Hong Kong: Cultural Heritage Conservation in a City of Change – Part 3: from tangible to intangible heritage

Intangible Heritage: UNESCO-CULTURE

As Lynne and Ho Yin continued their talk, they turned to the UNESCO definition of heritage.  They didn’t quote the UNESCO website directly, but it captures the essence of what they were expressing.

Cultural heritage is not limited to material manifestations, such as monuments and objects that have been preserved over time. This notion also encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally.

So they were not just stressing built structures that we often associate with the notion of heritage, but also with movable tangible heritage.  That could be like a classic motor vehicle, a piece of furniture characteristic of or important to a culture.

The intangible, however, captures the arts and persons, festivals and everyday life.  In January 2007, Hong Kong set up a team to record intangible heritage in Hong Kong.  The team was prompted by a similar action that the Beijing government had taken before in recording the mainland’s own intangible heritage.  So if “grandfather” was taking intangible heritage seriously, then Hong Kong should definitely follow.

Some examples of intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong were given.

Lynne loved the tradition of what she called “Beating the Little Person.”  It’s almost like a Chinese version of voodoo.  You take the name of the person that you do not like.  And it seems if you have more info on the person, the better.  Then you would ask one of these beating ladies to beat that person for you.  They take their shoe and beat a paper with the info of the person you have chosen.  Here’s a video below .


Another example was the Hungry Ghost Festival.  An excerpt from Wikipedia says the following about the Festival.

In Chinese tradition, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. During the Qingming Festival the living descendants pay homage to their ancestors and on Ghost Day, the deceased visit the living.

On the fifteenth day the three realms of Heaven, Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased.

Yet another example of intangible cultural heritage is the Fire Dragon Dance.  Currently the dance is only performed in one place in Hong Kong, but Ho Yin says that the government may allow the same festivity to happen elsewhere in the territory in the near future.

The entire dragon is actually made up of hundreds of incense sticks all burning.  I have never witnessed it personally, but the smoke in the clip below tells what it must feel like to be there. [Video updated in August 2014]


Another major cultural institution in Hong Kong that Lynne and Ho-Yin mentioned is Mah Jong.  There are several different ways to play mah jong and there is definitely a Hong Kong style of playing the tile card game.  Even in Vancouver’s Chinatown, you can still hear clickety-clack of the tiles raining down from the benevolent halls above the street.  If you are interested in learning, here’s a quick YouTube lesson on it. Pardon the female computer voice.


Mah jong is not likely to disappear any time soon, but some of the festivals and traditions mentioned above could find themselves displaced by progress. The Fire Dragon Dance, for example, only happens in one place in Hong Kong.  What happens if the government felt that they should redevelop the area?  Then the dance may be deemed inappropriate.  Listing the Dance as part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage could help ensure that the tradition lives on.

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