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Hungry Ghost Festival: When The Gates of Hell Open

Come straight home from college after class. Don’t loiter around until late at night.” 

Don’t stare and point at people by the road.” 

Wash your feet properly after coming home.” 

Back when I was younger, these were just some of the things my mother used to caution me about whenever the Hungry Ghost Festival approached. Celebrated in many parts of Asia, predominantly among Chinese communities, the festival proper falls on the 14th day of the 7th month according to the lunisolar calendar (August 22 this year) – but the entire 7th month is generally known as Ghost Month.

During this time, ghosts and spirits are believed to wander the earthly realm, so the living pay homage to their ancestors as well as lost spirits by burning offerings, as a form of merit making. The practice can be traced to the ancient Chinese practice of ancestor worship, but over the years, has evolved to absorb elements of Taoism and Buddhism as well.

Like many young people, I used to think superstitions associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival were a load of baloney – but I guess with age comes the wisdom of hindsight, and an understanding of how cultural beliefs are tied to our identity and our place in the world. These are practices that have been passed down through the generations, sometimes for thousands of years – and in a rapidly modernising world, there’s something to be said about keeping them alive, even though you might not believe in them per se.

While my family is not particularly traditional, we do observe some superstitions and practices which I think are quite fascinating, especially to people of other cultures. There are also differences between how it is celebrated and observed among Chinese diasporas around the world, such as in Malaysia, where I am from. So without further ado, here are some interesting facts and trivia about the Hungry Ghost Festival! 

OFFERINGS

During the Ghost Month, the gates of Hell are opened and spirits roam the earthly plane. Among them are ancestors whom the living forgot to pay tribute to, those who died without a proper send-off, and lost spirits. Because of this, they are ‘hungry’; hence the importance of providing them with food and entertainment so that they won’t cause harm or mischief.

ProjectManhattan, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Filial piety is an extremely important part of Chinese culture, so even after their death, you are expected to honour your ancestors with offerings of food, drink and material goods. It is common for people to burn paper effigies of items like houses, cars, servants, clothes and hell bank notes, in the belief that these can be enjoyed by the deceased in the afterlife.

There are also people who make offerings for lost souls: those who have no one to pray for them, or victims of suicide, murder or accidents. Aside from accumulating good karma, it is believed that it will appease these angry spirits and prevent them from harming the living. Prayers for lost souls are usually held at temples, or by the road – so if you see people huddling over a fire in the evenings with bowls of food and joss sticks, it is best not to point and stare because you might risk offending wandering spirits.

PAPER EFFIGIES

Paper effigies are an inseparable part of the Hungry Ghost Festival – but if you think they’re just rough, crudely shaped pieces of paper, then you’d be wrong. While I won’t deny that some are printed with machines, there are still effigy makers who make it the traditional way by hand. They are often commissioned to create items such as mansions, life-sized effigies of guardians, servants and deities, vehicles, even ‘designer’ clothes. These master craftsmen are artists in their own right, often creating incredibly intricate pieces that take months to complete. It’s crazy when you think about the amount of time and effort that goes into each piece, only to have them go up in flames in seconds.

Paper effigies are burnt in the belief that the deceased will receive them in the afterlife. As you can see, there can be some pretty quirky items – like gold watches, mobile phones and even dentures! Photo: Jorge Láscar from Australia, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The first time I took part in a paper effigy burning ceremony was when I was eight or nine, and I vividly recall the beautiful patterns on the paper samfoo (traditional Chinese clothing for women, usually with floral patterns) that was meant for my late grandmother. Over the years, paper effigies have become more and more creative (?), with items like mobile phones (what service provider do they use in hell, I wonder?), SIM cards, laptops and the like. My colleagues in Singapore even shared a photo of paper durians with me recently. Now, I definitely don’t subscribe to the idea of my grandparents operating mobile phones and texting each other in the afterlife, but it’s certainly a unique part of the celebration.

GETAI

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Chinese opera was the main form of entertainment during the Hungry Ghost Festival, but these have since been replaced with more modern performances. Photo: grungemann/Flickr

In the old days, villages and towns would host large open-air stages, and a troupe would put on a show in the evenings. The benches at the front were always left empty, as they were meant for unseen guests. Over the years, traditional opera fell out of popularity, but the practice of hosting entertainment for the dead did not – instead, it evolved into Getai, or literally ‘song stage’. I’m not sure how it is celebrated in China as I wasn’t able to find references on the net, but in Malaysia and Singapore they are quirky, lively affairs.

Tents are set up in fields or commercial spaces (where I live, there’s one every year in front of a food court). There would be live auctions and a dinner (proceeds usually go to charity). Sometimes there are still traditional opera performances, but you’ll also get stand-up comedy, entertainers singing pop songs or oldies, and even women dressed in skimpy clothing dancing to modern numbers. This aspect might seem blasphemous to some, but I find it very unique because it goes to show how adaptable Chinese culture can be – you gotta move with the times. In Singapore, where 76% of the population is ethnic Chinese, the getai culture is even bigger; shows are broadcast on national TV.

SUPERSTITION

Every culture has superstitions, but the Chinese in particular have many. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to cut my nails or whistle at night, because it might attract bad spirits. In retrospect, I think there was a hint of logic behind them: electricity (and nail clippers) did not exist in the old days, so it was dangerous to cut your nails in the dark. Also whistling at night would disturb the peace. But because we often parrot what our elders tell us, we continue handing these superstitions down even in modern times when we can turn on the light with the flip of a switch.
As for Ghost Month, here are just some of the common beliefs:

  1. Don’t stay out late. – Night is when the spirits are at their strongest, so to avoid anything untoward, avoid staying out after dark.
  2. Don’t go swimming – Angry water spirits might try to drown you.
  3. Don’t swear – you don’t know when a spirit might be lurking around and feel offended.
  4. Don’t wear red – apparently spirits are attracted to the colour red, and might follow you home.
  5. Wash your feet when you get home – to get rid of unwanted bad energy.
  6. Don’t hang your clothes out at night – you might just have an extra guest coming into your house when you collect them
  7. Don’t tap someone on the shoulder – it is believed that a person has three ‘lights’ – one on their head and one on each shoulder, which ward off evil spirits. By tapping them, you’re essentially extinguishing the light.
  8. Avoid killing insects – the Chinese have a belief that spirits might be reincarnated as insects like butterflies and moths. They could be visiting relatives, so if you just smacked that moth flat, you might have killed grandma.
  9. Be wary of offerings. – Sometimes people leave offerings out by the side of the road (especially in Malaysia) so it’s best to keep an eye out. You wouldn’t like it if someone stepped all over your food now, would you?
  10. Don’t take photos – The idea of photographs and how they can capture spirits is not unique to Chinese culture. So it’s best not to snap any, especially of offerings. I’m sure you’ve watched Shutter.

As the world grows ever modernised and practices that are deemed old-fashioned and superstitious are abandoned by the younger generation, it is heartening to see that The Hungry Ghost Festival still has its proponents. It’s a case study of how culture is fluid and ever changing; where tradition is valued but also adapts to the times.

We Went To A Taoist Medium In Selayang

Despite being Buddhist, my family has never been devout. We have an altar at home dedicated to Guanyin (the Goddess of Mercy), and make offerings at temples during religious occasions – but they mostly stem from tradition, because these were practices handed down by our ancestors.

Lately, my mother has become increasingly spiritual. She is going through a hard time, what with old age, illness, and the inability of medicine to help alleviate the pain. I’d like to believe that religion has given her some comfort – but we’ve also advised her on the dangers of superstition, as there are many charlatans out there preying on the desperate.

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On the recommendation of a friend, she went to seek blessings for an upcoming surgery from a medium in Selayang, Kuala Lumpur. The ‘temple’ turned out to be a double-storey terrace house in a quiet neighbourhood, hardly distinguishable from the rest of the houses if not for the giant brick furnace outside (for burning offerings) and several small shrines within the compound.

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The place didn’t look much like a temple, aside from baskets of paper offerings in a corner. There were several couches at the waiting area and a large wooden altar with Buddhist and Taoist deities. I recognised the main one as Guan Yu, the general-god, and Guanyin. The altar was furnished with the usual trappings; platters of fruit, oil candles, a reflective mirror (for repelling evil spirits) and a tapestry depicting heavenly scenes.

My dad got there at about 7.30AM to get a number, as the medium is very popular. The temple opens at 9.30AM, after which the medium will see you according to the number you have written.

 

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The medium was a curly-haired lady, not much older than my mom. She had a stern face but kind eyes, and a mole almost at the centre of her forehead, like a third eye. If I passed her on the street, I would have assumed she was just another auntie going about her grocery shopping.

By the time 9.30AM rolled around, the temple was already filled with people eager to get a reading, or ask for advice and blessings. I thought that it would mostly be people my mom’s age, but there were many young people as well, some younger than me. Because most of my close friends have agnostic views towards religion, I just assumed that the younger generation did not care much for spirituality. I was obviously mistaken.

The medium here is Taoist and channels Ho Sin Gu (He Xiangu), one of the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology and Taoist beliefs. She is the only female among the eight immortals, and in mythology, carries a lotus flower that is able to improve one’s physical and mental health.

The medium first invited the deity to enter her body. There wasn’t much pomp aside from some clapping and praying, which was very different from the deity I remembered visiting as a child, when I had seizures. The medium/deity sat at a ‘consultation’ table (reminded me of a doctor or a physician, really). There was an assistant on hand to translate, since the medium spoke in Hakka Chinese.

 

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Mom was third, and she asked for blessings for the operation to go smoothly. The medium advised that she should go for it, but it wasn’t going to be all hunky-dory because she foresaw ‘a long and difficult time’ for my mom’s illness(es), and cautioned her to be mindful of her health, avoid stress and look after her intake of food. She then proceeded to write on some talismans in red ink; some of these were to be burnt and consumed, one was to be kept on my mom’s person.

During our consultation, parents with children brought their kids to the medium for blessings. They seemed completely at ease, even going up to the medium and hugging her like a favourite grandma, so I think they come here pretty often. The medium then blessed them with a pat to the head and a stamp of Chinese characters in red ink (presumably a talisman or amulet of sorts?) to their backs.

The consultation took less than five minutes, and there was a token fee – kind of like a consultation fee when you go to the doctor’s. My mom was also advised to consume some pearl powder for recovery, which she bought at the temple.

If you’d like to ask for a reading / blessings, the temple is located at 7262, Jalan Len Omnibus, Taman Selayang Baru, Batu Caves, Selangor. 

Thoughts 

I’m an INTP, and despite my love for theories (which are intangible), reason often rules the roost – so faith is something I seriously lack.  It is not that I don’t believe in the supernatural or a higher power, it is simply that I don’t believe in much of what makes up organised religion. The reason I call myself a Buddhist is because Buddhist teachings centre around morality, rather than reliance on a higher power. My favourite quote is about how the Buddha only “points the way; but it is you yourself who must walk the path.” There is no ‘if you don’t believe in this, you go to hell’, or ‘you must pray to god to for salvation’. Buddha’s philosophies are about leading a mindful life.

Taoism, a relatively new religion rife with Chinese culture, Buddhist teachings and Chinese folk beliefs, requires a faith in the supernatural which I do not have. That being said, visiting a medium was still an interesting insight and experience, and it is heartening to see the solace and comfort many people find in their beliefs. If it makes things more bearable for them, then why not?

My mom often chides me about my non-belief. “I was like you when I was younger. I felt like I didn’t need god. But when you’re closer to death’s door, you will understand.” Perhaps, but that time has not come. In the meantime, I’m quite content just following what I feel is best, doing and practising good deeds.

PS: Mom had her surgery and is in recovery at the moment.

 

 

 

30-Day Writing Challenge – Day 5: An Inanimate Object That’s Important To You

5. An Inanimate Object That’s Important To You 

I can’t even remember when exactly I started wearing it, but I’ve always had a small jade pendant on a silver chain which I never take off, even for showers or when I go to bed. The pendant is an amulet of sorts that was blessed when I was ‘taken in’ as an ‘adopted daughter’ of the Goddess of Mercy and Compassion, Guanyin (or Avalokitesvara, as she is known in Buddhist texts).

I haven’t been able to find anything on the Internet, but according to what I know, it is common for Malaysian Chinese families to have a child ‘adopted’ by a particular deity, so that they may enjoy protection and blessings. I don’t recall much of the ritual, but I think it involved me going to a temple and there was a monk presiding over it. We also had to buy the jade and have it blessed.

By virtue of having had it for so long, it feels weird whenever I don’t have my pendant with me. I’m not very religious, but I also believe in the supernatural. There have been times where I felt afraid and the presence of my pendant (and the belief that it affords me protection) have helped me to sleep, especially when I am alone in a foreign place.

 

 

 

Attractions in Betong, Thailand – Wat Phuttathiwat Buddhist Temple + Largest Mailbox in the World (?)

For a town with a relatively modest population, Betong’s Buddhist temple – Wat Phuttathiwat – is quite impressive. Sitting on a hill top overlooking the valley, the temple features unique architecture, with several golden spires rising into the sky.

Done in a modern Srivijaya style and measuring 40m at its peak, the temple’s most distinctive feature is its gold colour, which is also the colour of royalty in Thailand. Fitting, seeing as how the temple was built to commemorate the birthday of the reigning Queen in that era. Construction was completed in 1953, making the temple well over half a century old. It is still very well maintained though. The building is divided into several levels, and both the inside and outside has marble tiled flooring.

I’d imagine the temple would look gorgeous when the sun rays reflect off the shiny spires, but too bad it was a rainy day 😦

Typical Thai architecture: very detailed and elaborate.

The inside felt quite bare after the opulence of its exterior. In the centre was a raised golden tomb of some kind, but since there were no caretakers/monks around, we had nobody to ask.

Several tapestries hung from the walls, featuring Buddhist monks and people in traditional Thai costumes. The paintings had a raised motif so it gave off a 3D effect.

Very different from Chinese-Buddhist temples, since the paintings here reflect the local culture and beliefs.

The next level had a Buddha statue in the middle, an altar and a prayer mat. What was interesting though, was the corners of the hall…

I’ve never seen stained glass designs in a temple before! Instead of saints, they had flower/geometric/animal imagery.

More traditional elements.

Although it’s literally down the road from the town centre, the temple is a quiet little sanctuary for meditation and reflection should you need to escape the stresses of daily life.

WAT PHUTTATHIWAT (WAT BETONG) 

Moo 1, Tambon Betong, Amphoe Betong, Yala, 95110, Thailand

Before returning to the hotel, we braved the drizzle to make a quick pitstop to another tourist attraction in front of the Betong Town Hall: the supposed largest mailbox in the world (not really sure about this though, coz Guinness certifies the record to one in Illinois) !

It is very impressive, towering up at approximately 2.5 stories high. I wonder where the slot for the box is. Didn’t go near coz it was raining so we only took pix from the stairs.