Day of the Dead celebrations help change Hong Kong teens' perception of death

Day of the Dead celebrations help change Hong Kong teens' perception of death

Students at Tseung Kwan O Government Secondary School learned about the joyful Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, shown in the Pixar movie 'Coco'

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The Day of the Dead altar, where people leave food and other offerings for the deceased.
Photo: SCMP / Nicola Chan

Pixar’s animation Coco was probably the closest reference the students at Tseung Kwan O Government Secondary School had to Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. But after hosting an event celebrating the festival, they got a deeper understanding of the annual holiday which changed their perspective on death.

From the colourful altar filled with portraits of dead ancestors decorated with bright orange Mexican marigolds, to the reams of detailed paper banners known locally as “papel picado”, different Mexican traditions shown in the film were brought to life at their school last week.

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The school worked with the Consulate General of Mexico to host a two-day Día de los Muertos Mexican Cultural Festival to celebrate the holiday, which takes place every year on November 1 and 2. 

There was plenty to see and do, including a photo station, game booth, a screening of Coco, and information boards about Mexican history and culture. The event attracted 200 people.

Young Post joined the festivities last Friday and spoke to some of the students involved about what they gained from learning about the merry Mexican tradition.

Macy Cheng puts up visitors' messages for their dead relatives.
Photo: Nicola Chan

“Mexicans believe the dead return to the living world on the Day of the Dead and celebrate the festival with them. This is a concept quite foreign to us who are used to visiting graves and commemorating the dead during the Ching Ming Festival,” explains Carson Tsang Ho-yin. 

“For them, it is not a solemn but a happy occasion,” the 15-year-old student photographer adds.

Macy Cheng Wing-hei, 16, says that even though Chinese people and Mexicans both have festivals that involve commemorating the dead and making offerings, their mood is very different.

“It’s more relaxing as there is upbeat music and dancing,” says Macy, who helped out at the game booth.

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The students involved realise this is probably due to the fact that Mexicans who celebrate the holiday believe death is not the end of everything; rather that it is the beginning of a new journey in the afterlife.

Many Chinese people tend to avoid discussing death. “You can see this even in the naming of our annual death festival; we call it Ching Ming Festival to avoid direct reference to the dead, whereas the Mexicans openly call theirs Day of the Dead,” says Chi-sing.

There are some similarities between the way Chinese people and Mexicans pay their respects to the dead, though.

Janice Fong (second from the right) handed out booklets and bookmarks to visitors at the event.
Photo: Marisol Tena

“On the altars, the favourite food and items of the deceased are placed around their portraits as offerings, which is similar to [the Chinese] tradition of burning paper offerings for our ancestors,” explains 18-year-old See Chi-sing.

“After learning about the Day of the Dead, I realised there’s actually no need to shy away from discussions about death in our daily life,” Noelle Gao Anqi, 15, tells Young Post.

“It is something to be expected.”

Janice Fong, 14, agrees, saying the Mexican attitude towards life and death makes her worry less about death.

Macy helps out at a game booth at the event.
Photo: Marisol Tena

The event also allowed Macy to view death in a different light. 

“Perhaps a person’s final death is [not their physical death, but] when no one in the living world can remember him or her –  just like in the film Coco,” she says. 

“I think the way Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead, recalling memories of the deceased, retelling their stories, and making it a communal event filled with joy, makes people more likely to carry on the tradition and pass it down to future generations.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
A day to remember

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