China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand

Tales of Asia’s Hungry Ghosts by Amy Van De Casteele

Many Asian countries, such as Thailand, China and Japan, while being cultural and ethnic melting pots, are still for the most part rooted in Buddhist beliefs. One of these beliefs revolves around the various realms of existence, which include Hell, the animal realm and the God realm, akin to Christianity’s Heaven. However there is another disturbing level of existence reserved for gluttons and addictive personalities – the realm of the hungry ghosts. The neglect or desertion of your ancestors can lead you to inhabit this realm after death according to Chinese beliefs, but another way souls reach this realm, unsurprisingly, is by being very greedy in their mortal lives, whether this meant a greed for food, money, drugs or even sex. Now trapped in hungry ghost form they are tormented by their insatiable desires which can never be fulfilled.

Hungry ghosts come in slightly different forms and have different features depending on the country but in terms of their general “physical” appearance they are quite uniform, said to resemble rotting corpses with bloated pot bellies – in other words, they look grotesquely ugly and anyone who sees them finds themselves rooted to the ground in terror. Often these ghoulish creatures are cursed with tiny mouths, the size of pin-heads, and thin spindly necks, preventing them from eating the food they so desperately desire.

In Japan there are two forms of hungry ghost, named jikininki and gaki. Jikininki translates as man-eating ghosts; these hungry spirits are doomed to spend their afterlife searching for human corpses, which they then devour, emerging every night after sundown on this grisly mission – despite the fact that, in some moral vestige of their souls, they despise themselves for it. Gaki are the spirits of greedy, malicious and jealous people cursed with an overpowering hunger which leads them to constantly search for sustenance, even stooping so low as to eat human faeces. In modern-day Japan gaki is also a remonstrative term for a spoilt child, while for hundreds of years Japanese Buddhists have devoted a day in mid-August to giving offerings and remembrances to these doomed souls in the hope that they might be saved from their eternal anguish.

Elsewhere in Asia, such as China and Singapore, there are fully fledged Hungry Ghost Festivals, such as the one held during the 7th month of the Chinese calendar. During this month it is believed that the gates of Hell are opened and the hungry ghosts are allowed to escape from their wicked realm and indulge their greed in the our mortal world, eating the offerings and taking the paper money and goods left for them by their human descendants. Special entertainments such as concerts and shows are held during this month, and the front row of seats is usually reserved for the hungry ghosts so they can enjoy uninterrupted views. During the evenings incense (representing prosperity) is burned outside homes and shops, and altars are erected in the streets behind which Buddhist monks chant special “ghost songs”. At the end of the festival lanterns are lit and placed outside homes or in running water to guide the ghosts back to Hell; supposedly when the final lantern has gone out all of the ghosts are back in their immortal realm.

Because of the country’s Buddhist beliefs and strong Chinese influence, Thailand has its own Hungry Ghost festivals such as the Por Tor Festival in Phuket Town, and Thai people have a firm belief in “Pret” (เปรต), the incredibly tall, pot-bellied hungry ghost of Buddhist folklore. They also believe in a wide variety of other ghosts, some of which could fit into the “hungry” category, such as the evil female spirit known as Phi Pop, which eats human entrails. After the massive devastation and destruction of the Boxing Day tsunami it was quite widely believed that the affected Thai beaches and coastal towns were haunted by hungry ghosts, as the souls of people killed prematurely can turn into these sometimes vengeful spirits. So widespread was this belief, people from other Asian countries stopped booking holidays to the region and Buddhist monks conducted cleansing ceremonies in the affected locales in order to propitiate the spirits and send them on their way.

China

Spooky Shanghai by Amy Van De Casteele

If you have spent any amount of time in China you will know that belief in ghosts and spirits is deeply engrained in the country’s collective psyche. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius declared that Chinese people must “respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them” and Chinese legend and literature is rich with stories of ghosts, hauntings and deadly curses. As if that wasn’t enough, traditional folklore has it that the seventh lunar month is a time when the gates of hell gape wide and the spirits incarcerated therein return to Earth to pay a visit to their relatives until they have to retreat back to Hell at the close of the month.

Despite this wealth of ghostly folklore, in a sprawling metropolis like Shanghai (my new place of residence) the paranormal world feels decidedly far away; just a shadowy mirage lurking out of sight, engulfed by the sheer size and pace of the city. And yet Shanghai is home to the only ghost tour in China, and apparently – if you know where to go – you can find an impressive number of haunted spots in this city of towering skyscrapers, luxurious hotels and expensive nightclubs.

For instance, one of the most well-known haunted buildings in Shanghai is the Paramount Theatre on Yuyuan Road in Jing’an, rumoured to be the residence of an angry poltergeist, the spirit of an unlucky passer-by who was killed by falling scaffolding outside the building several years ago. Supposedly he now vents his immortal rage by throwing objects out of the Theatre’s fourth floor windows. The building is also said to be haunted by the melancholy spirit of an unfortunate Chinese woman who was murdered in cold blood by a Japanese soldier when she turned down his offer of a dance.

Not far off, the ornate Nine Dragons Pillar which stands at the intersection of the South-North Elevated Road and Yan’an Road is also marked by an eerie legend. The story goes that construction workers were unable to dig into the earth on the place where the pillar is now placed, and eventually a young monk was called in to consult on the problem. The monk informed the workers that a dragon had been sleeping for hundreds of years in the ground in that very spot and now they had woken him with their digging. They must apologize, pray, and build a beautiful pillar on the spot to soothe the dragon’s ire.

This was duly done and the construction workers found that they could then continue with their digging – but the young monk who had advised them mysteriously died the following day, despite being fit, healthy and in the prime of life. Obviously the dragon required sacrifice, as well as an apology and an ornamental pillar to appease him.

Meanwhile, near the popular shopping street of Nanjing Xi Lu, the burnt-out husk of a building pays testament to one of Shanghai’s most mournful ghost stories. This building once housed a hotel and teahouse where, according to legend, a young waitress who worked in the teahouse spilt tea over a customer one fateful day and, as punishment, was locked in a store room by her boss. Unfortunately a fire then broke out in the building and everyone escaped except for the poor trapped girl, who had been forgotten and subsequently perished in the flames. Now her ghost haunts the building and though several new owners have purchased it throughout the passing years with the hopes of renovating the former hotel, the appearance of the girl’s spectral form so terrified construction workers that now no one will work there and it remains empty and abandoned to this day.

Nearby – on Nanjing Xi Lu itself – stands another haunted building, though this one has a rather happier history, having been successfully built despite the presence of a paranormal entity. Plaza 66 suffered a series of setbacks during its construction, leading to the “discovery” that the building’s foundations were home to an ancient goddess – the cause of the problems. Supposedly the goddess would only allow the construction work to go ahead if the design of the building was changed and incense sticks were burned in her honour. The building plans were changed, as a result, to resemble a giant incense stick and there were no more problems with construction after that, although apparently the mischievous goddess still plays tricks on hapless victims who may become inexplicably lost as they wander through the Plaza.

These stories, combined with the spooky rumours of wicked water spirits in Jing’An Park and spectral doves inhabiting Qiu Mansion on Weihai Road, show that, despite appearances, Shanghai is still an abode of spooks and phantoms. If you are ever in the city, either on a business trip or visiting as a tourist, and you find yourself intrigued by the stories behind these creepy locations, why not book yourself a place on the Newman Ghost Tour? This fascinating guided walk, which departs from the exit of the Jing’An Temple Metro Station at 7pm on Mondays and Saturdays, lasts for two hours and is suitable for families. If you pay a little extra you even get dinner and a spot of fortune telling into the bargain! Check out www.newmantours.com for more information.