Chiu Chow opera appeases wandering spirits in Hong Kong

Live operas are a ritual for Chiu Chow community during Hungry Ghost Festival

THE clang of gongs resounds to the skies while heavily-painted opera performers belt out a traditional Chiu Chow opera on the bamboo stage. 

On this hot summer night, people are packed into rows of chairs in the playground in Kwun Tong, Kowloon.

Yet, some seats in the front row are unoccupied - but perhaps, not really.

It is the 15th day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. And it is on this night - when a full moon with its haunting halo hangs in the sky - that the Chiu Chow community in Hong Kong marks the Yulan Festival, or the Hungry Ghost Festival, to appease the wandering spirits that many Chinese believe walk the earth this month.

Besides burning incense and joss papers as other Chinese Hong Kongers do, one particular activity of the city’s Chiu Chow community - which number 1.2 million in the city of 7.2 million people - is to perform live operas in Teochew.

The idea is that this entertains the Chinese deities that emanate "yang", or positive energy, which in turn offset the "yin", or negative energy, from the restive spirits, also placated from their seats in the first row.

Chiu Chow opera artiste Chan Siu Na, 28, who has performed at the annual festival for over a decade, believes that the opera is a holy ritual, and that even if spirits turn up to watch her performance, she is not nervous.

“Our ancestors will not do harm to us,” she says firmly, while preparing for her performance.

The Chiu Chow people - whom Singaporeans refer to as Teochews - are those who hail from the Chaoshan region, which includes the cities of Chaozhou, Shantou and Jieyang in the Guangdong province. It is the second-largest dialect group in Hong Kong after the Cantonese, with its most famous representative being tycoon Li Ka Shing.

The first generation migrated to Hong Kong at the beginning of the 20th century, with many working as coolies at piers.

Working conditions were extremely harsh and many Chiu Chow immigrants died then, says Chiu Chow Yulan Festival culture expert Anven Wu, also the deputy director of the Cultural Affair Committee at the Hong Kong Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce, one of the oldest Chiu Chow organisations in Hong Kong.

The community then used the Yulan Festival to get together to mourn their dead fellow villagers and to offer support to one another. It inspired a spirit of mutual assistance among the Chiu Chows, standing united as a minority community in Hong Kong.

Today, activities are spread out over three days and organised at more than 60 different places in the city.

Besides the silent applause of the dead, the festival has also received the recognition of the Chinese authorities. In 2011, it was placed on China's third national list of intangible culture heritage.