Ferry Day 7 – I so enjoyed my brief time on Peng Chau yesterday, and also wanted to see if the festival was going to happen there today, that I broke one of my own rules and took the same ferry again. This trip is so like cycling with a bungee cord attached, bouncing back to the start each day with no apparent progress except in mileage, that doing the same thing twice seems less significant. I can’t imagine cycling back 100 miles through the Prairies of Saskatchewan to do the same day’s ride all over again, just because I liked what I saw.
The Stats are abandoned for the day, due to to my battery running out and my not really doing any cycling to speak of, apart from the usual commute!
Same with the Map – it’s the same as yesterdays
Thinking of Canada 🇨🇦, I feel a shout-out is long overdue to all my dear Canadian🇨🇦 relatives and friends out there in the True North! I know from your very welcome comments how many of you have stuck around since I was passing through back in 2017, and it really is great to know that you’re there. You would not believe the response I get here to the Canadian flag, which flies so proudly from my flagpole – it seems to be the most aspirational country for so many Hong Kong-ers, far more than Britain, and I get into conversations about Toronto, Vancouver, UofT, Niagara, you name it. Keep those comments coming Canadians, however crazy the time difference between us may be! Xx
Today the fish were jumping in Victoria Harbour by the Tsim Sha Tsui Star Ferry, more of them than usual, and bigger. They were getting a good height out of the water, emerging dynamically as if they were a wet bar of soap squeezed hard between the palms of your hands, before that loss of grace when gravity took over and they flopped reluctantly back to their natural home.
I got another freight ticket for my bike, and one for me, then bought a coffee (which cost more than the two tickets combined), and returned to Peng Chau. My plan was to either (a) immerse myself in the frenzied atmosphere of the Hungry Ghost Festival or (b) wander the empty streets until a return ferry came in. So which would it be?
It’s now three hours later and I’m on the 13.45pm sailing back to Central, and I’m carrying with me a large plastic bag full of warm rice, a gift for good luck from the inhabitants of Peng Chau. Here’s what happened here today:
As I wheeled my bike into the main square I could see right away that there was going to be a celebration. The whole square was cordoned off, musicians were playing everywhere and the temples were heaving with people lighting joss sticks. A westerner, almost the only one I saw today, said “Hi” as he passed, and I asked him if he knew when things were scheduled to begin. “Oh, it’s the Ghost Festival. I think it starts tonight, maybe when it’s dark?” I was disappointed, but got chatting to him. He was German, had come to Lantau as a child with his parents (dad was an airplane mechanic for Lufthansa), stayed for many years until his parents left for home, when he decided that he didn’t want to leave with them. He was a head chef in Central somewhere but lived right there on Peng Chau. He suddenly realised that he needed the ferry I’d just arrived on, so we said goodbye. I pointed at my watch questioningly when a passing local organiser gave me a smile, and he said “Eleven!”, so it was starting to look like I’d be enjoying plan (b) today.
With ten minutes to spare I took the chance to look around, admiring the food offerings laid out in each of the four corners of the square, including a massive version of those Cheung Chau-style buns. Just the sight of it made me peckish for second breakfast, so I bought a barbecue pork bun at a bakery in the narrow back street. The smell of fresh baking inside the tiny shop was so enticing; it’s seems odd to me that this place keeps making me think of a small Italian village, a little off the beaten track. The people chatting in the bread queue and waving at friends as they pass, the gatherings in the shady spots, the arm-holding between men when they greet each other in the street, the concentration of the women shopping at the vegetable stalls, they all seem familiar.
I passed a lad who spoke excellent English and told me he was burning pretend banknotes (joss paper) for his deceased relatives. Everyone I came across today made me feel so welcome at the festival, despite being a bit conspicuous in cycle clothes.
Perhaps I should start with an explanation of the Hungry host belief, taken from Wikipedia:
“The Hungry Ghost Festival is held to honour the hungry ancestor ghosts and food and drink is put out to satisfy their needs…the ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who have forgotten to pay tribute to them after they died…families should offer prayers and burn “hell money”, which is a valid currency in the underworld and helps ghosts to live comfortably in the afterlife. People also burn other forms of joss paper such as houses, cars and televisions to please the ghosts”
The ceremony began with a group of six, who wore bright red baggy silk trousers, gold and red striped socks, and a stunning gold and red tunic, singing in loud unison with all of the musicians, accompanied by drums and cymbals. This music went on almost uninterrupted for the whole hour or so of the event, with a few tempo changes between repetitions of chanted melodies. A few people wearing everyday clothes were called up to kneel and light joss sticks, looking quite like communion, and then one person on his own, a very slight but energetic man with a delicate tread, began to slice through the air at imaginary foes (evil spirits?) with a long sword. At one point the sword was wrapped in paper and then set alight, like a torch against the darkness. He sang loudly all the while, with a radio mike as a concession to the modern world, taking precise steps and occasionally leaping in the air with his sword brandished (which I mysteriously managed to catch at the right moment in the photo below): Large bundles of beautiful pretend banknotes were collected from the four tables and thrown into the fire hut that kept burning throughout. Then after a lot more chanting, drumming and singing, they grabbed all of the food on one table and set off on a frantic run right around the square, weaving in and out and like a snake, dressed in their full ceremonial robes in the intense heat of midday. For the women in front of me, they weren’t running nearly fast enough. Every time the man carrying the big bun passed, they waved at him and shouted, urging him to get a move on. Everyone laughed each time they did it. The group of six continued on to each of the four tables, grabbing everything and making a run for it, but I could see that by the fourth big bun they were really started to flag. I was getting very hot just standing still in the shade of a big tree with lots of others, so you can only imagine what it was like for them, even with their mums’ encouragement.
The conclusion of the ceremony came so suddenly and with such unexpected violence that I was still shaking from it several minutes later. Some sign for the end was obviously recognised by all of the local young men standing in the shade with me, who let out bloodcurdling cries and made a rush for the food tables to grab some lucky buns, very much like how I imagine the frenzied climb up the Bun Mountain must have been on Cheung Chau. At the same moment, a man immediately to my right (had he made the decision to give me a proper ‘Peng Chau’ welcome?) walked casually past me and dropped a heavy red package on the ground. He did it in such an off-hand manner that for a split second I thought, “Oh, he’s dropped something”, but the package then exploded in the most earpslittingly-deafening series of detonations I’ve ever experienced. This was my first introduction to the famous Chinese Firecracker, and a bit close for comfort. Despite my shock, I managed to flip my phone to ‘video’ and capture a taste of the mayhem as he wandered around dropping his firecrackers. You’ll see that even the locals, who were expecting it, covered their ears in pain. Please make sure the volume on your your earphones or speaker are turned down first – I’d hate to be the cause of any more trauma!
Amidst all of this, the costumed group set off on a circuit of the tiny village streets, with lots of shouting and cheering and with their flags held aloft. They disappeared behind the tree I was under and then re-appeared a few minutes later on the opposite side of the square, marking the end of proceedings. Everyone was grabbing bits of food, and I was approached by a very smiley lady who kept mimed ‘eating’ to me, and said “Follow please!” I did as I was told and was handed a plastic bag, which I opened as instructed, and then a man standing at a huge cauldron outside the temple ladled two big scoops of warm rice into my bag, much to the delight of my new friend. She grabbed me, holding up her phone to show a photo of me receiving my rice. “Good luck, it’s food for luck!”, she told me, and I thanked her for helping me. Everyone was being more openly emotional with each other than I’ve seen here before, which was a moving sight. One young chap in a grey t-shirt and trousers was greeted incredibly warmly throughout the day. He kept catching my eye, being hugged by two different old men who held onto his shoulder whilst they talked, with their fingers digging deep into the flesh of his shoulder as if loathe to let him go. Other lads his own age were just as pleased to see him, and I wondered if this was a returning prodigal son? Or perhaps the aspect of the festival that concerns appeasing the ‘bad’ deaths of relatives held some special significance for him. If you look closely at the end of the firecracker clip, you might just see him, holding a bowl of rice – he burst into tears at the end of the ceremony, wiped his eyes frequently with his shirt, then broke into a broad smile before crying again, whilst being watched a little anxiously by his white t-shirted friends.
To try and calm down I took my lovely warm bag of rice for a walk around the back streets, looking for an alley I had meant to go down yesterday. It was really a tunnel, with the ceiling lined with paper cups, leading out into a crazy eccentric courtyard area.Here I met Sherry and Joey, who owned the building. It was an old leather factory and an historic listed building. They had laid claim to several derelict buildings adjacent to create a sort of artists enclave, which they called ‘Abbey Road’. They had painted a zebra crossing on the ground a la Abbey Rd, had Beatles murals everywhere, and Joey turned out to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Beatles songs. We had a great time singing a few together (why didn’t I have my uke? Doh), and talking about Abbey Rd itself, a place I work at quite often. Sherry was the artist, but they were both full of ideas for what they wanted to do with their space. They posed together in front of their blue bicycle sculpture and Joey grabbed a bass guitar and struck an emotional pose on the zebra crossing for me. They promised to have a look at the blog, so Hello Sherry & Joey! Thanks for showing me such a warm welcome and I’ll do my best to send you an Abbey Road souvenir when I’m back home.My bike had remained locked to a railing for the entire time on the island for the first time in a while. I wheeled it through the new crowd that had gathered, post-ceremony, who’s task was to break down the palettes of food into individual gift bags, presumably for everyone on the island. They had the system very well organised, gathering the items together before arranging them in the row upon row of waiting black paper bags, labelling each as they went.Back at the pier I watched the cargo being unloaded before we were allowed to board, and saw people carry several large paper designs mentioned in the Wiki extract above, made from thin bamboo poles, houses, cars, dragons, and some that I couldn’t identify. I wondered if this was for another part of the festival, the part that the German had referred to – a nighttime ceremonial burning?
One thing made laugh today. I wanted something cold and sweet before taking the ferry home, so grabbed an ice-cold bottle of sweet milk tea in a small supermarket. Only when I’d drunk the whole thing without a pause did I notice the evocative name: