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So what's the Hungry Ghost Festival?

The Hungry Ghost Festival kicks off today. One of our long-time members and past President, Glenn van Zutphen, happened to catch today's celebration on Amoy Street. The celebration was near Singapore's Thian Hock Keng - one of the oldest and most important temples. The 1839 temple encompasses Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Ancestral Worship and was the center of religious life for most Chinese immigrants back in the day. Today, it remains an important UNESCO-recognizedcultural spot.

Courtesy Glenn van Zutphen


But what's this all about anyway? Well, according to visitsingapore.org, the Hungry Ghost Festival (also known as the Zhongyuan Festival in Taoism and Yulanpen Festival in Buddhism) is kind of the Chinese version of Halloween. It's a Buddhist and Taoist festival held in honor of the dearly departed.


According to traditional customs, the souls of the dead are believed to roam the earth during the festival which takes place during the seventh month of the lunar calendar. These ghosts can get up to mischief if they aren't treated right. So to keep these souls happy, the living make all sorts of offerings during this period.. In Hong Kong, the holiday isn't such a big deal, but Hungry Ghost is important in Singapore and Malaysia.

Courtesy Glenn van Zutphen


Gifts to the dead

Notice the fires all over town in the dark-coloured metal bins scattered around residential areas and housing estates?


They are specifically provided to contain the stacks of "hell money" and paper offerings that are burned by relatives to make sure their relatives have what they need in the afterlife. In the simplest terms, these offerings are made to get ping an (peace) and to ensure those who make the offerings stay safe and sound. The next generation burn offerings for those who have passed on so that they can use this money and items in the other realm. Those who do not have children to burn these offerings will become wandering ghosts and the Hungry Ghost Festival is mainly for the benefit of these wandering ghosts.


It's not just money and paper offerings that's burnt. People also offer clothes, food and anything else their loved one might need — even cars!


Be careful not to trample on food left out in the open. Ghosts don't like that! Most put their food offerings (oranges, rice or even suckling pig) and joss sticks on proper altars, but others tuck them at the side of footpaths or trees.



Courtesy Glenn van Zutphen


Entertainment

But it's not enough to just feed the ghosts. Nope. They want to be entertained, too! So a big part of the festival is the getai performance, a popular kind of entertainment for the wandering spirits.


In non-Covid years, large tents are set up in open fields to host raucous dinners and auctions in heartland estates such as Ang Mo Kio and Yishun. There are also performances such as Chinese operas and getai (literally ‘song stage’ in Chinese, or live stage performances), which feature tales of gods and goddesses, bawdy stand-up comedy, as well as song and dance numbers.

Today's getai is a very different than in years past. Now days, stages are lit up with snazzy LED lights. Young perfomers sing both traditional songs in dialect and thumping techno versions of English and Mandarin pop ditties. It seems the ghosts are keeping up with times.


Want to watch? You're more than welcome, but don't sit on the front row! Those seats are reserved for the wanderings spirits.


Want to know more? Read this interview with a man whose family has helped orchestrate these celebrations for generations.

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