Dominic Cheung, a Hong Kongian student studying at Sussex, tells The Badger about what he witnessed at one of the peaceful protests in Hong Kong, and gives some deeper insight into its cultural background
As the protests continue in Hong Kong, governmental bodies are increasingly criticised for overstepping the boundaries of their power in order to achieve political aims with Beijing, or “to restore public order and normal, peaceful life” as written in the Legislation and Maintenance of Public Order and Civil Life by Occupying Powers. The police force has likewise been criticised for squashing the voice of the people, and using unnecessary force to do so. The malleability of the Public Order Ordinance has lead to accusations that is has been made a practical tool of abuse, and there are claims that it has been used to deny legality of gatherings they do not approve through arbitrary rules. Protest events have been held under the name of religious gatherings as they are not under the limits of the ordinance protesting legislations.
One such event was held on a Friday night, on the 9th August (coincidentally also 9th of the seventh month in the Lunar Calender). It took place in the Wong Tai Sin District of Hong Kong, a residential area named after the temple venerating the Taoist figure, along with other figures from Buddhism and Confucianism. This protest event was held to pray for good luck for the area and cleanse it of evils. Dominic was present to document the protest.
The event was itself a break from the usual protesting activities, the atmosphere notably less tense, with the police force standing by, some in riot gear. The joss paper burning took place in a small empty area next to a junction, opposite the road happens to be a living quarter for disciplined services, mostly police officers and their families.
Joss paper burning is a traditional religious practice in Hong Kong and many other nearby regions. Paper- crafts representing money, houses, servants, food, gold nuggets, and even modern technological marvels like smartphones and tablets are cast into fire, through which they are transported into the underworld and materialised into goods, to support the afterlives of the dead, often one’s own ancestors. They are most commonly coarse bamboo paper, sometimes foiled, representing currencies, sometimes with fine prints resembling our paper money, some are intricate papier-mâché of various goods.
The act itself is seen as an act of good karma: by feeding those spirits stuck in the temporal world joss paper burning is also a form of metaphysical, esoteric philanthropy. Those who cannot give up on certain parts of their earthly lives — often those who died from unjust circumstances — are condemned after death to roam the cold earth until their obsession is undone in one way or another. However, they are harmless to the living so long as they are fed well. This is especially popular during the seventh month of the Lunar Calender (approximately the same time as August), where it is believed that for one month the gate of the underworld was opened and the dead were allowed to roam freely in the temporal world. For some spirits, it is said, this is their only chance for resupplying themselves for the journey to come.
At the event, about twenty to police officers watch over the joss paper burning across the road, directly beneath the living quarter, on the opposite side of the junction to the joss paper burning parks three police coaster vehicles, at least two police dogs are brought to to standby.
People, old and young, gather to prepare for the rituals. Some joss papers are folded to represent traditional Chinese gold nuggets. The fire has started in a make-shift shrine, fruits and other food set up for the dead to feast on. The warm tone of the fire reflects off golden foils and thin beige papers, the pious tend to the fire and set the joss paper into the flames methodically, despite the 28 Celsius weather.
Other than the smell of burning paper is the smell of incense sticks, believers light up a few of them, bow to the shrine, and stick them in front of the shrine. Buddhist prayers are played out through speakers, while some silently repeat them.
A while after the ritual began, the part of casting joss paper came. Traditional, yellow ones, as well as ones that are decorated with fine prints, are thrown into the air, hailing back down on the pavement. Some people crossed the road towards the police, throwing the paper towards them.
“It’s feeding time!”
“Go, get them!”
“Aren’t you guys hungry? Come on and be a good dog!”
Whereas pigs are the usual insult for the police in the English world, dogs are the go-to animals as an insult in Chinese languages. On a Friday night, protestors decide to have some fun for the time before the serious conflicts taking place every weekend.
Midway through the joss paper throwing, an object was thrown from the residents of the living quarter, clearly aiming towards the crowd of protestors. The air tensed up quickly, at first the police chose to do nothing about it, but quickly they brought out a police dog (real canine dog) for no apparent reason, one could only speculate as a scare tactic. The dog, under a lot of pressure from the large crowd, seemed very agitated, and the officer holding its leash could barely stop it from jumping towards the journalists. Eventually it was brought back and a few senior officers came forth to ask if anyone was having complaints.
A small group of protestors, armed with nothing but a lot of joss paper, decided to walk down the road towards the living quarter entrance. About two dozens of officers immediately lined in front of the entrance, stopping anyone from approaching. Shortly after riot police with round shields and batons rushed out to guard the exit, and very shortly after, military police with long shields.
The protestors, not planning to start a conflict, soon left and returned to the opposite side of the road. The ritual went on, buddhists recite the Heart Sūtra, Taoists meditate. Though a snide form of protesting the police, the event was still very true to those who believe in the many faiths of East Asia. In the same fire, they cast aside their differences in faith, as they cast their gifts for the spirits into the flames.
East Asian beliefs and practices are radically different from conventional Western preconceptions of what religion should be and how it should function. If you understand the implications of William James’s insight into religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”, you may gain a better understanding of religions in Eastern Asia.
In some ways it is comparable to pre-Christian Roman Empire; East Asia allows for different religious beliefs co- existing in harmony; the apparent contradictions are cast aside, for the narratives, philosophies, and doctrines are never the focus, but it is the ways these philosophies and local folklores transform the very real day-to-day experiences of individuals that have been the form and substance of East Asian religious experiences. It is the ways these religious discourses permeate, not the discourses themselves, that is the key to East Asian beliefs.
Death — representing the universal dominance of entropy, whereas life as a resistance to its uncaring and equalising power — remains a topic of aversion in many cultures.
Shaped by local Chinese folklores amongst many other ideas such as Buddhism and Taoism, traditional beliefs in Hong Kong hold a strange relationship between the living and the dead, for they are at once separated and intimately close. The dead cross a river into the underworld, where red spider lilies the colours so brilliant nothing in the living world compares, grow by the river banks, and get judged for their karma and so continues the next journey of reincarnation, often a journey with no end.