Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fires are a Grave Affair.

China Daily, April 7th 2009

HONG KONG - More than 70 hill fires broke out in Hong Kong on Saturday as grave sweepers, burning joss sticks and paper offerings, paid homage to their loved ones in the traditional Ching Ming festival, local media reported on Sunday.
The majority of the fires occurred in the New Territories. Government Flying Services helicopters were out tackling several of the hill fires by dropping water bombs.
One of the bigger fires occurred in Sha Liang in Man Kam To. The area affected measured about 200 meters by 300 meters. Another big fire was reported in Tai O on Lantau Island.

Apparently it happens every year, hill fires start up at an alarming rate set by people visiting the graves of ancestors for Ching Ming Festival or Grave Sweeping Day. People from all over Hong Kong descend onto the hills of the countryside where the majority of ancestral burial sites are located. I was shocked by the sheer volume of people passing in front of our gate, travelling to the cemetery which is over the hill, just behind our village. People carrying sticks of incense, bunches of flowers, bags and bags of paper money (issued by the Bank of Hell, no less!) and elaborately folded origami-type paper models of cars, motor bikes, jewellery, houses, clothes, anything, in fact, that a person may need to have a more comfortable life (or is that afterlife??). But, not a drop of water in sight! The money and paper models are burned in an offering to the ancestors because the belief is that as the smoke rises to heaven the essence of the items being burned will rise up to the spirit of the ancestor and they will have that comfort of that possession or the money being offered. The flowers are used to sweep the grave so no water is needed for a vase – hence nothing to put out the flame of the Hell notes should they blow off the grave and drop onto nearby bushland as the graves are set in the hillside amongst the trees and bushes. As in all good Chinese traditions, there is food and drink involved! The visiting family enjoy a kind of ceremonial picnic by the graveside after worshipping the ancestors – the food is offered first to the ancestors then the family get to tuck into it later. Fair enough! After all, wouldn’t it be such a waste to burn the food or leave it behind to rot!

Lovely sentiment and a cherished ceremony, but, what about them there hills?? Below is a photo of the cemetery behind our village after the fires had devastated the surrounding hillside. You can see the scorched earth compared to the green of the trees in the foreground. It was interesting to see the fire fighters armed only with fire beaters slung over their shoulders, march seven-dwarf-like and pass our gate towards the intensifying inferno. We also watched the movie style performance of the Hong Kong Government Flying Services dropping water bombs of sea water scooped from the nearby bay and we marvelled at the stamina of the helicopter pilots as they did relay after relay from the bay to the hills and back, to prevent the further spread of flames.

It is hard to say this activity should be stopped because it is so much part of local custom and culture – but what about our planet? In these days when concern is rising about the state of the earth and what affect we are having on the weather, surely we must think of the greater good and perhaps look for ways to be more considerate to the environment when sending burned offerings to the spirit of our ancestors – perhaps carrying a bottle of water or two along with all the other assorted requirements of the day might be a good way to start! Splash! Splash! Hisssss........

Speaking of spirits (which I was amongst the ranting!!), I recently read Hilary Mantel’s book Beyond Black. This is a story of two women brought together by their interest and involvement with spiritualism and clairvoyants. Alison Hart is a medium and makes a living by appearing before group audiences providing communications from dead relatives and friends. She also offers readings to individual callers by passing them messages over the phone from the other side and reading tarot cards and scrying crystal balls for them. Collette becomes Alison’s business manager and the two decide to live together for convenience. Collette helps Alison to struggle through her nightmares and thoughts of demons and Alison offers friendship to Collette in return. They are a very unlikely pair, but somehow, as a team they are ideally matched.
The book is funny in parts, especially the descriptions of other members of the 'clairyoyant entertainment' community, but, it also has a very dark side too, which gave me some nightmares of my own. For me the story became strangely compelling and I couldn’t wait to finish it. More than a story about spirits and afterlife, it is a work which explores the right of an individual to privacy in her own mind and the search for identity by recovering memories of the past and owning them, no matter how painful they may be. The driving force behind the book according to an Afterword by Hilary Mantel was the fear she had about the confiscation of history, especially personal history and the right of ownership of one’s own past so it cannot be stolen or rewritten by someone else. This brings up a whole other debate which Dove Grey Reader’s blog started off about biographies and biographical writers and got me thinking about the responsibility we have to tell our own story ...........but that’s a whole other blog by itself! Watch this space.