The house where Uncle Sai spends his weekday afternoons is possibly the only reminder of a part of Central that’s once called 30 Houses. Today everyone calls that area Soho.
Uncle Sai is how kaifong (local residents) call the 65-year-old Wong Kun-oi. He is the leader of the 30 Houses Yu Lan Association. Every weekday late morning, Uncle Sai gets on his motorbike and races from his home in Ma On Shan to association’s premise on Staunton Street in Central. He either goes to a nearby restaurant or a cha chaan teng for lunch before he formally starts a day’s work, which consists of chit-chatting with kaifong who pop up at the office, or signing documents and going to meetings to do with the annual Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival.
The 30 Houses area is bounded by Hollywood Road to the north, Staunton Street to the south, Tank Lane to the west and Shelley Street to the east. One explanation of the curious name of the area says it comes from the 30 stone houses that a rich man once built there. “It was many years ago, must be 100 years ago,” Uncle Sai said. A second version of the story also involves a rich man but instead of getting himself into a construction frenzy, he bought 30 houses on Kwong Hon Terrace which is just above Staunton Street in one spree.
My friend Katty Law Ngar-ning went to check local historical archives and old newspaper clippings after hearing the old gentleman’s story. She concluded that no one could say for sure when the area started to be known as 30 Houses, where its boundaries lie, or how its name came about. But the name 30 Houses was widely used in newspaper articles dating back to the 1930s. Katty also found old maps which show there were 30 stone huts on Kwong Hon Terrace as early as 1899.
During the course of our interview, Uncle Sai repeated many times that he’s old and didn’t want to make life unnecessarily hectic. “I get up late and I must exercise before I come to work.”
The daily banters between kaifong at 30 Houses are essential for keeping a disappearing community alive. They are also key to the continuation of the annual Yu Lan ceremony which takes place there on the 14th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar. This success of this once-a-year-only occasion requires the unreserved cooperation from all kaifong.
The pace at the Yu Lan Association office is surely slow while work seems stress free. However, that’s not always the case. A few years ago, Uncle Sai fought and won a battle against an eviction order that the Urban Renewal Authority imposed on them. Another case of great stress came last year when he had to handle hostility from a new but prominent neighbour who complained about their Yu Lan programme even though the rituals have been taking place there uninterrupted since before WWII.
In the week leading up to the Yu Lan ceremony, Uncle Sai spends every single evening in the office preparing for the ceremony to ensure that it’ll go smoothly. But no matter how busy he is, he’ll steal some time from his tight schedule to play football at Southorn Playground in Wan Chai. Dubbed ‘Hong Kong’s Wembley’, no second-rate players will ever dare to play there.
In the old days, there were hundreds of Yu Lan ceremonies across Hong Kong. They’re organised by business or kaifong associations. Today, that number has fallen to about 50. While Ching Ming and Chung Yeung Festivals are a time to remember ancestors, Yu Lan is a time to feed restless ghosts that have no one to pay respects to them or give them solace.
Traditionally, the Chinese believe that the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when hungry ghosts come back to the mortal world. The 14th day of the month is believed to be the day that the ghosts are at their most active.
Throughout this month, people burn paper money and joss sticks and make food offerings at evening roadside ceremonies all over Hong Kong.
Builders go to 30 Houses several days before the annual Yu Lan ceremony to construct bamboo matsheds. There are three matsheds, two small and one big. The big one stands in the middle. It is about 10-metre tall. Inside the matshed there’s a temporary altar around which Taoist monks chant and pray. And on one of the bamboo scaffolds, the Ghost King’s colourful and elaborate robe is displayed.
One of the small matsheds houses a temporary shrine to plaques bearing the names of the deceased ancestors of the kaifong; the plaques, which are surrounded by colourful and floral decorations, are placed there at the kaifong’s request. The other matshed houses the five-metre-tall Ghost King, a powerful figure from the underworld who comes to earth to ensure that the wandering spirits don’t misbehave themselves during this delicate time of the year.
On the day of the ceremony, colourful flags are hoisted on the streets that delimit the 30 Houses. Food offerings and joss sticks are placed at six spots along the boundaries for the hungry ghosts. Taoist priests dressed in traditional red garb and wearing black hats chant as they go on a procession along the boundaries of the neighbourhood to inform the ghosts that it is time for them to come and enjoy the food prepared specially for them.
In the afternoon, local politicians would join the ceremony. They distribute bags of rice to the elderly. In the old days when Hong Kong was not as well-off as we are now, the rice-giving was an event for many families to get extra food supplies. Nowadays, most people who line up for the rice are elderly.
Those who want to make offerings to deceased relatives and friends usually come in the afternoon. They buy pre-packed handouts and burn them, a ritual that may serve to console the souls of those still living than financing those in the underworld or already in heaven. Two furnaces are are provided for the burning.
At around 3pm, a second procession takes place, this time to announce that the gates are closing, and that no ghosts should enter.
But Uncle Sai’s busiest time of this annual big day actually comes in the evening. The night is aglow with lanterns. The Taoist priests have changed their ceremonial dress, which is yellow this time. They chant sutras to purify the altar and the space where they perform the ceremony. Inside the matshed, plenty of food is laid out for the crowds of starving ghosts: vegetarian dishes, roast pigs, roast chicken, roast duck, dumplings, buns and fruits.
At the end of the ceremony, all beautifully-crafted paper gods, lanterns and other decorations go into the furnaces and travel to the underworld. The food offerings, meanwhile, will be shared among the kaifong, so nothing will be wasted.
The climax of the evening is the burning of the Ghost King. It is the final figure to be burnt. As the Ghost King leaves, he takes the last ghosts with him and the district is cleared of trouble for another year.
Yu Lan at 30 Houses can be traced to the pre-war days, when there were a dozen of unrelated ghost-soothing ceremonies conducted by competing businesses on Staunton Street alone. Many of the organisers were what we’d call today ‘logistics companies’. They employed and would provide accommodation for men from southern China who came to Hong Kong and found work as coolies. Quite a number of these ‘coolie houses’ were on Staunton Street.
As Central goes through major gentrification, mum-and-pop stores, meat and fish shops, rice stores and small eating places are being replaced by the swathes of trendy cafes, posh restaurants, upmarket boutiques and antique shops which make up Soho today. Only the old generation and longtime residents know 30 Houses. But today little remains of 30 Houses as long-standing businesses close down, longtime residents, like Uncle Sai, move out of Central, and elderly folk pass away.
The 30 Houses Yu Lan Association premise that Uncle Sai goes to every weekday is the only tangible record of the place and its history.
Uncle Sai has been holding the baton for the annual Yu Lan rituals at 30 Houses for 22 years. His commitment to the community’s most important event has not waned despite the massive changes that are now sweeping through the part of Central where he was born, grew up and raised his family.
Uncle Sai was born to a rice merchant family. His family shop was only a short distance from the 30 Houses Yu Lan Association. Uncle Sai’s family used to have a number of rice stores but their business declined after rice started to be sold in packets and people switched to supermarkets for the staple. To make a living, Uncle Sai took up various manual labour jobs, until he saved enough money to start his own business, a stall selling congee and noodles. That stall stood on the street corner opposite the 30 Houses Yu Lan Association.
His stall was later upgraded to a shop serving Chui Chow-style noodles and congee and then an eating place serving inexpensive Chui Chow dishes. It was during this period that he was invited to join the Yu Lan Association and take charge of the Yu Lan rituals.
Uncle Sai regarded the invitation as an honour and a tribute to his father. “My father used to serve the association and coordinated Yu Lan. It was many years ago, I was still a kid.”
After serving 30 Houses as the leader of the annual Yu Lan Festival for 22 years, Uncle Sai still feels great enthusiasm for the event. But unlike his predecessors who could identify successors from the local community, the 65-year-old has no idea who will succeed him, or indeed, if there will be a successor.
What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s. It’s a time when everyone was down to earth, honest, generous and helpful. Now the quality of Hong Kong has declined partly because of people from the mainland. The education they received is not as good as what we have in Hong Kong. People nowadays are rather disappointing.
What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A polarised society created by opportunistic politicians.
What does Hong Kong have to do to be sustainable?
I am pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future. The golden days are gone. Trust between people have weakened significantly. We will not get back that simple, honest and generous society that we had in the 60s and 70s.