The Origins, Traditions and Beliefs of what today has become popularly known as “The Hungry Ghost Festival”
by Victor Yue
Between the ancient Chinese characters and the modern English vocabulary, there seems to be a big mis-match as to what the festival is about. But for ease of communication, some terms that seem to be closest in translation would it seems, have to do. In some cases, such as events, more exciting phrases were coined in Chinese and explains I believe how we have arrived at the name The Hungry Ghost Festival.
It is said that although the 7th Month event is an age old tradition and custom from ancient times marked during the 7th lunar month, the term “Gui Jie” meaning Ghost Festival did not appear until the Ming Dynasty. I am curious as to when the word “Hungry” was added into the Ghost Festival, making it the Hungry Ghost Festival. Indeed this additional adjective does much to fire up the imagination of the more impressionable young and those unfamiliar with the 7th Month event.
Older Chinese, simply call it Chit Gue (7th month in Hokkien), Por Tor (Pudu in Mandarin) or Tiong Guan Huay (Zhong Yuan Jie) which is probably more official as these are the words used in the posters and banners put up during this time.
As with most age old traditions, it’s difficult to separate the practice, beliefs and the myths. We tend to embrace them together and it becomes a colourful, cultural potpourri
How is it “celebrated”?
The 7th Month in Singapore means different things to different people. To believers and those who have “the third eye”, it is a month when the entities of the nether world come a calling. “Don’t go out late, Don’t go swimming” would be the warning from Grandma. The grandchildren would dutifully say “yes” and do exactly the opposite! And should anything untoward happen, Grandma would say “I told you so!” and follow up with making reparations to ask the “invisible” for forgiveness.
For the Hokkiens and Teochews (and probably for other dialect groups as well), on the first night of the 7th month, they would be lining up candles and joss-sticks to “welcome” the visitors (who might include their ancestors) offering them food and burning joss-papers (money). They do the same on the last day of the 7th month to send them off. In between, on the 15th day, they would also d0 another similar round of offerings. For the Cantonese, I understand that they do it on the 14th night of the 7th month.
A few days before the arrival of the 7th month, the organisers of the neighbourhood’s 7th Month prayers – officially called “Celebrating Zhong Yuan Jie” – will set up make-shift altar tables at a suitable place, usually close to a lift landing or a corner of an HDB block Some HDB block or blocks may have more than one group of Zhong Yuan Jie organisers. Most of these organisers would have continued since the days when the residents were from a different neighbourhood. They tended to follow the migration of many of the residents from the old houses (kampong /pre-war homes) to their new homes in housing estates.
Back in the good ole days….
In the old days (circa 1950s), this event lasting between one and three days in any neighbourhood was one that the kids look forward to. Most families would subscribe to one of the Zhong Yuan Jie (or Por Tor in Hokkien) having paid a dollar a month. During the Por Tor, the organisers would have the goodies as offerings to the Por Tor Gong (the Tai Shi Ya or Da Shi Ya) before giving each subscribing household a pail of these goodies.
Apart from the 7 essentials (柴米油鹽醬醋茶- charcoal, rice, oil, salt, soya sauce, vinegar and tea – what’s needed in a typical kitchen of the old days ) there might be half a braised duck or chicken, something that was a luxury in the 50s for most families. There would also be an abundance of fruits – from Rambutans to Buah Langsat to Buah Duku.
For children, it was like carnival time. Street wayangs – about the only open air entertainment and free to boot of those times, would spring up. They were set up so skilfully within half a day using only mangrove poles tied together by soaked split rattan, and wooden planks for the flooring. I remember taking a stool from my house to “chope” (reserve) a place to watch. The afternoon show was from 2pm to 5 pm and evening from 8pm to midnight. Food was close at hand. Hawkers would encircle the wayang stage and even underneath the raised stage, selling food such as oh-jian (the traditional barnacles in fried sweet potato flour with eggs ), traditional desserts (offerings from red bean soups to sweet potatoes to tau suan and bubur telegu), fried kway teow, shellfish (cockles and siput) and much, much more. And when I was bored with the wayang I would take a turn at the games station and try my luck at tikam-tikam – just folded paper that for 5 centsa pick, you get a a shot at winning a prize of some cheap toy or sweets. I hardly ever won anything.
In the streets of Chinatown
In the Chinatown of old, each house would, in step with the organising communities for Por Tor, set up their altar tables outside their house to make offerings. As the majority of such houses had multiple tenants, the landlord would lead in organising the prayers. The narrow streets meant street wayangs were allocated specific dates for the Por Tor. One would be able to see the offerings from the beginning to the end of the street, with the triangular flags stuck into the food/fruits fluttering in the wind.
Sometimes, the community prayer ends up with a grand dinner where items are auctioned off and money raised – the collection of which could take up to a year - for the next Por Tor. The funds help to pay for not only the event but also the food baskets.
Enter the getai …
Getai probably started in the 60s and quickly held the crowd captive. But long before their entry, some street wayangs had some of their actors/actresses singing before the opera started, as a warm up act, but it did not develop further. It took off probably following the hey day of the wildly popular Wang Sar and Yueh Fong. The duo took Singapore by storm and everyone knew the exclamation “Wah Lao”. During that time, there were also the Getai entertainment establishments where one could pay for entrance and get a drink to watch. The last one, similar to those in Taiwan, to my memory must the one at the former Wisma Atria, which I would go with my classmates each Chinese New Year eve.
In Chinese temples
In the Chinese Temples, the offering on the 15th of the 7th month was to Di Guan, one of the three Officials of the three realms – Tian (Heavens): celebrated on 15th of 1st Lunar Month), Di (Earth): celebrated on 15th of 7th Lunar Month and Shui (Water): celebrated on 15th of the 10th Lunar Month.
According to Taoist beliefs, praying to Di Guan is to ask for elimination of sins and debts. It is from this occasion of praying to the Di Guan or Di Yuan that the world of Zhong Yuan Jie came about.
For the family, 7th month is also a time for them to remember their ancestors. During the old days, each family, would have their ancestral altar at home. For the Hokkiens it would usually be placed next to another altar dedicated to Tua Pek Kong. For their most recently departed – a parent or grandparent – the family, usually the grandma or mother would prepare the offerings. The departed and the ancestors further down the line would be’invited” to come and partake of the offering. For us kids, it was also another occasion we waited for, for it meant that we could have more elaborate dishes that we would not get otherwise. Chinese New Year and 7th Month are the two major occasions that children look forward to and our poor parents would dread it as they would need to find money to cook up at least something worthy for their ancestors.
Today, many would have have moved the family ancestral tablets to the temples and so, offerings would be at the temples. Food offering’s also became simplified with fast food that could be the packed from chicken rice to Kentucky Fried Chicken.
7th Month represents a spectrum of Chinese culture, of beliefs, tradition and customs, with variations for different dialect groups, and in some instances also influenced by the practices from ancestral place of origin in China. We remember our ancestors; we think about the wandering souls (those whom the descendants have forgotten or who may no longer have living descendants); we seek pardons from the Official of the Earth Realm. This we do, to preserve our unique culture which also evolves with the times.
Victor Yue is Taoist and spends much of his time researching and documenting Chinese religious practices and rituals.
Here is a video he took on a auction on Pulau Ubin for the Hungry Ghost Festival
At Bukit Brown during the 7th month, tour groups also encounter evidence of rituals and offerings