Ghost Stories

October 29, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

No, this isn’t a review of the Coldplay album.

This is a post about Halloween (sort of).

I have very mixed feelings towards Halloween. I had a traditional Chinese upbringing and no one in my family really even knew about the festival, let alone celebrate it. The one time I brought it up with my grandma, she frowned, not quite being able to get her head around the idea that there’s a day every year when people dress up as monsters and ghouls and poke fun at supernatural beings. Then I got a whole “missus-this-is-no-laughing-matter-the-dead-will-not-be-amused-you-will-regret-this” lecture. Oh grandma, wait till you find out how we girls dress these days on Halloween. (If you have time, watch this video by marinashutup and check out what she has to say on this matter.)

I used to have a lot of fantasies about Halloween; my unfortunate Western cultural indoctrination led me to believe that this holiday plays on the whole coming-of-age experience. I was always envious of kids who got to go trick-or-treating; the typical Hong Kong high-rise apartment building I lived in seemed the perfect setting for such an activity, but my family is pretty anti-social and I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a single soul except the security guards the whole time I lived there, so my neighbours probably wouldn’t appreciate it very much if I suddenly showed up at their door with paint on my face, asking for candy (but at least this isn’t the States where I might stumble onto someone’s porch drunk by accident and get shot. Wow, I’m on fire with being politically correct today). Growing up I had read The Princess Diaries and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and I desperately wished I could go to Rocky Horror; I wanted to put on my stilettos, open umbrella indoors, and scream at the screen along with the audience. I wanted to dress up as obscure literary characters only fellow nerds will recognize and they will come up and talk to me and we will have cute little nerd babies together……I mean, what?

My actual Halloween celebrations were a lot less glamorous. One of them I had spent at home in a bubble bath, watching The Nightmare Before Christmas. The first time I properly dressed up and headed out to Lan Kwai Fong was 2 years ago; I was trying to be Alice from Alice in Wonderland, but I think I ended up looking more like Little Bo Peep. I had spent the rest of that evening being incredibly drunk and talking to a CUHK exchange student about V for Vendetta and other movies we liked. I warmed to him because at parties like these I always somehow end up on the couch staring blankly at the shapeless shadows of teenage debauchery flickering on the dance floor in front of me, unable to bring myself to join in; like me, he was on the couch too. He later took me out on a date and went on for hours about how much he loved Chinese culture while we sipped $200 tea at Chi Lin Monastery. (You’re Chinese! I reminded myself.) I was a bit freaked out and never texted him back after.

But the Chinese have their own festival of the dead, and it’s a much more solemn affair. In the lunar month of July – the Hungry Ghost Festival – my grandma would head out onto the streets in the wee hours of the morning and make offerings to the dead. She’s not alone; throughout that month incinerator bins are found on every corner and the pavements constantly reek of burnt ash. This is particularly so if you live on the Kowloon/New Territories side.

Dear Grandpa,

 Did the presents get all soggy when they reached your side? I asked grandma, but she said I was being silly. The storm was so bad yesterday. We had been burning them on the side of the road, there were the paper watches and bags and even iPhones; but then grandma said nothing beats money, so then we did the gold bars and the wads of notes. Then the rain came and almost put out the fire and the ashes got wet, and grandma said let’s do it tomorrow instead.


Throughout my childhood years I’ve had a complicated relationship with the superstitious and the supernatural. According to my parents, I had ‘the sight’ when I was a toddler, and I used to complain about the presence of ghostly beings at my first childhood home, a flat in Shatin that was apparently built on top of an old graveyard site. When they recap these stories now I’m just mostly amused, and there is no way of confirming whether or not I did see a mother and her child in this apartment they were convinced to be haunted, for I was at an age when memories are only half-formed and so intertwined with imagination and illusions. My aunt, a devout Buddhist, decided to take me under the wing of Buddhism after an episode on the bus, when (the story goes) I was disturbed by supernatural forces I could not vocalize about, and I kept crying and pointing and talking to things that weren’t there. I was then taken to be blessed by a monk and according to her, I never had those episodes again. Till today my family continues to be plagued by superstitions of sorts, poor business decisions blamed on bad feng-shui, important choices still made under the influence of divination forecasts that told them whether or not it was ‘their year’. They had planted things in me too, inception of ideas I sometimes find hard to shake; my aunt had warned me that I would suffer from a difficult marriage unless my husband was someone that was either from the disciplinary forces or non-Chinese. Beats me where that came from, though at times I do catch myself thinking, okay, even if there’s only a 1% probability that it’s true, what if it is? Should I take any chances? It’s incredibly silly, and near impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t spent their childhood being brainwashed by such ideas.

And then there were the ghost stories, those spouted by Stephen King, those that come onto the screen whenever Halloween is around the corner, those of X-files and The Twilight Zone and whatnot. My brother and I were huge fans of True Singapore Ghost Stories, and one year for my birthday he got me the Usborne Book of The Paranormal, and we spent the summer pouring over the pages that educated us about Ouija boards and the Bermuda Triangle and even the mysterious death of James Dean. But eventually I reached a saturation point and couldn’t take any more of these stories; they stayed with me, lingered in my mind for too long and I started being frightened of everything. When I was nine I went to see the Japanese horror Dark Waters with my aunt and for the two years that followed I couldn’t go to the bathroom with out screaming for my grandma, afraid that if I were alone something would take me. I sworn off horror movies the year I was 14; I was watching a local film starring Stephy Tang with my best friend in the cinema and halfway through I felt so disturbed that I had to take my phone out and put earphones in so as to distract myself from the movie (I would have left, but I was still a little curious as to how it would all end, and I couldn’t bring myself to after paying for the ticket). I simply couldn’t stomach that stuff anymore.

But my affinity for the weird has never fully disappeared. Done in moderation, they still excited me, but not in the way it does for my best friend, who basks in the combination of the visual and the sound, the experience of sitting in a dark cinema auditorium and being scared out of her mind. I prefer books. The supernatural stretched the boundaries of what was possible and because of that, they often make better stories. I suppose that’s why I enjoy Neil Gaiman so much. When it comes to horror stories, I was never really looking for the horror so much as I was the stories.

Cover Image: Picture I took of the Kelvingrove Museum at Glasgow, which is 10 minutes away from where I live. Why on earth do they think red is a good choice colour to light up the museum with??? Makes my late night walks home a hundred times scarier.