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October 30, 2009

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Chinese take on spooks and specters: The Hungry Ghost Festival

HALLOWEEN is clamoring at the door again. Even in China, the Western ghosts-and-goblins dress-up and party festival is gaining popularity among young people.

On the other hand, the Chinese Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival (sometimes Chinese Halloween), passed quietly around two months ago. It falls on the 14th night of the seventh month on lunar calendar, also called Ghost Month.

It falls from early to mid-September on the solar calendar.

It can be quite spooky.

It's scarcely observed in urban Shanghai, but it is serious business elsewhere in southern China, in Fujian Province and Taiwan, also in Southeast Asia, including Singapore.

The night is the end of the 15-day period when spirits and hungry ghosts from the other world can visit the living. Some are ancestors, some are not so benevolent and may be vengeful because they were wronged in this life. They are often depicted as "hungry."

The ghosts, therefore, are honored with incense, food offerings (sometimes quite elaborate) and loud, bright nighttime festivities to entertain them and encourage them to go back to hell.

Offerings of paper money and paper houses, cars and luxury items are burned to make them comfortable in the afterlife.

On the ghost night, people traditionally go home early, usually before midnight, even some of young party animals are warned by older generations not to stay out late where they could be attacked by ghosts seeking their energy.

Streets, long narrow lanes, misty river banks and dark corners are especially to be avoided since spirits tend to haunt them - some revisit because they lost their mortal lives in accidents or murder in those places, it is said.

For a couple thousand years, it's been a night to be cautious, a night to spend at home.

"Although I heard about it, I was still surprised when I spent my first Chinese Ghost Day here two years ago," says 24-year-old Jay Lu.

Born and brought up in New York, Lu moved to Shanghai two years ago for work. He was shocked to get a call from his aunt urging him to go home at 6pm - just when he was considering where to go out for dinner.

"My aunt's family, originally from Zhejiang Province, is quite old-school and they follow all kinds of Chinese traditions," says Lu.

"She yelled at me on the phone when I joked about celebrating the festival by watching horror movies with friends. She told me that was one of the forbidden things to do on that night - encouraging ghosts - and urged me to go home right away," he says.

Though the merry outward party aspect of Halloween contrasts sharply with traditional Chinese Ghost Day, both occur around the same period and have intriguingly similar origins and early customs.

Halloween has its roots in Celtic festival of Samhain, which means summer's end and was originally celebrated at the end of the harvest season. Celts celebrated the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half" on that day.

They believed the border between this world and the other netherworld became thin and permeable, allowing spirits to pass through. Some said the gates of hell were opened.

And Chinese Ghost Day set on lunar July 15 (July 14 in some places) also marks the middle of the year. In Taoism the lunar year is divided into three parts and the starting dates are January 15, July 15 and October 15. So the day is also called "Zhong Yuan Jie," or middle year festival in Taoist traditions.

A common Chinese folk legend has it that the king of the underworld opens the gates to hell on lunar July 1 every year to allow all ghosts to visit this world for 15 days and enjoy offerings after a whole year of suffering and loneliness in hell.

And the king opens the gates again on July 15, ordering all ghosts to return to their world.

In Chinese tradition, the Qingming Festival (tomb-sweeping day), often in April, is the day when the living pay their respect to the dead in tomb-sweeping activities - people are warned not to linger or walk alone after visiting a grave as they may be set upon by a ghost.

The Ghost Day is the time when the dead visit the living.

In both Chinese and Celtic mythologies, it was believed that both harmless and spiteful spirits cross the barrier to this world; the harmful ones might take advantage of the only time in the year to scare or hurt people.

Both cultures honor and pay respect to ancestors, but they deal with the harmful and homeless spirits differently. It is believed that the custom of wearing costumes and masks on Halloween came from attempts to ward off wicked spirits.

The ancient Chinese believed that even homeless spirits could enjoy offerings on the special day and, thus appeased, they would be less likely to do mischief and more willing to return to the dark world.

If they were not satisfied - and remained hungry - they might stay longer.

The Ghost Day is the only day Chinese make offerings to homeless ghosts.

Ancient people were still uncertain and fearful that ghosts, after enjoying this world for half a month, would not return to hell to which they belonged. They feared the spirit might harm the living and tap their energy in order to remain longer in the human world.

This led to the custom of going home early on the ghost night, or better yet, not venturing out at all.

Many Chinese ghost movies are set during the Ghost Festival, when the yin (cold, dark) energy from the spirit world is at its peak in the universe.

Fire played a large part in both festivals. Both ancient Celts and Chinese burned offerings to spirits while hoping the fire would scare off harmful ghosts.

Even the custom of walking around a fire as a cleansing ritual was similar.

In some areas it is not uncommon to see small bonfires on streets in the night of Chinese Ghost Day. Even some young people, who reject such superstition, might light a fire, out of habit, just to be sure they are safe from spirits. Devilish doings, vampire cupcakes, pub crawlers Sam Riley

Those who want to join the ghosts, ghouls and goblins and their costumed friends in celebrating Halloween tomorrow have as many choices as there are bats out of hell.

In recent years, Halloween has drawn enthusiastic Shanghai celebrants of the festival that originated in ancient Celtic rites to mark the passing of summer and the beginning of winter, or the "darker half" of the year.

Many venues and bars, loathe to miss an opportunity for a theme night to draw in punters, are holding Halloween events.

There are also a pub crawl and kissing contest for the wild at heart and even Shanghai's own "house of horrors."

If you haven't already been scared out of your wits at "Shanghai Nightmare," the American-style haunted house in a 1902 warehouse on Suzhou Road S., then Halloween will be a last chance to jump at things that go bump in the night.

The house - with real actors who jump out at guests in improvised horror - has 13 scenarios in a maze of rooms that include oracle-like children, bloodied surgeons and mind-bending special effects. It's got all the expected skeletons and creepy crawlies.

The house has been open for around a month and will be closed soon after Halloween.

It costs 98 yuan (US$14.35) to go through the house and 198 yuan for a VIP ticket that comes with high-end vodka at a place at the front of what promises to be a long Halloween night's queue.

For the kids, Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse on Shaanxi Road S. will offer weird and wonderful dishes from their "disgusting" menu. They include bat wings with swamp dip (buffalo chicken wings) and eerie eyeball tacos.

All kids' dishes are 30-40 yuan and there's a full regular menu for adults.

Also for the kids, the Barbie Cafe at Barbie's flagship store on Huaihuai Road M. will feature Halloween party events and scary dishes.

Tomorrow from 3pm until 5pm, a Barbie party will feature pumpkin carving, candy and costumes. A chocolate fountain, light canapes and drinks are included in the 150-yuan-per-family tickets.

Children are welcome to come in costume or can dress in Barbie-style fashions provided at the cafe, according to Barbie cafe executive Tessa Thompson.

The best dressed children will get prizes.

A special Halloween three-course set menu will be served all day, including Ghastly Gourd Soup, Black Angel Pasta, White Devil Squid and Vampire Cupcakes. It's 78 yuan for adults, 48 yuan for kids.

Later that night, adults can join a Halloween party at the BBar from 10pm-2am. Admission is 120 yuan, including free drinks, prizes and spinning DJs.

For those itching for the witching hour, bars and clubs will have costume parties.

The capital of American hangouts, Malone's, will throw Halloween events at both its Tongren Road and Thumb Plaza (in Pudong) locations. Philippines Airlines will sponsor and give a round-trip ticket to the Philippines for the best costumes in each bar.

The events feature live music - Art 666 playing from 9:30pm on Tongren Road and Jagged Edge playing from 9pm at Thumb Plaza.

Reservations are recommended and can be made via Phil, Chris or Johnson at 6247-2400 on Tongren Road or via Mike, Vanessa or Elsie at 5033-6717 at Thumb Plaza.

Those who want a ride on the city's wild side can join ShanghaiLGBT's annual Halloween pub crawl. It includes costume contests, a party bus and a tour of some of the city's best bars.

Advance tickets are 100 yuan, 150 yuan on Halloween. E-mail to for information.

Sin club will let punters decide if they want to explore the lighter or darker sides of their natures with "Holy and Evils," an angels-and-demons party. Women are admitted free all night and men don't pay before 10:30pm. After that the blokes have to fork out 100 yuan.

If Halloween brings out the passion in you, then Kathleen's 5 is the place to be with speed dating and a kissing competition to get hearts racing. The longest, best kiss and a variety of other kisses can win Best Smoochers prizes and the occasional swoon.

New couples get free drinks. Entry is 140 yuan, or 120 yuan in advance, including two free drinks.

For those who like to throw the horns and head bang on Halloween, then Harley's Bar's heavy metal extravaganza is right up, or down, your alley.

The best local heavy metal bands will be making ear drums bleed from 9pm. The lineup includes Screaming Christ, Drawn in Suffering, Fearless, and Doom Prophet. There's a 40-yuan cover. Ghosts, Bats, Spiders

Min-G Yao

The root of the English word "ghost" is said to come from Old English meaning fury or anger, and frequently referred to the apparition of a dead person.

The Chinese character gui, or ghost, was originally written with the character ren, or person - with a monster-like head on top. It meant a monster in the form of a person.

It was often used as the opposite of shen, or god, in ancient China. It was believed nobility and royalty became gods after they died and ordinary people became ghosts.

Lucky bats

A common Halloween and horror symbol is the sinister night-flying bat, associated with ghosts, vampires, witches and other apparitions. Since it sleeps during the day and feeds at night, it is often considered scary, especially vampire bats that draw blood.

In Chinese culture, bats are considered lucky. The second character of bianfu, or bat, is pronounced like the character meaning luck and fortune.

It is common to see old pictures and sculpture showing five bats, which means "five kinds of luck arrive at this place."

Bat images figure in rituals and ceremonies, art, embroidery and crafts.

Spiders net money

These arachnids, especially black ones (black widows), are associated with danger and poison. In some novels and movies, the appearance of a spider, usually black, portends trouble, or even death.

In Chinese culture, however, spiders (zhizhu) suggest money. Even today, many Chinese ignore a spider at home. Killing it or tossing out means ruining one's prospects for money.

Even many people with ayi (housekeepers) order them not to kill spiders - so elegant homes may be full of spiders and cobwebs.

We can speculate that the webs catch money. The pronunciation of zhizhu suggests pearls (zhenzhu) and jewelry (zhubao).


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