How Chinese communities celebrate their version of our Pitru Paksh.
In a public square in Singapore, a raucous Chinese opera performs enthusiastically for rows upon rows of empty chairs. Mortals are forbidden to sit on them. A few people stand at the back to watch the show, but most ignore it and go about their daily business. They know that the opera is not meant for them. It is to entertain invisible spirits from the other world.
In East Coast Park, a fisherman quickly packs up for the day as soon as the sun begins to set. If he is alone in the dark, he might encounter a wandering soul. Worse still, a lost spirit might want to follow him home!
In Little India, I circle the blocks looking for a new place to park. My usual parking lot is covered with a big, colourful tent. The food laden alter and smoke emanating from a large bin tells me that it has been temporarily leased out in honor of some hungry spirits.
In case you are wondering, dear reader, I am not making these incidents up. These are real events in the heart of a very modern city. The talk of ghosts and wandering spirits may seem strange to you but it is a normal part of life for traditional Chinese communities. This is the season of the Hungry Ghost festival, which is held to welcome the deceased back to the mortal world. It is celebrated especially in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Traditionalists believe that the floodgates of hell open on the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar. This cycle falls between August and September in the Gregorian calendar. Once the gates are opened, the spirits of our ancestors roam the earth for a month, seeking food, money and entertainment. During this time, Taoist and Buddhist believers chant scriptures and perform elaborate rituals to propitiate their ancestors and other wandering spirits.
The distinctive smell of burning paper in the evening is a common sign to herald the Ghost Month. Neighbourhoods have large bins set out for burning joss paper. The wandering spirits are said to be hungry and consequently rather angry. In order to appease them and ensure that they don’t trouble the living, people set up alters to offer food. These range from elaborate banquets laid out in homes and public places, to humble offerings by the roadside. The menu is eclectic and includes rice, fish, roasted pork, fruits, sweets and other delicacies that the spirits might enjoy. Taking food from the spirit’s share or stepping on strewn joss paper and incense is taboo. If a person does so by accident, it is imperative to apologize loudly and ask for forgiveness.
The banquet that has transformed my parking lot this year is an elaborate one. It has been sponsored by a group with around 400 members. As I approach the tent curiously, Michael, my self appointed guide, explains the basic concepts. The big bins are used to burn paper money, which the spirits can use in the other world, he says. Large incense sticks with people’s names are burnt to make wishes. If the spirits fulfill the wishes, the fortunate ones are required to offer thanksgiving the following year. Most people pray for health and money, he informs me earnestly.
Note that the desire for health and money is not unique to Chinese culture. It is universal, as is the custom of remembering the dead. Japan for instance celebrates the Bon festival in mid August. India has Pitru Paksh (Shraddha), a fifteen-day period where ancestors are remembered with rituals. It falls soon after the Hungry Ghost festival.
A young girl performing during Ghost Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The red seats in front are reserved for ghosts.
Just like Pitru Paksh, auspicious activities are usually put on hold during the ghost month. Most people avoid moving house, starting news businesses or getting married during this stretch. In addition, they follow various interesting superstitions. My colleague Han informs me that some of her friends don’t go into the sea or even swim in pools to protect themselves from the water ghost.
The superstitious don’t stroll alone or eat in lonely places at night. They also avoid hanging wind chimes, wearing red clothes, whistling and any other activities that might attract the spirits. The idea of getting possessed is clearly not an appealing one. Thus, while the deceased are pampered in various ways, adequate steps are always taken to keep them at bay.
Keeping in mind the local traditions, when I stop to take a photograph of the altars and offerings, I bow and take permission from the unseen ones, and thank them afterwards. After all, respect and basic manners apply to the dead, as much as they do to the living.