“RESERVATIONS are not required,” my aunt quips when the subject of celebrating her fast approaching 60th birthday at a popular local restaurant arises. Almost immediately, all of us present at her house for lunch turn to look at each other in surprise.
The dining outlet is a favoured venue for wedding functions and we have heard countless accounts where people had to leave disappointed just because they failed to make prior arrangements. We’re certain that tempting fate during such an important occasion would surely bring disastrous repercussions.
In Chinese culture, 60 years marks a complete cycle of life and the 60th birthday is regarded as a very important point where a new life cycle begins. Traditionally, it’s the first birthday in a person’s life that’s marked with a bigger than usual celebration.
“Please don’t get me wrong. I definitely want to celebrate there as their braised sea cucumber and superior mushroom dish is heaven on a plate. But I guarantee that tables will be available even if we do not make prior bookings. This is the Hungry Ghost month and no one weds during this time of the year,” elaborates my aunt while gesturing towards a calendar nearby.
Her comment strikes a chord with all of us and we start looking at each other sheepishly. Our over-enthusiasm in wanting to ensure that her birthday is celebrated in an especially grand manner has made us forget about the current month-long observance which pays respect to the spirits of deceased ancestors and other wandering restless souls.
GATES TO THE WORLD OF THE LIVING
This traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival, observed in certain Asian countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, begins on the first day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. During this time, it’s believed that the gates to the netherworld are flung open, sending forth restless spirits of the dead, lost souls, ghosts and demons to seek food and entertainment in the realm of the living. This year, the festival takes place from Aug 11 to Sept 9.
Almost immediately, our discussion shifts to the more interesting subject that was once considered taboo to even talk about in the past. The older members of our family start exchanging stories and experiences related to this festival while the technology-savvy younger generation listen on with amusement clearly etched on their faces.
According to popular belief, these wandering spirits were once mortals but for reasons of unnatural deaths like murders, accidents, drownings and suicides, their restless souls return during this time of the year to haunt the place of their demise. These spirits belong primarily to those who died without any proper burial or were not fully prepared for their final journey.
In Chinese eschatology, each person upon death will have to cross the Bridge of Sorrows to get to the world of the dead. To pay toll, the dead uses either a coin or a black pearl that was placed in their mouth by relatives during funeral rites. As such, those spirits without these payment tokens would not be able to reach their intended destination.
ORIGINS OF WANDERING SPIRITS
To avoid this from happening, relatives of the departed organise elaborate funeral services to help smoothen the final journey of their loved ones. These last rites have to be fully observed and properly executed or else the soul would lose its way and eventually become a hungry ghost.
At this juncture, one of my uncles stands up to make himself heard above the din as he starts to trace the origins of the Hungry Ghost Festival back to the time when this observance was first practised during the Tang (618 to 907 AD) and Sung (860 to 1126 AD) dynasties.
According to the Mahayana sutras, which are written forms of the orally-preserved teachings of Gautama Buddha following his parinirvana (death), the 15th day of the seventh month is celebrated to commemorate the filial piety of the Enlightened One’s chief disciple, Mulian.
After years of meditation, Mulian used his clairvoyance to check up on his parents who had long passed on. He was glad that his father’s new incarnation was satisfactory but the same couldn’t be said about his mother. Prior to her death, she had been obsessed with money and refused to assist monks. As such, Mulian’s mother was reborn into Avici, the realm of the Hungry Ghosts or Pretas.
These ghosts are said to have ravenous appetites but are unable to eat as food will simply burst into flames upon their touch and turn into charcoal. At the same time, their needle-thin throats were too fragile to even swallow the smallest of morsels.
Dismayed and full of remorse, Mulian pleaded to the Buddha for assistance and asked for ways to save his mother. The Buddha instructed Mulian to offer a tray of food to a community of monks and nuns at the time of their return from their summer retreat. The date coincided with the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.
The holy men and women offered prayers for Mulian’s mother and she was eventually delivered from the realm of the hungry ghosts. Word soon spread about Mulian’s success and, from that day onwards, the date became the main offering day of the Hungry Ghost Festival.
ARRIVAL IN MALAYA
Before my uncle has the opportunity to return to his seat, one of my cousin shoots out his right hand classroom style and blurts a question: “If all these happened abroad, then how did this practice manage to take root in Malaysia?”
Without even the slightest hesitation, my uncle quickly resumes his upright stance and brings us back to the time when Chinese immigrants arrived in colonial Malaya by the droves during the tin mining boom in the early part of the 19th century.
“The introduction of this practise may have been much earlier but it’s widely believed that the Hungry Ghost Festival proliferated in tandem with the opening of tin mines in Perak and Selangor,” he explains.
During those early days, the immigrants adhered strictly to the practices passed down by their ancestors in China. Over time, the status quo started to change when people started to come up with their own versions. Eventually, an idea to erect an effigy of the King of the Hungry Ghosts arose.
The proponents wanted to set it alight at the stroke of midnight on the last day of the seventh month. They believed that this final ritual would conclude the festival and mark the return of the spirits to their own realm.
As such, the different dialect groups, such as the Hokkiens and Cantonese, sent out separate commissions to selected papier-mache makers and artisans working within their respective community. These seemingly innocent requests quickly turned into a huge puzzling problem for the craftsmen as no one had the slightest idea what the King of the Hungry Ghosts looked like.
Eventually, the artisans got together and held lengthy discussions on the matter affronting them. Finally, they decided to rely on their imagination and made several logical deductions before coming up with an image that would appeal to all their customers.
Their interpretation came in the form of a glittering tinsel armoured and ferocious looking King of the Hungry Ghosts. Together with an imposing stature of about four metres in height and a pair of huge bulging eyes, the monstrous figure definitely struck fear in the hearts of those who dared to set eyes upon it.
DIFFERENT DIALECT GROUPS, DIFFERENT VERSIONS
In order to create variation and show individuality, the craftsmen for a particular dialect group added little details to differentiate their masterpieces from those made by the others. As a result, the Hokkiens were presented with a figurine which had an extremely long protruding tongue which they subsequently name Phor Tor Kong while the ones prepared for the Cantonese had tightly pursed lips.
Apart from the main figurine, the craftsmen also prepared four smaller bamboo-reinforced papier-mache sculptures which represent Loh Kha Kooi (tall ghost constable), Eh Yah Kooi (short ghost constable), Phor Kwah (ghost magistrate) and Thor Tay Kong (earth deity). The quadruplet’s task was to assist the King of the Hungry Ghosts and ensure that the spirits do not get out of hand during their month long freedom. They were also tasked to protect mortals from vengeful spirits.
As my uncle’s story draws to a close, the only two children at our dining table become visibly quieter and can be seen moving significantly closer to each other. Realising that the tale about ghouls and spirits has had a scary effect on the kids, my aunt changes tack and opts for something less frightening. She starts recalling her experiences about the festival after moving to predominantly Hokkien Penang in the 1960s.
CELEBRATIONS IN OLDEN DAY PENANG
Apart from paper effigies, Penangites who practice traditional observance also prepare colourful cup-sized muffins in the shape of a pair of dragons. In the days leading up to Mulian’s commemoration date, large amounts of mostly vegetarian food are laid out on makeshift altars at home as offerings to deceased relatives.
At the same time, the Chinese also place packets of mixed rice, biscuits, seasonal fruits like buah rambai and drinks in open spaces, temple compounds or even by the roadside as tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts with the hope that they will not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune.
To further appease the spirits, devotees offer prayers and burn hell bank notes together with other forms of joss paper like miniature versions of paper clothing. It’s believed that these paper replica items possess value in the afterlife and are considered to be very similar to those enjoyed by the living.
Coincidentally, the offerings made by the Chinese to the spirits do not only take the form of material things. In many parts of Malaysia, especially Penang, clan groups, traders and shop owners pool funds, often in the form of weekly, monthly or yearly contributions, to erect makeshift stages which come alive at night as open-air concerts.
Called Koh Tai by the Hokkiens, these places offer a variety of nightly live performances like traditional Chinese opera shows to entertain both the roving spirits and also the devout. Throughout the presentation, the organisers purposely turn on the music volume as loud as possible to attract nearby roving spirits.
The festival culminates on the end of the seventh lunar month with a series of rituals involved in the closing of the door of hell ceremony at temples throughout the country. After that, edible offerings on the altar are distributed among the young and needy.
THEN AND NOW
Prior to parting our separate ways, the older family members in our group spend some time talking about the Hungry Ghost Festival in its present form. While much of the observance has remained unchanged through the ages, my elderly relatives lament that the festival no longer enjoys a strong following especially among members of the younger generation.
Through their conversation, I learn that people in the past were very careful during the seventh month and usually returned home early to avoid unnecessary encounters with wandering spirits. Accident-prone hotspots as well as places near large bodies of water like river banks and beaches were avoided like the plague as it was believed that those places were filled with disembodied spirits looking to possess human bodies and use them as vehicles to enter the realm of rebirth.
“Youngsters these days throw caution to the wind and no longer observe such taboo. They go anywhere they like and stay up so late at night during the seventh month,” my uncle adds before bemoaning the fact that even the popular Koh Tai has not been spared the ravages of time.
“It’s once wholesome entertainment content has given way to burlesque shows featuring scantily-clad young women and loud hip-hop music. We should really think of ways to revert back to the values of old,” he concludes before bidding us all farewell.