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They lurk in dark shadows and linger in the smoke. As Halloween nears, Sung Bale faces her fears and speaks to Charles F Emmons about eerie hauntings in Hong Kong

If you’ve ever had a bad ‘feeling’ about a place, you’re not alone. Author and scholar Professor Charles F Emmons reveals that, more than 20 years ago, around 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population believed in – and feared – ghosts. He compiled this research, along with first-hand reports, into a seminal tome that has been the only definitive report on modern Hong Kong’s relationship with the paranormal. Chinese Ghosts and ESP was published in 1982. One handover and two decades later, the Gettysburg, USA, resident tells us it’s time for a second edition. “Now I’m really curious,” he chimes, almost spookily.
For the 1982 edition, Emmons spent seven months researching and four years writing. One of the most chilling tales in the book tells of a Hong Kong woman who was delayed in Bangkok on her way to London. She opened the door to her hotel bathroom that night and discovered several airline crewmembers standing there, completely stationary, fully clothed in uniform. She shut the door and three days later discovered that an airline crew had burnt to death in the hotel. She recognised the pilot’s face in the newspaper as one of the men standing in the bathroom that night. “That one is a precognition experience from a 50-year-old lady,” explains Emmons. “In the first section of my book I only collected real, first-hand accounts, so I could compare them to Western experiences. They’re the same. ESP is a worldwide phenomenon.”
There are plenty of ghoulish tales in the tome. One man told Emmons that he was pushed off a train platform in Hong Kong by ‘grey objects’. Several people also claimed to have seen the same bright moving light, on separate occasions, in an old townhouse.
Back in the 70s, Emmons and his wife contacted almost 35,000 people. Some were reluctant to talk, even slamming the phone down. But the couple persisted. And this time the new research could be just as tough. The professor expects that, despite the internet, gathering information will be just as difficult. “People are often upset by my questions,” he says. “In traditional Chinese culture, ghosts are dangerous. If we don’t worship them properly, they become hungry or angry. They’ll eat you at mahjong.”
Emmons, who has studied ESP and paranormal beliefs for most of his career, also debunks the myth that only the elderly believe in ghosts. “Belief declines consistently after a certain age,” he says. “Age can bring scepticism. People with most ghostly experiences are likely to be under 25 years old.” This probably explains why Chinese University, one of the oldest campuses in Hong Kong, is said to be visited by apparitions. “There’s an elevator there that is said to be particularly haunted,” Emmons tells us. “But I’m also interested in trying to find out how these ‘haunted places’ are created. Is the tale of the elevator one told from the older students to the younger?”
Emmons fails to state whether he believes in ghosts – but he has had ‘unexplainable’ things happen to him. “In China, I saw someone turn a corner and the next second they were gone,” he says. “I’ve also seen a lot of my physical objects malfunctioning, like watches and hard drives. Once, when I was trying to take a picture at the Hungry Ghost Festival, my camera stopped working at that very moment.”
“It will be interesting to see if ghostlore has changed since the 70s,” Emmons concludes, as he prepares to return to our city to continue his work. “I haven’t been back for so long and I feel strongly connected to HK. Ghost culture in Hong Kong is not dying at all.”

Chinese Ghosts and ESP first edition is published by Scarecrow Press, priced $225. Emmons is looking for first-hand experiences for the second edition, a work-in-progress. Email him at cemmons@gettysburg.edu.

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