A guide to understanding the Hungry Ghost Festival

By tomorrow morning, most of us will be greeted by the unmistakable whiff of ashes and joss sticks in the air. Grass patches will be lined with candles, joss sticks and food offerings. And it will finally dawn on the uninformed that the gates of hell have indeed opened. But because you are reading this, you will be better prepared for the seventh lunar month festivities.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is one of the most iconic festivals in Singapore, celebrated by Buddhists and Taoists who make up 43.2% of the population. Not only can you see and smell signs of it, you will also hear boisterous emcees and getai singers from blocks away competing with the television in your living room. Not forgetting the hair-raising experiences that also seem to increase during this period.

Origins

The significance of the festival differs for Buddhists and Taoists: the former is rooted in self piety, while the latter is focused on self-repentance and the appeasement of wandering spirits.

Yu Lan Pen festival

According to Buddhist legend, Mu Lian, a pious disciple of Buddha, saw his mother suffering as a hungry ghost in the lower realms of hell while he was meditating. He attempted to feed her but the food he offered were snatched by other hungry ghosts. In another version of the story, the food turned into burning coals before his mother could consume them. Desperate to save his mother, Mu Lian asked for help from Buddha who taught him to make special food offerings and prayer rituals. He eventually went on to perform more rites to accumulate enough merits for his mother to reincarnate as a human being.

Today, many Buddhists burn paper money, clothes, houses and car offerings in the hopes of helping their ancestors live a better life in the netherworld.

Zhong Yuan jie

Taoists believe that the fate of humanity is ruled by three deities, the Heavenly Official who grants blessings; the Earthly Official who absolves evil-doings and the Water Official who eliminates misfortunes. On the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Earthly Official descends to earth on this birthday to alleviate the suffering of mankind depending of the record of their deeds. During the seventh month, the hungry ghosts get a month-long break to find food and entertainment on earth.

It goes without saying that this period is an eventful one for the Taoists. Priests will be seen conducting elaborate rites while devotees will be praying for repentance and good fortune at the temples.

Joss paper, joss sticks and red candles

To put things into perspective, the Hungry Ghost Festival can actually be considered a time where human beings, spirits and deity gather on earth for a month of celebration and offering. Just like the Day of the Dead, a Mexican festival depicted in Pixar film Coco, the living celebrates the departed with parades, parties and offerings. In fact, altars are set up to help their loved ones come back to the living realm to visit.

Coco Pixar Film
Credits: Teen Vogue

So, if you’re not one to sit out of a party, here is what you can look forward to this month!

Getai/Chinese opera

These wild and lively performances are undoubtedly the highlight of the festival, and you should definitely catch one of them. And they say, if you can’t beat them, join them! Put your favourite television programme and Netflix aside and head down with your family. There’s definitely one close enough to home.

Be wowed by the flamboyant costumes, captivating performances and laugh alongside the stand-up comedians. If you’re feeling rich, you can auction for auspicious items for good luck too! Besides being good entertainment, watching getai is a lovely way to experience some good ol’ kampong vibe around the neighbourhood again.

Sometimes, Chinese operas will be staged to entertain the wandering spirits. After all, that is most likely what they would have watched when they were alive. Don’t be shy to come forward if you are curious. Just remember not to take the first row seats because they are reserved for “special guests”.

Organisation-wide offerings

Many companies also offer food and prayers to the wandering spirits to pray for safety and protection. By appeasing them, business owners hope to prevent ‘accidents and mishaps’ at work. After the ritual, the food stuff usually fruits, biscuits, instant noodles, rice, peanuts, coffee and soft drinks will be distributed to the employees. It believed that one will receive blessings after consuming them.

Credits: Market Fresh

Cheaper wedding packages

Wedding packages are much cheaper during this time of the year because most Chinese couples are afraid of bad luck and mysterious occurrence of ‘accidents’. It’s only natural to want the most important day of our lives to go as smoothly as possible. However, if you are not superstitious, planning your wedding during the seventh lunar month can help you save a lot of money.

For those who’d like to take extra precaution, here are some tips.

  • Be mindful not to step on joss sticks and offerings.
  • If you’re easily spooked, go home earlier or have some company with you.
  • While wearing red gets you noticed easily, it can also make you appear angry, dominant and aggressive which can result in drawing what you want to avoid.
  • Refrain from wearing black as well because one, it’s harder to spot you while you cross the road at night. Second, it’s said that the wandering spirits are attracted to black too.  
  • Try not to take photos at night if you prefer not to have unexpected photobombers.

If you’re still apprehensive about the seventh month, why not look forward to what is coming next? Mid-autumn falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. After 30 days of smoke and ash, you can finally welcome a time for family reunion, mooncake sampling and colourful lantern displays.

References:
STATISTICS SINGAPORE – Infographic – General Household Survey 2015
The Three Great Emperor – Officials
庆祝中元
Zhong Yuan Jie (Hungry Ghost Festival)
TAOIST SORCERY: Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival – 2 Origins
Top 10 things to know about the Day of the Dead

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