The Portal To Hell Has Broken Loose!

Dating back 2,000 years, the Hungry Ghost Festival or Zhong Yuan Jie from Taoist and Buddhist traditions sees devotees running a number of rituals to feed and honour the dead who roam the earth as the gates of hell open throughout the seventh month of the Lunar calendar.

Some of the offerings at Fanyin Meditation Centre in Ayer Itam, Penang. Image: Chew Win Win

Other than paying respect to family members who have passed, offerings are also made to other wandering ghosts to avoid misfortune and bad luck. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay them tribute after they died, or those who were never given a proper send-off. They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow.

According to legend, a young man called Mu Lian began training as a monk following the death of his mother who was cast in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts because of past sins. In efforts to rescue her, Mu Lian carried out rituals like fasting, praying and offering sacrifices of food in a massive ritual with other monks on the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, allowing him to enter the realm and release his mother from eternal suffering.

The Hungry Ghost month is a fascinating time and in conjunction with the ghost day which falls today, here’s a list of what to expect during the festival:

Catch the entertainment at a Getai

Puppeteers from China join Malaysian Kim Giak Low Choon Puppet show for an entertaining evening in George Town, Penang. Image: Chew Win Win
Behind the scenes of Kim Giak Low Choon Puppet show. Image: Chew Win Win
Cast members from China star in a Hokkien Opera in Lintang Macallum, George Town. Image: Chew Win Win

Translated as song stage, getai is set up by a community of neighbours or businesses to raise money for the upcoming rituals to appease the spirits on the 15th day of the month. The evening performances include Chinese operas featuring puppets, singers and comedians sharing tales of gods and goddesses through song and dance. Visitors can revel into the night, but make sure to leave the front row seats empty as they are reserved for the invisible guests, also known as Hao Xiong Di or ‘the good brothers’. Since the performances are held around suburban neighbourhoods, it’s best to ask a local for places to visit.

Locals enjoying the opera in George Town. Image: Chew Win Win

Offerings for the afterlife

Penang resident Khoo Cheng Tuan, 71, sells ‘passport’ papers for the dead. Image: Chew Win Win
A devotee offers prayers to ancestors at Fanyin Meditation Centre in Ayer Itam, Penang. Image: Chew Win Win

Throughout the month, stacks of hell money, a form of joss paper printed to resemble legal tender banknotes, paper offerings like cars, houses, jewelries and even modern-day gadgets like phones and tablets are burned so the deceased are able to live in comfort in the afterlife.

Food like oranges, rice and suckling pig are also offered in the open (roadside, alleyway and near trees) alongside several joss sticks so make sure you don’t trample on them not just out of fear of bad luck and reprisals, but also to avoid being burned. A large feast is held on the eve of the 14th day of the month, where devotees bring even more food offerings to temples and place floating lotus-shaped lanterns in rivers to guide souls to the afterlife.

Chatting with the dearly departed

It is believed ancestors can hear the living during the festival, so some people go to grave sites for rituals that range from pious to creepy. While the mediums connect with the dead, gamblers take this time to pray for lucky numbers!

Things to avoid during the Hungry Ghost Festival

  1. Swimming – souls that perished under water are looking for ‘a substitute’.
  2. Going outside after sunset – to avoid coming across a wandering spirits.
  3. Moving house – it angers spirits who can’t find their home.
  4. Starting a business – bad luck.
  5. Getting married – bad luck.
  6. Killing insects – insects can be forms taken by deceased relatives returning for a visit.

As spooky as it sounds, the festival is a great addition to your list of adventures. Whether or not you believe in paranormal, it makes sense to approach certain taboos and sensitivities with respect and understanding. After all, it’s a long-held tradition of respect, gratitude and honour. Have fun exploring!

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