Halloween highlights Asia's supernatural links

by AFP/Guy Newey, Nov 13, 2007 | Destinations: Hong Kong / China

Hong Kong, Oct 30, 2007 - While the money-making and party-throwing opportunities of Halloween thrive across Asia, the festival also shines a spotlight on the region's profound relationship with the afterlife.

From traditional markets to modern entertainment districts, major cities across Asia are looking to cash-in on "All Hallows' Eve."

In Hong Kong, markets bulged with lanterns, masks, fake pumpkins and costumes that were quickly snapped up, while online game developers, cinemas and department stores splashed special offers and products in Seoul.

Children in the Philippines trick-or-treated at the Manila home of former President Joseph Estrada, while in Beijing, Bangkok and Hanoi, the night of dressing up in disguise is simply seen as an expatriate party.

Apart from the money to be made and the fun to be had, Halloween's celebration of the afterlife appeals to Asians' deeper relationship with the supernatural, said Hong Kong-based cultural commentator Nury Vittachi.

"Ghosts are very big in Asian culture and there is a deeper understanding and interest in their place in society," Vittachi said.

"You can have a relationship with them, you can make friends with them. In the West, ghosts are nearly always bad things, but here they are on your side."

The Chinese Yue Lan, or Hungry Ghosts, festival falls just a few weeks before Halloween. Families mark the day with picnics at the graves of loved-ones, even setting them a place at the meal to ensure their happiness.

Other rituals include burning gifts the ghosts may want. Modern offerings range from paper versions of iPods, designer suits and airline tickets to a representation of a domestic servant.

Graves are swept and presents are even burned for ghosts who do not have relatives to look after them, for fear they may become angry.

This trepidation about an avenging afterlife was perhaps most acutely seen in Thailand, where many locals said the souls of those killed in the 2004 tsunami haunted the coastline, driving away Asian tourists.

However, this strong link to the afterlife can also cause tensions between traditional values and the growing popularity of Halloween.

Lai Chi Tim, a professor in Chinese religions at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said many Chinese are left bemused by the festival.

"In Chinese religious traditions, it is not understandable why the ghosts have to become part of Halloween," he said.

"The underworld is not a source of amusement. Chinese people believe that when you pass away, spirits are still living in this world."

The bemusement can lead to suspicion. Vittachi recalled a story of students at Beijing University giving out invitations to a Halloween party, dressed in skeleton costumes.

As they were trying to drum up business, they were questioned by police, who ordered them to stop, adding: "You cannot practice your religion here."

Despite the rare cultural clashes, many cities will prepare for the celebration with good humour.

"It is a good excuse for a party, and who doesn't like a party?" Vittachi said.

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