Studies of overseas Chinese and their ancestral hometown have often emphasized on the discontinuation and rebuilding of economic ties through remittance and investment, and social ties through lineage building and philanthropic contributions. These studies also lead to the discussion of “Chineseness” which stresses the enhancement of cultural identity through practice and performance of claimed traditional Chinese culture. This proposal, with a focus on the communal Hungry ghost festivals organized in three Fujian-Teochew speaking overseas Chinese communities, puts such studies a step further with a hypothesis that traditional Chinese culture, particularly continuously celebrating Chinese communal festivals, are not only serve as a tool for establishing Chinese identity and instrumental to reestablishing connection with their ancestral hometown, they are, more importantly, a cultural facade that the overseas Chinese employ to indigenize, to project themselves as a significant “other” in their adopted country. “Chinese culture” is a survival strategy testing the tolerance of local authorities and, with standardized ritual, mitigates internal differences among the overseas Chinese.
The twentieth century was a period when the status of the Chinese overseas changed from sojourners to settlers. It was a period when the overseas Chinese delinked with their ancestral hometown, settled in their host countries, and reconnected with China in the last quarter of the century. The Chinese Hungry ghost festivals serves as a very good example to examine the continuation of Chinese communal festivals as a global phenomenon, exploring, in particular, the interplay of ceremonial structures evolving in overseas Chinese settings and their ancestral hometown. From spiritual salvation, communal charity to intangible cultural heritage, the Hungry festivals studied in this proposed project witness the dynamism and adaptability of traditional Chinese cultural practices.
The project proposes to compare the Hungry Ghost Festivals organized by the Fujian-Teochew communities in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kobe, all have records dated back to the late 19th century. It will produce, in addition to individual investigator’s publications, audio-visual databases and three ethnographies each documenting festival details and historical records of the festivals in Hong Kong, Kobe and Singapore. It will also produce a volume comparing the Hungry festivals celebrated by the overseas Chinese and how it helps understanding “cultural China” in the 20th century.