Written By – Natalie Leh
Watching the movie Coco (2017) by Pixar Animations which touches on the Mexican tradition known as the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) has reminded me of some traditions that’s been practiced similarly all around Asia that also honours the dead.
Every year around the month of July or August, the Chinese communities in Malaysia will celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Taoist and Buddhist belief in the afterlife and the 7th month of the lunar calendar is believed to be the day where the gates of Hell open, freeing the spirits of the dead to roam the world of the living. This year’s Hungry Ghost Festival month takes place on the 19th August to 16th September and its respective Ghost Day was the 2nd of September.
These ghosts are usually denied entry into Heaven or have no descendants on Earth to make offerings on their behalf. Both fear and pity are greatly inspired as the former are said to look for a living being to take their place in Hell while the latter are starved in their year-long period in Hell, seeking sustenance during their earthly furlough. To appease them, the living would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the suffering of the deceased such as making offerings of food and burning paper money (joss paper). Simultaneously, dead ancestral spirits are also celebrated by their living descendants.
The celebration is usually funded by residents of each individual district in Malaysia. Live performances known as ‘Getai’ in Mandarin are performed by groups of singers and dancers ranging from the modern take of pop music to the old classics such as Chinese opera (phor thor) and puppet shows. During these performances, the first front row seats will be left empty, as you can guess, these seats are reserved for the VIP ghost guests!
Other rituals include food offerings (mostly vegetarian dishes) are left outside houses, along roadsides or street corners, burning joss sticks, joss paper and assorted earthly goodies made of paper such as clothes, cars and furniture are made in hopes to satisfy the dead relatives or ancestors or other ghosts in turn for good fortune and protection from beyond.
The last day of the ghost month signifies the closing of Hell’s gates where more burnt offerings are made and Taoist monks would chant scriptures to return the ghosts back to the underworld.
However, this year’s festival has been a quiet affair due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the celebration has been adapted to follow the rules of social distancing where families and friends either meet virtually or gather within smaller groups. Associations that usually bring this tradition to life have scaled down the ceremonies where the bountiful food offerings to the spirits would be donated to the needful.
As we are nearing the end of the Hungry Ghost Festival, I thought of sharing a short urban legend I’ve heard from my mother and if I remember correctly it goes a little like this:
On the 15th day of “ghost” month, also called “Ghost Day”, is when the festival reaches its peak and many people visit their residential community hall to carry out the tradition. In the middle of the hall sits the giant paper effigy of the King of Hell surrounded by food offerings and the air was laced with the thick incense of burning joss sticks and joss papers. His appearance is usually fierce-looking and his presence is believed to oversee and control the lesser ghosts from wreaking too much havoc during the ghost month. (He also gets first dibs on the food!)
Here’s a story for you. In comes a woman with her 2-year-old son, note that it had been raining heavily the whole day and the floor of the community hall was dirtied with muddy footprints. Now, there weren’t any seats available and she did not want to get her child dirty. So, she sat him on an unoccupied side of the food altar and carried on with her praying.
When she was done, she collected the toddler and went home. Within the span of four days, her son gradually became sick and passed away. Grieving her loss, the woman consulted a medium and in return she was told that the King of Hell had mistaken the child as an offering and taking his life essence.
References for article
- Xin S. Hungry Ghost Festival under the new normal [Internet]. Free Malaysia Today. 2020 [cited 9 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2020/08/28/hungry-ghost-festival-under-the-new-normal/
- Here’s how the dead are remembered by the living in Southeast Asia [Internet]. Mashable SEA. 2020 [cited 10 September 2020]. Available from: https://sea.mashable.com/article/5506/heres-how-the-dead-are-remembered-by-the-living-in-southeast-asia
- Ghost Festival [Internet]. En.wikipedia.org. 2020 [cited 9 September 2020]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_Festival#cite_note-18
References for pictures
- Goody Feed. Empty Front Row Seats [Internet]. 2020 [cited 9 September 2020]. Available from: https://goodyfeed.com/10-hungry-ghost-festival-superstitions-must-know-tonight-%E5%87%B6-ghost-day/
- RobertHarding. Chinese Opera [Internet]. 2020 [cited 9 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.robertharding.com/index.php?lang=en&page=search&s=chinese%2Bopera&smode=0&zoom=1&display=5&sortby=1&bgcolour=white
Gooseny. Food offerings on alter [Internet]. 2020 [cited 9 September 2020]. Available from: http://gooseny.blogspot.com/2010/08/hungry-x-festival.html