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What is the Hungry Ghost Festival?

Ever wondered why piles of burnt paper and ash accumulate on footpaths during the later half of the year? Singaporean KAREN FERNANDEZ, an Expat Living reader and contributor, explains how the Hungry Ghost Festival, which runs from 22 August to 19 September this year, continues to hold the island in its ghostly grip.

When I was growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, August was the month when children in our neighbourhood would cease their usual childish pranks and be on their best behaviour. We either avoided playing “hide and seek”, or we’d be warily looking over our shoulders all the time. Stories of children catching mysterious illnesses and families being inexplicably hit by bad luck seemed to be more common in the seventh lunar month of the year.

Childhood memories

I recall the plates of rice and suckling pig, and small pyramids of oranges appearing along public corridors, pavements and even under trees. We were issued with severe warnings not to touch these offerings, and I never questioned my mother’s admonishments. Amazingly, the tempting morsels never seemed to entice the wandering dogs and cats in our estate.

I also remember afternoons for the acrid smell of burning joss paper. Swirling bits of ash would drift into our house, despite the hermetic seal my mother tried to create with tightly shut windows and doors. On some days, excitingly large bonfires appeared along the void decks and grassy areas of our apartment block as my Chinese neighbours burnt stacks of paper money and paper models of cars, TVs and even double-storeyed houses. Apart from some under-the-breath mutterings about the mess on the public pathways, non-Chinese households seemed resigned to this annual occurrence. It was only much later I came to understand the significance of the customs I had grown up with.

Beliefs and superstitions

The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, and Hungry Ghost Day falls on the 15th day of that month (5 September in 2017). Taoists and Buddhists believe the realms of Heaven and Hell open during this time, and deceased ancestors come to visit their living relatives – who traditionally pay their respects with offerings of prayer, food and other symbols of well-being.

Hungry Ghost festival

Living relatives believe it is their filial duty to ensure their departed relatives have a comfortable life in the next world. To that end, each family will purchase and burn paper offerings in the hope that they’ll find their way to their departed family members. Open grassy patches beneath apartment blocks, public corridors, sometimes even street pavements in the town areas, are considered suitable places to do this.

Entertain the guests

The custom of preparing and serving elaborate meals, usually vegetarian, for the visiting ancestral spirits continues today, with empty seats set aside at family tables for “the guests”. As a child, I was a tad spooked by this and would look around the kitchen anxiously, especially if I was visiting my Chinese neighbours’ homes around dinnertime. To this day, if I’m having dinner alone at home during the Hungry Ghost Festival, the TV will be on full blast!

Entertainment also needs to be provided for the special guests. You may have noticed large tents set up in open fields in HDB estates and community centres, and in Chinatown, to host dinners and auctions. Full-length performances of Chinese opera, complete with live orchestras, tell tales of folklore and historic battles. By contrast, the contemporary getai (live stage performances) feature song and dance stories of gods and goddesses and bawdy stand-up comedy. Everyone is welcome at these events, although there is an unspoken rule that the front row seats are reserved for “the guests”!

Hungry Ghost festival

Adapting to the 21st century

Do today’s modern and savvy Singaporeans still believe in the traditions surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival? In short, yes! Even the younger generation – who may not be quite so familiar with specific traditions – believe it is better to be safe than sorry. Meanwhile, offerings have become increasingly elaborate; you may notice the ritualistic burning of paper models of BMW cars, laptops, mobile phones and even yachts.

Safety has always been an issue, and several years ago the heaps of swirling ash, scorched grass and occasional small fires forced the government to intervene, as high-density living and traditional rituals clashed. The solution – large metal bins placed in HDB estates and other public places to contain the burning offerings – met with resistance because people worried about their offerings being mixed up with everyone else’s. How would a person ’s relatives know they had gone to the expense of buying them a new boat?

Over time, the communal bins have become more accepted, though small smouldering heaps can still be seen here and there on the ground. Some shops in Chinatown seem to have found the perfect compromise: personal mini-bins!

Beware the malevolent spirits

When the visitors are your own dear departed relatives, there is probably not too much to worry about. However, some not so-friendly spirits also descend and roam, making the Hungry Ghost Festival an inauspicious month to do business or make major decisions such as renting a house or getting married. Realtors are resigned to the property market literally being quite dead during this time, while car showrooms accept the inevitable decline in sales. Many businesses will postpone major transactions.

After all, when stories of misfortune abound – wives suddenly discovering their husbands are cheating, or a once-promising business deal turning sour for no apparent reason – it’s better not to take any chances. Hungry ghosts are everywhere and they can wreak havoc at this time. As for all that ash floating about and food being left by the wayside, it seems a small price to pay to appease the unseen visitors. Better safe than sorry, right?

For more helpful tips head to our living in Singapore section.

This article first appeared in the August 2017 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase a copy or subscribe so you never miss an issue!