26 October 2009

The Day the Village Didn't Burn

I'm delighted--surprised, even--to report that Wang Tong Valley did not burn to the ground today as expected.

Today is the Chung Yeung Festival, one of two annual holidays to honor departed ancestors, sweep their graves and leave offerings. Unfortunately the preferred method of delivering those offerings is by setting them on fire, then turning around and leaving them to burn, while sparks disperse in the dry wind--it's always dry season around Chung Yeung--and standing back to watch entire hillsides burst into bush fires or, if the worshippers are lucky, a full raging forest fire.

Okay, I'm being cynical here, but sometimes I do wonder whether that's secretly the point, to orchestrate a grand performance like an emperor, to make sure your ancestors up in heaven will notice. It must be awfully difficult to make out one little stack of burning counterfeit money from way out in space, but a major forest fire? It'll warm old granny's cold dead heart to know that she's not only remembered, but more highly cherished than five dozen trees. To me, the flames resemble the fires of hell, which is where every one of those worshippers who leave behind burning debris belong, the sooner the better.

I worried all day today about the fires, even ran up to the hillside to check. Luckily there was nothing out of control, though there were plenty of people.

The footpaths of Wang Tong become nearly as crowded as a downtown lunch hour during Chung Yeung, since we have a popular graveyard on the hillside above the village. Long lines of family groups traipse up the hill all day long carrying bags filled with paper offerings, chickens, fruit, rice wine, and flowers. There's nothing somber about these outings. They're usually talking loud--really loud--and laughing, which is charming to consider. It's a celebration, a family reunion of living and departed. If only they carried fire extinguishers with them as well, so that us local residents would feel just as cheerful when they leave.

It isn't a fenced-off official graveyard, just a hill that apparently has the right sort of feng shui, and is pockmarked with concrete family tombs wherever there's space. I suspect that most of the people buried here have no connection whatsoever to Lantau Island, but simply gained permission from one of the local clans. Either way, the non-living population of Wang Tong well outnumbers the living. Plus they have the nicest views, overlooking the village to the bay and islands beyond.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I find it terribly audacious for human beings to regard ourselves so highly that after death we not only take up space that could be used for better purpose, including the choicest hillside real estate, but that our survivors would pollute the air and risk burning down beautiful trees, habitats for birds and other animals, to remind us twice a year how regally important are our bones.

When I'm gone, please don't come to Wang Tong or set a fire on my behalf. Sing a song or something. I'd rather hear music in the afterlife than get smoke in my eyes. I suspect that where I'm going, there'll be smoke enough.


  1. Out in the Sai Kung area, I have noticed a huge increase in the number of graves over the past 10 years. And they have become more elaborate. As you noted, they also have the best views!

  2. Hi. I found the link to your site on LeSan's blog, so I came for a nosey round because of the name!
    I found myself transported back in time to when I (all too briefly) worked in Hong Kong about 23 years ago and I've thoroughly enjoyed myself reading all your posts and reliving some of my memories!
    Thanks for a great blog :)