Haunted places: Bella Vista on Cheung Chau and Aokigahara Forest on Mount Fuji
(28 November 2000) by Gérard Henry(Hong Kong Chronicles. This piece was presented as a sound installation for Guest Host Ghost 2015)
In this world there are strange places. Places that can cause in humans a morbid fascination, and which can even be said to have a fatal attraction, as they are marked with the seal of death. No doubt such places can be encountered in many countries, but one must live within the local community to hear about them – and then often only in veiled terms, because this is a subject that is approached reluctantly.
On Cheung Chau, a small island with a fishing port full of old world charm which is part of the territory of Hong Kong, Bella Vista villas is one of those resorts where city dwellers rent accommodation over the weekend with friends or lovers. Spanish style villas, overlooking a beach, they were once buzzing with life. In the old days, that is. Because today their lights are almost all turned off, and after dark, diving into silence, they are rather sinister. The reason is that they have been given by the media an unenviable name: “Hong Kong’s capital of suicide”. They have in recent years been the place of illegal confinement, of one or two crimes and particularly of several suicides whose stories have made the front pages of the tabloids. And since those dramatic events, quite strangely, the Bella Vista villas seems to mysteriously attract those who have decided to end their days.
At the entrance to the villa complex is a small tablet with a Buddhist image of the God of the Underworld - to pacify the troubled souls, and thus encourage them to let the living alone in peace. The belief in spirits and ghosts is deeply rooted throughout Asia: people who have committed suicide or died a violent death are said to come back to haunt the living, who avoid them like the plague. One of the first suicides that took place at the Bella Vista in 1989 was indeed that of a young woman who led in death her young child. She was discovered wearing a red cheongsam, the traditional Chinese dress. But the red color is the ultimate act of vengeance for those who have been victims of abuse in their lives and have been denied justice. It indicates that your ghost will come alive to harass your persecutors until the end of their days, without any possibility of prevention.
In this place, suicides all employ a similar method: asphyxiation using the charcoal which is employed for barbecues. This is a new trend in Hong Kong where the majority of desperate people have tended rather to jump into the void from the top of skyscrapers. The Hong Kong psychologists see it as a result of the cover given to these events by the media: "When a person thinks of ending his days [said one of them], he will choose the first method that comes to his mind ". The owners of these villas are very angry. They have tried to put their properties up for auction, but even at half price, no one would dare to venture into such a transaction.
But if the "Bella Vista" phenomenon remains of very modest proportions in Hong Kong, in other places in Asia it has reached national prominence. The most fascinating case is that of the famous forest of Aokigahara in Japan. It is called "the sea of okigahara trees”. This is a huge and very deep primeval forest which is found at the foot of Mount Fuji, the sacred mountain of Japan - an old forest where in the 19th century (it has been claimed) people struck by poverty would abandon their elders. Today it is just as famous, as dozens of people enter under this canopy of trees, never to come back. They arrive from all over Japan, attracted by the deep forest which every season silently devours its share of desperate people. The phenomenon is such that since the 1970s, the police organize every year in October, before the snow covers the soil, a harvesting of corpses to recover those that have escaped their daily monitoring. The annual gruesome harvest was only fifty in 1994, but reached 70 corpses in 1999, an increase attributed to the Japanese economic crisis. The village people in the vicinity are exasperated; they do not dare go to the forest with their children for fear of encountering, when rounding a tree, a hanged person. The police have pinned little notes on the trees: "your life is a precious gift from your parents, do not keep your concerns to yourself, ask for advice”. They constantly patrol the forest, trying to dissuade strange walkers they meet. This year Buddhist monks have built a sanctuary to try to appease the spirits of the dead who haunt the forest, saying that they cast their devil nets to catch the living.
Aokigahara forest is definitely a very strange place.
Gérard Henry’s Biography:
Living in Hong Kong since 1981, Gerard Henry is the chief-editor of the bilingual (French and Chinese) cultural magazine Paroles and also Deputy Director of Alliance Francaise de Hong Kong. He was a member of the team at the origin of The French May Festival in Hong Kong.
He has written on China, Hong Kong art and culture and on French visual arts for different exhibition programs and magazines including "China perspectives", "Le Monde diplomatique", and the philosophical and literary review “La Soeur de l’Ange”.
Since 1997, he has been the Hong Kong and China correspondent and cultural columnist for Radio Suisse Romande La Premiere in Switzerland and in 2008, he published a book called "Chroniques hongkongaises" at Editions Zoe, Geneva.
He is also co-author of Foodscape (Editions MCCM, Hong Kong, 2009), and POST NO BILL (Story of The King of Kowloon). He was awarded "Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres" in 1999 by the French Minister of Culture for promoting Cultural exchanges between Chinese and French Communities.
He is currently President of the Hong Kong section of AICA ( International Art critics Association, an NGO with official relations with Unesco)). Academic adviser for Asia Art Archive (AAA), Representative in Hong Kong and member of the Internationa;l Board of The International Union of Francophone Press (UPF).
Photo credit 1+2: courtesy of the artist
Photo credit 2+3: Se Ve