British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Brian D Wilson
(Administrative Officer, Hong Kong 1948-83)
Ghosts of the Past
Murray House, 1982
Whilst I was Commissioner for Transport (1971-74) in the colonial Hong Kong Government, an issue arose in respect of a branch office in Murray House. Dating from 1846, this building was one of the oldest colonial-style structures in Hong Kong and had originally been designed as an army officers mess. During the Japanese occupation it had been the headquarters of the Kempetei, the Japanese intelligence service, notorious for the torture and executions carried out there. This wartime activity gave the place an unwelcome flavour. Now, there were reports that Transport staff had seen ghosts on the premises and were reluctant to continue working there. Clearly, immediate action was needed if there was not to be a complete stoppage. Chinese staff take these matters seriously and are far from sceptical about reports of ghosts, which tend to be regarded as harmful, or at least frightening to live people. Most of the staff concerned were young Chinese girls.

I therefore got in touch with the chief abbot of the Buddhist Association, whom I knew slightly, and secured his agreement to carrying out a ceremony of exorcism in a couple of days’ time, with no publicity. (I was doubtful whether the Government would be happy with what I was doing). When I turned up for the ceremony (on a Sunday when the office was empty) I was horrified to discover huge crowds surrounding the premises. It was only with difficulty that I managed to get to a position where I could take part in the ceremony (which was televised). It caused no harm and the ceremony certainly did for the ghosts which made no further appearance.

Ghosts of the Past
Murray House, 1982
But the publicity media made a meal of the event, covering every aspect. I was required to give three TV interviews and five radio interviews, all with the same question: as you are not a Buddhist, why did you take part in a Buddhist ceremony? The answer was simple. If the Transport Department offices should be infested with rats, I would call in the rat-catchers and, if necessary, lend a hand. In the same manner, if the problem was ghosts, as in this case, I would call in the ghost-catchers, and if this meant my taking part in a Buddhist ceremony, I was happy to do so. But this did not mean that I was a Buddhist. The overriding point was to take steps to ensure that staff of the Transport Department could get back to work without being frightened to death by ghosts.

The ceremony was an interesting exercise that might occur only in the atmosphere of Hong Kong. A West Indian had earlier suggested to me that pepper should be scattered around the area where the ghosts had been seen. Pepper is apparently the standard antidote in the West Indies, but I rejected this because it would not help to have staff sneezing their heads off, but more importantly, it was not a Chinese remedy and therefore would not be regarded as effective. It was important to employ a traditional local practice that would secure staff confidence.

It so happened that in September 1997 I visited China and enquired to what extent fung shui was still followed. The answer was that fung shui was a superstition not accepted in China, nor were stories about ghosts and extraterrestrial beings. In other words, the Buddhist ceremony of exorcism in the Transport Department offices could never have happened in China because reports of ghosts would not be officially accepted. It was hard to believe that China could have wiped out such firmly held beliefs as fung shui and ghosts, which now presumably survive only in overseas Chinese communities. It seems amazing that the former beliefs of millions of Chinese could be changed in this manner. But it is always possible that, despite the official policy, the practice still continues in a quiet way. A comparable example lies in the popular survival of the Orthodox Church in present-day Russia, despite its having been banned for seventy years by the previous Communist regime.

Africa Map
1954 Map of Hong Kong
Colony Profile
Hong Kong
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 105: October 2013


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