌陀佛