Seeing Ghosts

18 August 2016

We take a look at the celebrations and rituals behind the annual Hungry Ghost Festival.

The Chinese Ghost Month, or otherwise known as Hungry Ghost Festival, sounds foreboding to the uninitiated, but as the Chinese are wont to do – it is a month of rather boisterous festivities. Observed by Taoists and Buddhists, it is believed that the gates of hell open during this time and spirits are allowed to roam amongst the living. In an effort to appease roaming ghosts and to honour their ancestors, believers would leave food, burn paper money and even stage shows to entertain the spirits.

At the Pek Kong Cheng Temple in Bukit Mertajam, Penang, the festival is in full swing. Trays of roast pork lay splayed on offering tables, incense smoke chokes the air and Da Shi Ye, the Ghost King, towers over everything with a watchful eye.

The modest-sized temple is packed to the brim. People carry their incense stick above their heads so no one gets accidental burns. A man in charge rings a bell whenever the incense pots are full, signalling workers to clear the sticks to make space for new ones.

In recent years, entertainment for the spirits has changed to sometimes involve booming pop songs and skimpily dressed dancers but Pek Kong Cheng Temple keeps it classy with a Teo Chew opera performance.

Behind the glaring stage lights, this troupe of Thai performers paint their faces, smoke and check their smartphones in hushed silence as the show runs like clockwork upfront.

Chin Ghee Kok Charity Uplifting Society has organised an auction dinner in their premises in Kuala Kurau, Perak. The streets of this small fishing village will light up as the effigy of Da Shi Ye is brought out on a parade.

Loh, a local songstress in her youth, serenades the crowd. Behind her, items like pineapple (an auspicious fruit) baskets and whiskey wait to be auctioned off to raise funds for the Society.

Da Shi Ye tours the streets at midnight pulled by devotees carrying flowers and incense sticks shouting “huat ah” (prosper) while flinging paper money into the air.

The Sifu waits at the main junction of the town for the effigy to arrive. He will conduct the procession’s grand finale where Da Shi Ye is burned amidst heaps of paper money.

A firefighter keeps a close eye as the flames subside, the crowd disperses and the streets are left strewn with the remains of this year’s Hungry Ghost Festival. Count on the departed to keep traditions alive.

By Adeline Chua

Photos by Adeline Chua

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