Here we present a chapter from Chinese Ghosts, Charles Emmons’ cornucopia of ghost stories and experiences he collected in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. He updated the book for a new edition last year.


Chapter 9: Anatomy of a Legend

This is a very interesting case that helps illustrate the social processes involved in rumor, and sometimes eventually folklore.

I had been in Hong Kong only two weeks working on this research in June 1980, when I began to hear about ghosts at a certain institution of higher learning, which I shall simply refer to as “the college.” Although there were a few other minor miscellaneous ghosts mentioned, one kept cropping up: “Have you heard about the. . . ?” they would say helpfully. Most people I talked to at the college seemed to have heard of it.

The first version came from a female student attending the college. Supposedly, a Professor X had seen the ghost of a student right after the student had committed suicide due to the grade on his exam. I was immediately intrigued and thought about requesting an interview with the professor, whom she identified by name and department. However, I was also afraid that the subject might be rather sensitive, even painful, if the professor felt somehow responsible for the student’s death.

As the weeks and months went by, I kept hearing about it occasionally but was never convinced to investigate until I met another student at the college in October who told me a much fuller version. Professor X, he said, was waiting for the elevator at the bottom of the Z Building. A man and a woman were there together, too. When the three of them went into the elevator, Professor X pressed the button for his floor and asked the others what their floor was. They said 12, but there were only ten floors in the building. They also said that they wanted to pick up their diplomas and graduation certificates. They did not press a button. In the elevator, he saw their faces turn color. He got out alone at his floor, but then saw them again outside the elevator coming toward the elevator! He got scared and went quickly down to the parking lot. By his car, he saw them again. Later on, he went to the Administration Building to check the college records, and found the woman’s picture. She had committed suicide after failing his course, but he couldn’t find the young man’s picture.

The student who told me this version said that Professor X shouldn’t mind talking to me about it because he was interested in ghosts and had told his class about the apparition. He himself had heard it from someone in that class.

Two days later, I had an appointment to see Professor X. I was filled with curiosity. Would this turn out to be a sensational case of the real thing or would he say there was nothing to the rumors? The answer turned out to be neither.

Professor X was very helpful. First, yes, he had told the story! Second, he had just made it up! Students had asked him to tell them the story, which he did three or four times, but never in class. As the rumor spread, one significant detail was lost: he had never claimed that it was true!

Actually, it was not a total fabrication. Early in 1980, Professor X had heard talk about an elevator in the Z Building not stopping at the right floor. There were also rumors of a woman or of a man and a woman being seen as apparitions after the woman had failed in her college work and committed suicide. The people from whom he heard these things had not taken them seriously, nor did he. However, Professor X thought that it would be nice to create a longer and more exciting fictional account, unlike most ghost stories, which are short and not very interesting. When he unveiled his version, he emphasized to the listeners that he was telling it in the first person just for effect, and that it was fictional.

At first, Professor X was reluctant to tell me his story. “Does it matter?” he asked. “It takes ten or fifteen minutes.” I assured him that I was interested. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he began to tell me the following entirely from memory.

Professor X’s Ghost Story

One evening last December, a Saturday, around 8 or 9 o’clock, I drove back to the college and parked in the ground floor car park. I had come back to the office to fetch some papers to take home to work on that Sunday. I went to one of the three lifts at the back. Usually, when the lift comes it rings and a green light flashes on and off. But there was no ringing that night, and the light flashed white. I was surprised, and thought it could be due to some electrical disorder.

So I went into the lift and pressed 7. I noticed that it was a bit chilly inside. One of the two fluorescent lights in the lift was not lit. The other was lit but dim white, whiter and dimmer than usual. Then the lift started to climb, but it stopped at 2.

It shouldn’t, because once it starts up it can’t be stopped from the outside, and you can get in only on the way down. So I was very surprised.

I was even more surprised to see a young man standing there outside the lift, about twenty-five years of age. He was a thin young man, average height, dressed in a white shirt and trousers. He asked me, “Sir, does the lift go up to the twelfth floor?” I told him, “This building has only ten floors. Have you gone to the wrong building?” He replied, “That could be the case. Thank you.” He did not come in, and the lift closed.

It kept going up. The temperature was even lower in the lift now, and I was shivering. I decided to change my mind and go home as quickly as possible; so I pressed 4 immediately, since I had just passed 3 and it would be the quickest way out. I left the lift immediately on the fourth floor. Then I went around to the other set of lifts, the two in front, to change the environment.

I found that one of the lifts was already open and waiting. The conditions were about the same (one light off, one on dim and white, and the chill). I pressed “Ground,” trying to get out as quickly as possible. But it did not stop at the ground floor; it went all the way to LG2 (past lower ground one). When the doors opened, I saw the young man again, together with a young lady, also dressed all in white: white blouse and skirt.

They both looked very serious and seemed to be arguing about something. I tried to get out, ignoring them, but they both came in side by side very quickly, blocking the way. The girl quickly pressed 10, and the doors closed before I could get out. So with some disappointment, I pressed G again.

The two people started to argue. The girl said, “I never mentioned the twelfth floor. I only said the building has practically twelve floors, including the car parks.” The young man replied, “O.K., O.K., don’t complain. You see, I just came back from Vancouver an hour ago, after a car accident. I haven’t completely collected myself yet. Could you please not complain any more?”

Then I noticed that the lift had passed G without stopping, so I uttered some meaningless words to show my surprise, like, “Ah, ah, why…?” The girl then said to me, “It’s no use, Dr. X; the lift is not under your control tonight. I know you wish to go to the seventh floor, so let me press it for you.” She did.

I was very surprised to find that she knew my name. Then I searched deep in my brain. Suddenly, in a flash I remembered that I had interviewed her at a Discontinuation Committee meeting, together with other members. When a student is asked to withdraw, this committee is the highest authority, a last chance for appeal, with the decision final.

I remembered that she was called Betty, but I couldn’t remember her last name. I also remembered that her appeal had not been successful because of her poor performance in the interview.

So I said to her, “What have you been doing?” She said, “I stay in the hostel.” I asked in surprise, “How could you manage to stay in a college hostel?” She said, “It’s simple. In the past I lived in the corridor, but now, since the warden has been replaced by a single lady, I have moved to her quarters. I stay in her bedroom in the daytime, studying a little, which I’m fond of. At night I sleep in the sitting room. Sometimes I still come back to attend some lectures. I like to sit at the back in a vacant seat.”

Then I further asked, “Are you trying to do something here tonight?” She said, “Yes, I’m going up to the tenth floor with my friend to fetch my personal file from the Students’ Section.” The Department for Student Records is on the tenth floor.

Then the lift stopped on the seventh floor, and I quickly moved out. I rushed into my office, panicking, trying to rest for a minute. In a moment, I fetched my papers and tried to leave. Then the telephone rang, unusual for that time. Reluctantly, I answered the call.

It was a woman’s voice. She said hurriedly, “ Hi, Dr. X. This is Betty. Could you come up to the tenth floor right away to help me open the door of the Students’ Section?”

I answered, trembling, “Well, I don’t have the key. I don’t think I could be of any help. Perhaps you had better try some other way.” She said, “It’s all right. Any key to the Z building will do. Please come up quickly.”

I dared not answer her any more. I put the phone down, turned off the light, went out, and locked the door. I tried to get home, but this time I didn’t dare take any lifts. So I took the staircase to go down. I walked step by step. My feet were really going down, but my mind felt that I was going up. When I estimated that it should be the fourth floor, I suddenly discovered that it was the tenth floor.

There I met the young man and the woman. From the layout, I could tell that it was the tenth floor. The fourth and tenth have similar layouts, but I was familiar with the building. The woman said, “Oh good. Please give me the key, Dr. X.” When I gave her the key, it seemed that I was not under my own control. I followed them to turn the corner and stopped in front of the Students’ Section. She used my office key to open the door without difficulty. Then she returned the bunch of keys to me, and they went into the room. I noticed that the keys were very cold, as cold as a can of beer just out of the refrigerator. This made my brain clearer. My senses seemed to come back to me. Then I found that I was really on the fourth floor. I was very surprised, but there was no time to think any further.

Then I didn’t dare to take either the lift or the regular staircase, so I went to the emergency exit stairs at the back of the building. The stairs were much wider, and there was light coming in from the windows. I felt a bit fresher and walked down two floors to the second floor, which has a passage leading to the lily pond outside the building.

When I got to the lily pond, I sat on a rock to rest. I watched the stars in the sky, feeling that everything was back to normal. The air was fresh. Then I noticed that the couple had also come out along the path from the car park under the building, which led to the hostel. They were talking lightly, happily. They were very close together, the woman with a file under her arm. Apparently, they were concentrating on their own conversation and didn’t notice me. They went along the path in the direction of the hostel. When they disappeared in the distance, I quickly left the place, turning the corner of the building and going down to the ground floor from the outside.

I drove away in my car. While I drove, I felt that my feet were very cold, making the car go very slowly as well. I had to cross the harbor via the tunnel. At the tunnel entrance, I saw the young man and the lady again, standing by the side of the road and waving at me to stop. So I stopped.

The lady said, “Dr. X, could you take us to Kowloon [across the harbor]? We’re hurrying for a flight to Canada.”

I replied, “You have been so able, I don’t think you need to take my car.”

She said, “No, no. I have never been away from Hong Kong, unlike my friend. Besides, I’m afraid of the water. I must get through the water well protected.”

I was determined not to obey them and drove on. But a moment later I found that they were already in the back seat of my car, talking about finding a place of residence in Canada. I did not disturb them, and they did not talk to me. When I got out of the tunnel, I found that they had disappeared. I paid the toll and drove back home peacefully. Although I live on the twenty-third floor, I didn’t dare take the lift, and walked up exhausted.

During the summer, Professor X told me, a student from the college wrote an “inferior” version of the story for a Chinese-language daily newspaper in Hong Kong, attributing the account to a professor with another name (but there is no such professor by that name at the college). Perhaps, that newspaper article helped to standardize the form of the legend somewhat.

Most of the versions I heard were very short. One staff worker at the college told me that she had heard two students talking about it on the bus. Supposedly, a female student had come to the office of her instructor in the Z Building, asking for her grades. He discovered later that she had died a few years before. Another staff person had read the newspaper version but could remember only a few details: a couple had come up to the seventh floor in the elevator, getting in when the elevator shouldn’t stop on the way up; the professor had been working overtime. Finally, another professor affiliated with the college told me that some professor had gone up in the elevator with a ghost in the Z Building, spoke to him, and found that the student had committed suicide.

This legend, which Professor X intended to be a folk tale (not told as true and oral rather than written down), can be understood both as folklore, and as a rumor. As folklore, it has earmarks of the “fictitious” apparition: physical effects and very long conversation (in contrast with firsthand reports). Notice the terror that builds throughout the story: not being able to get away, as in the cinema-lore case of the man who found a ghost next to him wherever he sat (in Chapter 8). Of course, Professor X’s terror was low-key, and in the telling I got the impression that it was meant to be somewhat humorous, although not slapstick as in Cantonese horror/humor films. Also, the female ghost’s fear of the water hints that she committed suicide in the water and that she has the Chinese folklore ghost’s fear of being trapped at the place of drowning and/or suicide.

As a rumor, it shows all the classic changes. It underwent “leveling” (became shorter, much shorter), and “sharpening” (essential details remaining, skipping all the trips up and down the stairs and elevators).

“Assimilation” is that aspect of the rumor process in which the message is modified to fit the attitudes and cultural expectations of those who pass the rumor on. Professor X himself did this in the sense that he took the rumors that he had heard earlier and incorporated certain important concerns in Hong Kong college-student culture: the pressure to succeed in college, college suicides due to failure, finding a marriage partner, and emigrating to North America. In later versions of the rumor, the ghost became Professor X’s own student, asking about her (or his) grades, a more direct situation than the involved search for the student’s file. Sometimes, the student was male, which might also be assimilation, if male students are considered to be more likely to have academic difficulties or to commit suicide in Hong Kong. (I think they are. Indeed, tragically, a young man jumped from the “Z” Building itself one day when I was in it).

Finally, “compounding” occurred, which means that one rumor led to another to explain the first. If students thought that Professor X’s ghost story was true, even though he said it wasn’t, it was a short leap to claiming that it had happened to him, since he was the one who told it in the first person. Of course, Professor X did most of the compounding, by inventing an elaborate story to account more precisely for the presence of the rumors he heard about the elevator and the unsuccessful student at the Z Building and to explain the presence of the second ghost.

Read more: Chinese Ghosts Revisited: A Study of Paranormal Beliefs and Experiences