Ready your flashlights and huddle up: we’ve got a ghostly tale to tell along with all the need-to-knows of the Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore!
Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节) or Hungry Ghost Festival is a yearly celebration that happens during the seventh lunar month. This year, it’s happening from 16 August to 14 September 2023, with Ghost Day falling today – 30 August! During this period, spirits emerge from the gates of hell in search of food, entertainment, and a breath of fresh air (much like a mum after confinement). During this month, Chinese families worship their ancestors and present offerings to appease the hungry ghosts. It’s sort of like Halloween, but it lasts for a whole month, there’s no dressing up, and all of the treats are for the dead.
All you need to know about the Hungry Ghost Festival
1. Origins of Hungry Ghost Festival
There are many versions of the tale, but the story of Mu Lian is one of our favourites. This Buddhist tale tells of a monk named Mu Lian who attained enlightenment and went to visit his dead mother to repay her for her earthly kindness to him while he was growing up. We’ll leave out the grisly parts about what state she was in down in the fiery furnaces of hell… But needless to say, she was not only in torment but starving too. When Mu Lian tried to feed her, the food turned into ash as soon as it touched her lips by way of punishment for committing sins while she was alive. In his despair, Mu Lian turned to the Buddha for help and learned how to offer prayers and food in a manner that could finally satisfy his mother and all the other hungry ghosts.
2. How and where the celebration takes place
Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Traditions vary according to region. But in Singapore, the Chinese often offer food, incense, candles, and paper offerings to the dead. They also hold performances to entertain the ghosts.
3. Offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival
The Chinese believe that when you burn something, the smoke can rise to the afterlife for relatives to enjoy. You can find shops around Chinatown that sell all sorts of paper offerings, including Apple MacBooks, luxury cars, and even banks! After all, why offer a few measly dollars when you can offer a whole bank? People typically burn these offerings in cages, metal drums, or small red containers on the 1st, 15th, and last day of the Ghost Month. They also place fresh fruit, suckling pigs, and rice in the open, without the need for burning. Warning: people can get a little enthusiastic and kick up a load of smoke and ash, so don’t get too close!
DON’T touch or kick the offerings or burners. If you do, apologise! And take photos of the offerings at your own peril. You might just end up with an unwanted spooky houseguest after making the rookie error of snapping a shot of the offerings. You shouldn’t do everything just for the ‘gram!
4. Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations
Typically, temporary tents and stages to entertain ghosts will be set up around the heartland areas. And the events held in these areas include dinners and auctions for auspicious items. For example, charcoal pieces wrapped in gold paper represent black gold. Ghosts can also expect dinner and a show at special getai (song stages). These performances feature songs, dances, operas, and even stand-up comedy. It’s a good month to be a ghost.
Avoid sitting in the front row, as it is reserved for the spirits.
5. Finally, stick to the rules!
We’ve already included some of the don’ts surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival, but here are a few more superstitions and rules to follow to help keep the ghosts at bay.
- Have the little ones tucked in bed before the witching hour so that they don’t bump into any spirits.
- Avoid wearing red or black, as these colours attract spirits.
- Keep off the wine, as people believe it’s easier for people who are intoxicated to become possessed.
- Take a break from the pool: spirits are supposedly fond of trying to drown people so that they can be reincarnated in a new body.
- Avoid making big changes until after Hungry Ghost Festival. Getting married, moving house, rearranging furniture or buying new vehicles might disturb residing spirits, so are best avoided during this month.
- Avoid whistling at night as it can attract ghosts. Unless you are ready to pay the price for disturbing the peaceful night vibes.
- Don’t kill any moths, as the Chinese believe they are spirits trying to find their way home.
- Never speak ill of the dead. Not to be all ‘Big Brother’s watching’, but you probably won’t want your ancestors paying you a visit, Mulan style. Even if Great Aunty Wu wasn’t the nicest person, keep your opinions to yourself lest she turns up to berate you in ghost form.
- Avoid the number four as it sounds like the word “death” in Chinese.
- Skip hanging your clothes outside the house, like on the balcony or by the window, unless you’re okay with ghosts borrowing your clothes and leaving a touch of misfortune behind.
- Don’t take photos at night, as you might capture hungry ghosts in action.
The bottom line this month: Watch your step for offerings and burners, and try not to bring a ghost home with you!
Top image: Choo Yut Shing via Flickr