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Hong Kong's own ghostbuster: Master Szeto on haunted Hong Kong and the Hungry Ghost Festival

Written by
Time Out Hong Kong

Sure, Hong Kong may be one of the safest cities in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to outlandish happenings — especially not during the Hungry Ghost Festival (孟蘭節). Unlike Halloween, Hungry Ghost Festival isn’t exactly all fun and games. Throughout the entirety of July of the lunar calendar, spirits — good ones and bad — are believed to roam freely from one corner to another as the gateway to the human world unlocks. Lucky for the phasmophobes among us, Master Szeto Fat-ching, an acclaimed feng shui master and Hong Kong and Macau ghostbuster, is here to explain the do’s and don’ts of the festival. You might want to take heed — otherwise, may the odds be ever in your favour.

How did you first enter the field of ghostbusting?
Well, I haven’t always dealt with ghosts. I started off as a feng shui master and meta-physicist and so I was teaching shen gong (神功, or supernatural work). I started learning those skills at a young age. In 2000, I was interviewed on TV, and they really liked what I was talking about, and so later on that year — on my birthday, actually— I was invited onto the show The Unbelievable (怪談), and it was a huge hit! So then I kept doing that for 15 years until I switched to TVB. I started going to a lot of haunted places in Hong Kong to explore what the spiritual world has to offer. So the longer I deal with ghosts and shen gong, the more people think of me as a ghostbuster. And though I consider myself more of a feng shui master, I’d say that I’m also somewhat an expert in the spiritual world.

So, we're curious – what are some of the most haunted places in Hong Kong?
That’s difficult to say, since lot of places in Hong Kong are really haunted! Mang gui kiu (猛鬼橋, which literally translates to 'haunted ghost bridge') in Tai Po, High Street in Sai Ying Pun, Fortress Hill, Sai Kung, Ship Street in Wan Chai — there are a lot of places.

What would you say to those who don’t really believe in ghosts?
Though I believe that ghosts exist, I don’t really encourage superstition.

Is the spiritual world really that different from the human world?
I’ve been to a lot of places over the years in where accidents, murders and all sorts of bad things have occurred. Those places are very yin (陰: yin in ying yang) and I feel a lot of resentment in the air. And I wouldn’t do much there per se, since the spiritual world has laws and rules of their own. And just like the human world, rules are not something to be messed with. I might try to alleviate the tension around the area by greeting the ghosts, but I wouldn’t do too much to mess with the rules of the spiritual world.

Interesting! You make it sound as though the spiritual world is some sort of an unknown parallel universe. So are ghosts all over the place?
They are! It’s not that difficult to run into ghosts. If you think about it, there are bad people in the human world who are always around to cause trouble. And most of the time, nothing really happens if you choose to ignore them. If you were to react to their provocation — whether by insulting them or hurting them — you might get in trouble. It’s the same way with ghosts.

So there are good ghosts and bad ghosts?
Absolutely! Sure, sometimes ghosts look scary. But you need to know that some of them don’t show up with the intention to hurt you, so you can just ignore them. Other times ghosts look friendly, so naturally you won’t be scared of them. Sometimes they show up because they are trying to connect with humans, and so it’s up to us as to whether or not we open up. In short, I believe that there has to be bad if there is good — everything is relative. And based on that thought, if there’s an upper power there has to be ghosts. It exists only if you believe that it exists.

What are some misconceptions people have of ghosts?
The spiritual world really isn’t as scary as people make it. Like I said, they have rules down there. So while most people think that ghosts are here to haunt you, the fact is that ghosts are more afraid of people than people are of ghosts. The reason people are so frightened by ghosts is that humans are afraid of being lonely — imagine being trapped in a room alone, or being alone on the street at night. People are also afraid because they can’t look at what’s behind them and around them without turning their head. But more generally speaking, people are scared because they don’t know what ghosts are – it’s the fear of the unknown.

How would someone know if there's a ghost around?
They all show up the same way. You might not see ghosts all the time, but they give off a peculiar feeling. They will make sure they do enough to let you know that they’re there —  whether through a distinct smell, a particular gesture, or something else— if they are persistent.

Why do ghosts show up and try to connect with humans?
Sometimes ghosts aren’t aware that they're dead, since their deaths are often tragic and unexpected. So they go about their daily routines without realising that they no longer belong to the human world. That’s why sometimes people report seeing ghosts jumping off buildings repeatedly. Victim of suicide die so suddenly that they aren’t aware that they’re dead. Sometimes they just vanish after I kindly notify them that they have passed away, and that they should start a new life in the world to where they belong. Other times, ghost show up because they're really attached to something from the human world. It’s not uncommon for ghosts to show up at their family’s birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and other days like that.

How do you get rid of ghosts that are really persistent and won’t stop bothering people?
Just like humans, ghosts want to be understood. So then one must start from understanding the reasons behind the persistence. It’s also important to dig deep into the background of the possessed, so to see whether or not the possessed has previously insulted a person. We should also try to know more about the past life of the possessed. And after all that is done, we try to connect with the spirits in order to understand what it is that they want, so we try our best to fulfil their desires. We only resort to dark magic and destruction of the ghost if the conflict can’t be resolved. However, if the conflict infringes the laws of the spiritual world or the laws of karma, we can sometimes refuse to handle the conflict.

What are some taboos of Hungry Ghost Festival?
Are there things we should avoid doing? All kinds of ghosts will show up throughout the duration July of the lunar calendar, the good ones, the bad ones, the horrible ones, everything. Traditionally speaking, avoid swimming or staying out late — parents love this, because their kids won’t stay out all night partying. Avoid going to quiet places. Never pick up any change you see on the street – it’s probably there for the ghosts. Do not kick anything that is placed on the street. And even if you’re caught kicking things on the street, do not blindly and impulsively respond to hollers. Another thing, ghosts love leaning against walls. So don’t throw up on wall, or even just lean on walls. If you’re a yin person or a person who is perpetually in bad luck, avoid the abovementioned at all costs. Otherwise you’re really just asking for it.

What are some of the things people can do on their own to avoid being bothered by ghosts?
Stay optimistic, energetic and happy — that’s key. Hang out in places that are more yang (陽: yang in yin yang). Don’t go to discreet places or random corners even if you’re trying to catch a rare Pokémon. Never bring music boxes with you, especially those used for religious purposes. They often contain hymns that attract ghosts. Do not go to Hungry Ghosts Festival ceremonies in weird, quiet hours, because oftentimes they would perform rituals that provide ghosts with guidance and instructions for the spiritual world. So ghosts tend to gather at those places, which makes it extremely easy for people with bad luck to run into them.

What happens if someone’s birthday coincides with Hungry Ghost Festival?
It’s not a big deal. Most people celebrate at home or at lively places. It’s not like they bring it on to the streets and celebrate the day with the ghosts. The two events do not conflict with each other. Some people are concerned that they are very yin because they are born in July of the Lunar calendar, but then since their ‘eight characters’ (八字: a fortune and destiny-telling character of a person) are of the same properties as the spirits, they won’t get in too much trouble. Haidee Chu

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