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The 1st to 29th/30th day of the 7th month of the Lunar Calendar
Amongst all the Hong Kong traditional festivals, Ullambana Festival (or Ghost Festival) is the one that lasts for the longest period and covers the widest area. Every year in the 7th lunar month, people burned joss paper for the roaming ghosts and many societies held Ullambana Festival for one to five days. The number of these festivals could reach over a hundred every year and the ones held by Chiu Chow community took up the biggest proportion (around 60 per year). The festival had been inscribed onto China's third national list of intangible cultural heritage in 2011.
The Origin of Ullambana Festival
This Festival was brought to Hong Kong by Chiu Chow people who worked as hard labours back in many years ago. At that time they were far away from home leading a tough life. Hence, the relationship amongst their fellowmen became especially strong. They called each other “brother” although they were not necessarily next of kin. When some of their fellowmen died in Hong Kong, they held an Ullambana Festival in the 7th lunar month of the year according to their home custom in order to release the soul of their “good brothers” (wandering spirits )from purgatory. Meanwhile, they also worshipped the gods and showed their respect to their ancestors, hoping for blessings and protection.
Setting of the Site
The Chiu Chow people held the Ullambana Festival with Buddhist rituals (while the Canton and Fukien people adopted the Taoist rituals). They pitched temporary sheds for gods worshiping, sutra chanting, deity costumes, Sambhavas’ statues, ghosts’ register, opera shows and offices. The gods they worshipped were “Heaven and Earth Parents”, “The Southern and Northern Stars Gods” and “All Gods of Fortune and Well-being”. Each one of them was represented by an incense burner.
The "Triangle Harbour"
The Ullambana Festival at the Triangle Harbour has a long history, as many Chiu Chow people used to work there in the past. From the 24th to 26th day of the 7th lunar month, an opera for deities was held for three days at the Harbour. In the beginning the opera showed took place at the seaside. Later they were performed in the King George V Memorial Park in Eastern Street, and later at the West District Park. The park’s name has now been changed into Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park.
Buddhist Rituals
On the first day morning of the three-day festival, people invited the gods. The members of the organizer invited the gods to the matshed to allow the devotees worshipping them with incense. Then the flags were hung high to attract the ghosts to listen to the sutra chanting, watch the operas, have fun and food. At one corner of the site, a portrait of Sambhava was placed as a deterrence to prevent the ghosts from making trouble or disturbance. The ritual of initiating the altar and the subsequent rituals were conducted by the secular Buddhists.
In the evening of the second day, there was a ritual of “appeasing the land of the five positions”. Five tables were placed in front of the sutra chanting shed attars, representing east, south, west, north and centre respectively. Thirteen Buddhists kept running back and forth, waving flags in yellow, green, white, red and black with the rhythm of the music. This was conducted to invite the gods of five positions to come and sweep away the negative energy and dissolve the calamities.
On the third day afternoon, the ritual of “handing out food” was conducted. The Buddhist monks would recite The Yoga Flaming Mouth and threw out small flour chubs (also called pomegranate) in the last phase; people would scramble for them as they believed eating them can bring peace and safety. After the ritual, the staff cleared everything at the site related to the ghosts including the flagpole, lantern and the forefather’s register paper. All these were then burnt, symbolizing the farewell to the spirits.
Rice Dispatch
The Ullambana Festival held by Chiu Chow was known for its abundance of sacrifices. Inside the shed of gods, there are cakes, snacks, wine and accessories. Besides the register shed, there were packs of rice and daily necessities. After offering sacrifices to the ghosts, the staff members dispatched rice to the citizens that are waiting in queue. The Chiu Chow people believed that this was the way to help poor people and gain good karma for both themselves and their ancestors, whereas the awaiting citizens believed that the rice carried the blessing for peace and safety. This has made Ullambana Festival a worshipping, praying and charity event of folk culture and custom.
The Completion of the Virtuous Deeds
On the third night, people gathered around the venue and bid for the “fortune items” (wine and accessories). The one who paid the highest price would get the item. The income was used to cover the expense of the Ullambana Festival. By the end, the secular Buddhists conducted a ritual of “flag running”. Led by the “Golden Boy” and “Jade Girl”, the flag holders weaved on the stage to notify the gods of the completion of their virtuous deeds. The seats and sacred robes of the gods would be cremated in the middle of the night.