To be honest, my personal experience with Halloween is limited, and not quite typical — my only direct experience with the holiday came when I was working in Washington, D.C., and got to trick or treat on Massachusetts Avenue, where embassies offered authentic candy from all over the world. What impressed me most was people’s bizarre costumes and makeup — the person wearing a bathrobe and slippers with newspaper in hand and a headless body in medieval armor, for example. “Wow, America!” I thought.
And now Halloween is almost as popular as Christmas in China, specifically among young adults and kids in the country’s more developed urban areas. But when did this Western tradition begin its journey in China? Has it changed at all as it’s become known by more Chinese as a “Western Ghost Festival” (as opposed to China’s own traditional 鬼节 guijie, or “ghost festival”)? Is there anyone trying to stop its spread out of worries about eroding Chinese tradition?
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Shanghainese creative director Rhiannon Florence has long been exploring the coolest cultural experiences the city has to offer. “Back when I started to go to live concerts and underground parties eight or nine years ago, it was just a small circle,” she recalls. “In the first place, the Halloween events were usually small — sometimes free — private parties hosted by expats and international Chinese at their homes or small clubs, like The Shelter [a club built in an underground air-raid shelter in 2007 which closed at the end of 2016].”
“Most of the people there were musicians and all those cool kids,” she says. “Back then, Halloween was fresh to us, and a festival different from any other. People would really put some thought into their DIY costumes.”
Halloween partygoers at Arkham in Shanghai
However, in 2018, tens of thousands of Chinese millennials are planning on attending Halloween parties this weekend, and many more promoters are organizing Halloween-themed parties in Shanghai. “Some of them just feel similar, but not that pure,” according to Rhiannon, who has had a hand in one of the biggest such events at club space Arkham. “There is a theme, some decorations for the occasion, and maybe a huge place to have a big party, but it’s getting hard to make something that people can deeply relate to.”
As someone who works with a well-known club to organize events with creative concepts, Rhiannon thinks there might be a couple of reasons for this shift. “People have to multi-task, and have little time to cultivate a taste in music that they might not be familiar with at first. As for promoters, Halloween may be just another chance to make some quick money. When the audience is richer and they want nothing but to have some fun, a fresh new idea is not that necessary.”
At the same time, the “Western Ghost Festival” of Halloween is growing among its other main demographic in the country: young children. And their parents are keen to let them be exposed to Western culture.
“Flora and I went to a Halloween event in her kindergarten last year,” a 31-year-old TV show director with a young daughter told me. “We did a costume fashion show together, and the teachers danced for us. The kids were so excited for their princess dresses — not to mention when they got a bag of candy and chocolate from trick-or-treating with another class. It felt fresh for the parents to see each other dressed as pirates and witches, as well!”
In fact, not only private kindergartens, but all of Flora’s early education courses, including English and sports classes, held Halloween events. “But I had to take good care of Flora the next day, because she had a fever after eating too many sweets,” the parent told me.
Flora and her mom
There is another practical limitation on Chinese kids trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods: in most Chinese cities, middle-class families tend to live in high-rise apartment buildings instead of suburban houses. How do they enjoy the games at home?
Chen Liang, a 35-year-old insurance professional who lives with his young daughter near Beijing’s fifth ring road, has organized Halloween activities in his community every year since 2015. “I love children. I really want a happy and close community,” he explains. “When I went to high school in Southampton [in the UK] in 2000, it was the first time I heard about Halloween. The school took us to a nursing home and an orphanage to trick-or-treat, and I was deeply impressed by the happy and intimate atmosphere.”
At Chen’s previous events back in China, hundreds of costumed children have come together at nightfall, picked up a map for trick-or-treating in the apartment complex, then begun their treasure hunt within the residential community. “The most important thing is to offer all the residents an opportunity to communicate and entertain,” says Chen. “While the kids get to relax and have access to Western culture.”
And the post-2000s generation is not the only group to be educated about how to celebrate a proper Halloween. “When I first started working at an international kindergarten in Beijing several years ago, I was surprised at how foreign teachers did all the decorations,” says Fan Peihong, a principal assistant of a State-subsidized kindergarten which her son attends.
Halloween has become an important festival at the kindergarten, she says. “We built a haunted house in the yard, and told Halloween stories to the kids. In case some of them got spooked, we let them know that ghosts are funny, and not scary, no matter how ugly and weird they might look. That’s important.”
On October 31, parents come in their costumes to pick up their kids after work. “There were many kinds of parent-child activities, and we were always surprised by how much the parents enjoyed the games and had fun, even with total strangers. It felt different from traditional festivals,” Fan adds. “Although the parents became serious again the next day.”
All the parents agree that Halloween is more like an entertaining costume party rather than a religious holiday. That being said, Fan acknowledges that “things have changed a lot… Over the last year, the authorities have been emphasizing traditional [Chinese] festivals, like Mid-Autumn and Double Ninth, and stressing the importance of inheriting ancient Chinese culture. So we will not hold Halloween events this year.”
This year, Flora’s kindergarten will also not be holding a Halloween-related event. Her mom can see the logic behind the decision. “I think to most Chinese people, a festival is a time to reunite with family, like our Spring Festival [Chinese New Year]. Comparatively, it might be easier for Chinese people to understand a holiday like Christmas.”
Although kindergartens might be keeping their distance from Halloween, it seems nothing will stop China’s shopping malls and private institutions from the endeavor to attract more guests and clients, and to this end Halloween provides an excuse to offer deals and decorate their spaces. “There are many activities for kids now,” says Chen. “We don’t want something too commercial. All we want is for our kids to be happy, and to really enjoy it.” Chen’s community Halloween event will go ahead this weekend, presumably to the delight of his neighborhood kiddos.
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