29 Sept 2017
Preserving Cultural Treasures
Twice a year, Hong Kong people honour their deceased ancestors in a tradition deemed so important a public holiday is gazetted to allow it.
For the Ching Ming Festival (otherwise known as Grave Sweeping) in April, and the Chung Yeung Festival in October, (the exact dates vary according to the Chinese Lunar calendar), city offices close so that families can congregate at hillside cemeteries and perform rituals that have been practised for centuries. Indeed, such is the adherence to tradition that Chinese festivals account for about half of the 17 public holidays enjoyed in Hong Kong each year.
Many also feature in the first Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Hong Kong, published last August by the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department. The 20 items listed are deemed to have high cultural value and an urgent need for preservation. The list will be used as a basis for prioritising resources aiming to safeguard these national treasures.
Under the category of social practices, rituals and festive events, two celebrations from the Mid-Autumn festival (occurring this year in early October) make the list. Many, such as the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance, are linked to good fortune.
Good Luck Dragon
Now part of bustling Causeway Bay, Tai Hang was originally a Hakka farming and fishing village that was hit by a deadly plague in the 19th century. According to folklore, Buddha ordered a fire dance to drive the plague away. So the villagers crafted a dragon out of straw and paraded it through the streets, accompanied by firecrackers, for three days and nights. At the end of the ceremony, the plague ended, and the ritual has been repeated since every Mid-Autumn Festival.
This year, the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance, featuring more than 300 performers, will begin at 8:15 nightly from 3-6 October in Tai Hang. The Hong Kong Tourism Board recommends Wun Sha Street as the best vantage point.
The village of Pok Fu Lam on southern Hong Kong Island boasts its own century-long tradition of waving incense-lit, straw-filled dragons during Mid-Autumn in order to bring blessings. The Pok Fu Lam Fire Dragon Dance, which also made the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, are described as a “highly bonding activity for the local community.”
Another cultural intangible initiated to drive out evil spirits in the 19th century is the Cheung Chau Jiao (or Bun) Festival in the outlying island of Cheung Chau. In this Taoist ritual, children dressed in brightly coloured folk costumes are paraded through the streets held aloft on platforms, followed by a race where participants scramble up 14-metre-high bamboo towers to see who can collect the most buns. The event is hugely popular – this year, an estimated 48,000 visitors attended. The next Cheung Chau Bun Festival will be held from 19-23 May 2018.
Ancestral reverence is honoured on the list for the Spring and Autumn Ancestral Worship of Clans. At the twice-yearly equinox, clans in the New Territories either gather in the village hall, or visit their ancestors' graves on the hills to observe filial piety and pay their respects. The cooking and sharing of food is part of the ritual, and today, some local clans still observe the custom of speaking in walled-village dialects during the event.
The Tin Hau Festival, meanwhile, pays tribute to Hong Kong’s fishing heritage. The goddess Tin Hau is revered by fishermen and anyone whose life and destiny are tied to the sea, with temples honouring the sea goddess found all over Hong Kong. The practice of communal worship serves to bond fishing communities, and every year, a festival is held to celebrate her birthday.
The Tai O Dragon Boat Water Parade is a tradition by a community of fisher folk who live in houses built on stilts above the tidal flats of Lantau Island. On the eve of the annual parade, fishermen row their boats to visit four temples in Tai O and carry deity statues back to their local hall for worship. The next day, the statues are put on sacred sampans towed by dragon boats to parade through Tai O's waters. This unique religious activity has been preserved for more than a century.
The month-long Yu Lan Ghost Festival is special to Hong Kong’s estimated 1.2 million people who originate from Chiu Chow Province in the Chinese mainland. During the ghost festival, the Chiu Chow people offer sacrifices to ancestors and the wandering ghosts in the netherworld. The main activities include burning incense and joss papers, performing live Chinese operas and dramas for ghosts, distributing auspicious rice and auctioning auspicious objects.
Under the category of traditional craftsmanship is the technique for making Hong Kong-style milk tea. A favourite among locals, this beverage is also known as “silk stocking milk tea” because the brew was traditionally filtered through a large tea sock. The process involves using different kinds of tea leaves, boiling and infusing the tea and force-pouring the milk in a method not dissimilar to modern-day coffee-making.
Other arts listed include paper-crafting, which plays an important role in traditional festive celebrations and rituals, as well as the skill of building bamboo theatres to provide a temporary venue for Chinese opera performances or rituals.
Cantonese opera itself is on the performing arts list, while also ranking on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This traditional style of opera performance, a spectacle of colourful costumes and unique singing that blends Chinese legend, music and drama into a performing art, is rich in symbolism. The genre is enjoying a revival in Hong Kong with regular performances offered at various venues, including at the soon-to-be-opened Xiqu Centre at the West Kowloon Cultural District.
Intangible Cultural Heritage Office