Hungry Ghosts: the Seventh Month

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During my lunch break on a Thursday afternoon, I made my usual way down Robertson Quay to grab a bite before returning to work. Walking past the quayside restaurants, an old, familiar scent wafted into my nostrils: burning joss sticks, musky and sweet. It’s one of those strangely comforting scents from childhood, like the particular fragrance of banana bread or shoe polish, reminiscent of sleepovers at my friends’ more traditional Buddhist homes, or the many shoe-caked doorways of distant relatives visited only at Chinese New Year. I noticed a cluster of people chanting and burning offerings in the outside area of a Persian restaurant, led by an elderly man.

They were assembled in a way that might have looked sinister to the novice viewer, perhaps bizarre or almost cultish. Yet none of these people were dressed in any sort of uniformity, or behaving with any sort of aggression; in short, this was no publicity stunt or exhibition. They were from all walks of life, clad in everyday clothing to accommodate the sweltering heat of Singapore, praying in a ceremony for the dead that has come to be known fondly as the Hungry Ghost Festival. A different sort of alfresco dining to the one that restaurant had intended, perhaps.

I still remember cutting out crisp images of food, fire, and heavily painted masks for this one

This isn’t just celebrated in Singapore. I know it well, too: in Malaysia, I was used to the smell of sweet smoke, minding my step so as not to step on any offerings left for peckish spirits. One of my primary school projects was to make a scrapbook of cultural holidays: I still remember cutting out crisp images of food, fire, and heavily painted masks for this one.

The fifteenth night of the lunar calendar’s seventh month is “Ghost Day”, the month itself being “Ghost Month”. Throughout August, it is believed that the gates of the netherworld are opened, and spirits of the dead return to earth. Similar to Mexico’s Día de Los Muertos, this festival celebrates their homecoming, perhaps with slightly more of the trepidation that so often accompanies celebrations in the East. Our spirits are thought to return from the afterlife for revelry and feasting, and the living devote this month to provide them with just that. We are, after all, superstitious folk, and like our living, our ghosts certainly enjoy their food.

It’s interesting to see the same things in Singapore this month that I am used to seeing in Kuala Lumpur such as the metal bins where people burn “hell money” and other paper offerings for their deceased, ranging from images of Ferraris to the iPhone XS (let no one say we don’t ensure our ancestors enjoy their eternal rest in style). These things seem to fit more with the rustic charm of Malaysia’s jungly metropolis than with the sky-scraping glamour of Singapore, but it’s good to see that modernity doesn’t always flourish at the expense of cultural traditions.

My grandmother and I were discussing the Hungry Ghost Festival together last week, and I told her I’d seen two prayer ceremonies that day. She smiled wryly and said she was worried I’d been about to say I’d seen something very different. During this month, we are given licence to succumb to our superstitions quite freely. I’ve heard of people claiming to possess the third eye who refuse to go anywhere near water this time of year: ‘Too many spirits,’ they say, darkly, ‘too crowded.’ The superstitions usually dismissed as old wives’ tales are paid heed to, albeit begrudgingly: umbrellas aren’t opened indoors, clothes aren’t hung out to dry overnight, insects are batted away gently instead of being squashed into brutal death. Every misfortune this month takes on a sombre spiritual significance, thought to relate in some way to our otherworldly visitors.

Stories like these, fantastical and mythic as they may seem, give sustenance to culture in a time of increasing cynicism, prompting us to find some magic in the mundane

While nominally a Chinese festival, Malaysians and Singaporeans of all backgrounds and affiliations can, and do, partake in the festivities. They attend the flamboyant Getai performances showcasing traditional Chinese operas, avoiding the front row seats reserved for celestial visitors; they respect the offerings left outside their neighbours’ houses, and some even leave their own to appease lonely ghosts, with no families to feed them. Everyone takes the necessary precautions not to upset the spirits, even those that aren’t ours. It reminds me of a poignant line in a book by the Malaysian author Yangsze Choo, that ‘in this confluence of cultures, we had acquired one another’s superstitions without necessarily any of their comforts’.

Whatever the variations about its origins, the Hungry Ghost Festival is ultimately a reminder of our mortality and how to be at ease with it, one that urges us to remember, and ultimately comforts us with the notion that we will be remembered. Stories like these, fantastical and mythic as they may seem, give sustenance to culture in a time of increasing cynicism, prompting us to find some magic in the mundane, and be at peace with what we may or may not know. At the end of the day, we need our ghosts as much as they need us.

Photograph: Thistle Azami via Unsplash

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