My grandma’s stories: Hungry ghost festival, part one

(This is part one of the eighth installment of an ongoing series recounting my grandma’s stories about her life and the old days in Singapore. Click here for the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh part of this series)

Every seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the belief is that the doors of Hades would open for ghosts to wander back on earth. Many of them have suffered in hell where they starved for months making it necessary to feed them with offerings to ward off any evil, hungry spirits.

Though widely consecrated amongst the Chinese diaspora, the month-long Yu Lan festival, as it is also known, in Singapore and Malaysia tends to be loud, garish and colorful events.

This post would be split into two parts, published at the start and end of the week, where Ah Ma and my mum would discuss about the evolution of this festival.

Food for the dead
Prayer rituals are at the heart of the Hungry Ghost Festival, conducted to seek blessings from our ancestors (who are part of the ghostly contingent) and to also ward off evil spirits.

It is common sight to see individuals squatting by roadsides holding joss sticks and burning incense paper for the dead. These incense paper, sometimes known as hell notes, is the currency to line wallets in our afterlives, and descendents out of their filial duties should provide for us.

Joss sticks, food and other offerings by the roadside during the Hungry Ghost Festival

Compared to the past, rituals used to be a lavish family affair where a feast was set out annually for the spirits.

“We used to buy a lot of items to pray. Pork, chicken, fish, vegetable… you name it, we have it,” Ah Ma said. “Nowadays, it’s not as elaborate as back then. A lot of manpower is needed to conduct a proper prayer session and I can no longer do it by myself.”

In modern times, businesses are the only ones who would still spend the time and effort to prepare the spread together with incense offerings.

Prayer rituals held by businesses today tend to be more lavish than those held by families. On left was taken at a food centre, on right at an outdoor tent.

Thou shalt not…
In this special month, Ah Ma tend to always repeat the same lines below:

  • “Be careful of what you say when out on the streets.”
  • “Don’t walk near people who are burning incense paper.”
  • “Don’t step on joss sticks lying on the ground.”

These are just some of the do’s and don’ts observed during the seventh month by people in the past. Although the younger generation would still err on the side of caution, many of such practices have been abandoned.

“I remembered my mother would never allow us to wander around the streets after 7 p.m., swim nor travel during that month” my mum shared her experiences. “Businesses inevitably also suffered.”

Part two will be out this Friday with more colourful cultural stories and picture, so stay tuned!

A table of food offerings and joss sticks found at the ground floor of an apartment block

You can catch up on previous posts below:
The seventh part is about Ah Ma’s children.
The sixth part is about Ah Ma being a child bride.
The half-way post is an update about the difficulties I faced when writing this series
The fifth part is about Ah Ma’s job after war
The fourth part is about daily life during the Japanese occupation.
The third part is about the early years of the Japanese occupation.
The second part is about Ah Ma’s family.
The first part is about Ah Ma’s early childhood.
The introduction gives some background information about “My grandma’s stories”

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4 thoughts on “My grandma’s stories: Hungry ghost festival, part one

    1. Hey Janna,
      By not feeding the ghosts, it’s almost tantamount to not appeasing the ravenous spirits wandering the earthly world for just that month. It will be a big discredit to your family’s luck and wealth for not praying to your deceased ancestors. Plus, if you do give extra to random ghosts whom no one feeds, it is believed that you will receive extra blessings.

      Sounds interesting isn’t it?

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