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
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.