Danny Chan teaches Communication and Language in Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He is currently finishing his Ph.D. dissertation in Hong Kong Studies on Time, Temporality, and Spectrality in Hong Kong.
I had the opportunity to interview him about Hong Kong’s relationship with the supernatural. I expected urban legends and stories linked to nature. Instead, what I got was a rich supernatural world built on Hong Kong’s history as a British colony, its role after the Handover to China in 1997, and its ever-changing conversation on what it means to be from Hong Kong. I’ve split the interview into two parts. Here’s part two.
Are Hong Kong residents superstitious?
Yes and no. Every year, we still celebrate the Ghost Festival. Even the government will reserve a playground and will put up a stage (for the festival) and anyone can watch. I think this that this is one way to remind them that ethnically, they are Chinese.
Even the way you celebrate Ghost Festivals will differ depending on your ethnic background. The typical Hong Kong one, if you take it from a more ethnographic sense, these are more Teochew Chinese because they have a different way of making cakes and they usually hand out good year bags–these good year bags usually have rice, usually for the older people, the poorer people of Hong Kong. On the one hand, yes, it may be superstitious, but on the other hand, back in the beginning, it bore some sort of social welfare function. It keeps reminding them that yes, we are Chinese, even though we were a British colony. It also lets us help one another.
How does the Hong Kong media cover the supernatural?
Hong Kong, you can say, is a funny place. If you go through some magazines around 10-20 years ago, somewhere in the New Territories, they set up a camera to catch people speeding. Back then, there was a case of a car speeding, and then they caught the image of a woman on the highway. You’re not supposed to be walking along the highway. The whole city turned into a frenzy. And usually, if there are ghosts, you automatically return to the past. You keep excavating, excavating, until–true or not is a different case–you find one reason or excuse to really rationalize the whole thing and people will say, ‘Ah, that’s a perfect haunting.’ If you pay a little more attention, they usually find one that matches our imagination of the present.
Even the way media covers it is interesting. The Hong Kong media will make it sound really, really eerie because people love that. That sells papers, that sells magazines. But usually, at the end, they will tell you that there’s a scientific explanation to all these things.
If you push back to even in the 50’s and 60’s, that was when all the ghost stories were really in newspapers. There’s one that’s my favorite. It happened in Yau Ma Tei. That was a typical Chinese four-five storey building. There’s a Hong Kong style cafe nearby and one day, the owner picked up the phone and the caller said they wanted a take-away. They ordered food enough for four people. I think these four people were playing mah jong. They sent the take-away up. They got the money, but every time the delivery man gets to the restaurant, the money becomes money for the dead.
Day one, like this, day two, the same. come day three, the owner was so pissed that when they got the same call ordereing congee, the owner brought the takeaway up himself. He walked up to the apartment. A hand slid through the door to give him the money. He took the money, but the same thing happened. The owner called the police. When they knocked on the door, nobody answered but when they broke in, they found four corpses sitting by the mah jong table.
Okay, explanation. That was the autumn of Hong Kong so it was a little bit cool and back then, there was no air conditioning so these guys used charcoal to heat up the house. These four people died of suffocation but they didn’t realize that they had passed away, so they kept playing mah jong. And when they autopsied these bodies, inside they had the same exact things they ordered.
I looked into the stories back then and it depends on which newspaper you were reading. So you have the communist newspapers, you have the pro-KMT, and of course, you have the English newspapers saying that these are silly, stupid, superstitious Chinese nothings. Some papers will give you a reason–oh, this place had conflict with the ownership, this is just made up. The other side will tell you that this place had all these directions that make it more susceptible to hauntings or vulnerable to the arrival of ghosts or eerie happenings.
They have all these mixed explanations. But are they explaining things? Yes and no. Just like when you go to church, you say your prayers, you come out and you feel better.
Do people in Hong Kong still believe in ghosts?
I think in general, yes. Everything is so high tech but I think deep inside, people still believe in ghosts. Even our newspapers. Last month, the newspapers published an article reminding you what to do and not to do during Ghost Month. Will people talk about it? No. Will people perform any rituals about it? Yes and no. It all depends.
Because in Hong Kong, one thing is as long as (the rituals are) tied up with business development, people will feel more comfortable (about performing them). So it’s no surprise to see stores go through all these rituals during the Ghost Month. They will worship the ghosts on the streets with incense, rice, pieces of pork, and some coins. As kids, we were trained that these are things you shouldn’t touch.
Do you believe in the supernatural?
I will say yes, I will say no. I will say that, a. The world is huge, and b. We have different layers of reality.
But my sightings aren’t really dramatic. A couple of years ago, I was on campus trying to cross the road. I cross the street. Some areas of Hong Kong have a stone container where they plant trees. The whole street was separated by a row of them. I was crossing the street and I saw an old lady sitting on top of one of the containers. It was early in the morning, so supposedly you see a lot of old people walking and doing their morning exercises, but the way she sat was a little bit strange. And even if you have old people who like to sit in the garden, that wasn’t the right location. I gave her a look and she gave me a look but after walking for two seconds, I thought, that’s not right, and I turn around and she’s gone. Not really scary. Maybe she’s some passerby who just wanted to take a rest.
What is the popular view on elementals?
It depends on your background and what you believe in. Taoists have their own explanation. Buddhists have their own explanation. I think Hong Kong is a place where they can mix all these things together. For instance, if you go to a hotel, sometimes they have a Bible in the room. If you believe in Taoism or Buddhism, what’s the point of having a Bible? But people say, ‘let’s still keep the Bible if it makes you feel better.’
On the surface, we are very modern. Underneath, if you ask me, many people still believe in it. Would you call that superstition or would you call that just an alternative way of explaining life? That’s a sort of grey area that we’re going through.
What about Feng Shui?
If you ask me about Feng Shui, you see it everywhere.
You compare Hong Kong and Taiwanese attitudes to the supernatural a lot. Can you tell us more about that?
In Hong Kong, we try to (find a rational explanation) but in Taiwan, I’m not so sure.
You have the case called the red little girl. Some retirees went hiking. One of them was holding a handheld camera and was taking a video of the people going down, one, two, three, four, five, and then at the end, there was a little girl following them. Nobody knows who she is, nobody saw her during the trip. Afterwards, one of the hikers died for no reason, and that becomes a media frenzy in Taiwan. Theh produced movies, they interviewed people… I think even now, people still talk about it.
Taiwan is a society where they make it more explicit. They believe in ghosts. This is life, this is what we believe in, they make it very open. But in Hong Kong, usually, when you talk to people, they’ll say you’re crazy or you’re seeing things. We’re trying so hard to build scientific rationality. This is our habit for dealing with ghosts. But Taiwan, they open up. There’s a ghost, so they go interview a shaman, and usually, the conclusion they hint at is yes, there’s a haunting. They can say it explicitly. I think partly, this is because it will get a lot of popularity for the media channel–that really generates profit.
In Hong Kong, I think people love to hear about the paranormal once in a while, but do they really embrace it? If you look at the Taiwanese government, they don’t do much about it. They won’t send a scientist saying this is crazy. They just let it go.
Us, whenever we have a ghost (story), the media will start interviewing professors of psychology, scientists who will tell you hey, there’s no such thing because psychologically, this is how we explain it. Scientifically, this is how we explain it.
When was the last time there was a supernatural occurrence on a Hong Kong-wide scale?
I think the last time that really–based on my memory, I was there, I was a kid–affected people on a huge social scale was in the 80’s.
If you go to Causeway Bay, there was a place called Windsor House that’s still there. Back then, Windsor House was one of the symbols of wealth. Causeway Bay is always the symbol of wealth, of shopping, and consumption.
Back then, in Windsor House, on the top floor was a Chinese restaurant famous for banquets. They used to have a wall built with marble, a huge facade. One day, some people walked by and they spotted the shape of a fox on the wall. They see the face keep developing and developing and developing. At the same time, there was a rich couple (giving a banquet for their baby). In Chinese culture, when a baby is born, they usually have a huge banquet after 30 days. They were hosting that kind of banquet at the top and their baby died right after. They said that the fox spirit tried to take the baby away.
I’m not sure if I remember the details correctly, but one of the parents dreamt of a fox trying to take the baby away. They thought it was just a bad dream but then the baby died. What happened was that reporters went to take pictures of the wall. You can see the face of a fox getting clearer and clearer. It was so irritating that the management of that building had to send in lots of security guards to stop people from coming in. I still remember, as a kid, we were all looking at the case across the street. There were reporters and bystanders, and police were trying to block off the area because there were so many people trying to see what had happened.
I think they shut down the Chinese restaurant and people keep saying that on the rooftop–the rooftops are supposed to be sealed off from the public–they found like a seesaw or something reserved for the baby while its spirit is still wandering around. What happened to the spirit of the fox would be that some Taiwanese shaman came over to Hong Kong, subdued it, took it back with him to Taiwan, and released on the Yang Ming mountain.
If you look back at the situation, it’s always Hong Kong-Taiwan, Taiwan-Hong Kong; you seldom make it back to Mainland China. I’m sure they have a lot (of supernatural occurrences) but are they able to publicize it? To see it on the big screen or develop it into urban legends? (Stories) usually have a basic structure but after years and years of (the supernatural being banned), do the (Mainland Chinese) have a collective creation?
Do you think there are ghosts in Mainland China, or do you think the Mainland Chinese beleive in the supernatural?
If you’re interested in ghosts in Beijing, there are a lot.
Let’s begin with Guangzhou. The Mainland Chinese always tie (ghost stories) to legends, so it doesn’t sound too eerie.
I remember there was a story about a shopping mall in Guangzhou. Back then, it was a no-man’s land. When they started to develop it, they dug out eight different coffins. And these coffins, instead of being horizontally placed in the Chinese way, they were vertically placed in eight different directions. But land development, who cares, right? They just took it out and put it aside, then they built a huge shopping mall there.
But the funny thing will be in simplified Chinese, they called it Lai Wan Wong Chan, something like that. Lai Wan is a place, Wong Chan would be a mall or arcade, but people say that in the middle of the night, if you look at the sign, it becomes Lai Wan Xi Chan. Xi Chan would be a place where they store dead bodies. You would have people jump off the roof for no reason. Are they in debt or was it because of economic reasons? Not really, because the police investigated. And then one day, some people realized that those eight coffins were some kind of seal laid down by people in the past; this land was not supposed to be built on and these coffins were not supposed to be removed. So once they removed it, they opened Pandora’s Box.
How do these stories spread, given China’s stance on the supernatural?
Where could you possibly find these stories in Mainland China? Only one place. The internet. They banned ghosts in cinema. The most recent legislation was passed in 2010 clearly specified no such things in cinema and TV production.
Do you think there is a place for the supernatural in modern Hong Kong?
Particularly for a nationless place, they function just like a clock, just like a calendar because outside the clock, outside the calendar, we have nothing because we don’t have a nation.
Other nations, beyond the calendar, beyond the clock, you have a mythical system telling you where you came from. Whether you believe it or not is up to you. It could be highly fictional ,but still you have that sort of thing sustaining identity.
But in Hong Kong we don’t. Mainland Chinese (culture) is too far away. British myth has nothing to do with us at all. So all these ghost (stories) are a little reminder that we appreciate them because these things remind us that even if we are nationless, our lives go on.