Monday, September 20, 2010

Hungry Ghost Festival

One Wednesday a few weeks ago I walked out of a restaurant at night and saw two nicely dressed Chinese people tossing bits of paper into a huge pile on the street. You can imagine my surprise when they poured lighter fluid on the paper, then lit it on fire. Then, glancing around, I saw several such bonfires smoldering on the road in front of various buildings. Well, I found out later that this was the first day of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Month. The papers that were being burned actually represented things like money, iPods, passports, and other things that one's ancestors might find useful in the afterlife. This tradition is repeated every year during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the gates of hell open up and the spirits all of our dead ancestors are allowed to roam free to partake of earthly life once again. Some like to visit family, but others simply like to be entertained. So, in order to increase their good fortune, the local Chinese will provide food, operas, and dances for the spirits who take a vacation from their other-worldly dwelling.
To help guide the spirits to the places of entertainment, the Chinese place triangle-shaped flags, like the one pictured above, near tents or stands where shrines are set up during Ghost Month. More flags denote you are getting closer to the actual location of the festival.

Jennifer's trainer, who is of Chinese descent, excitedly exclaimed "Jennifer, you'll be so excited! Hell has opened up!", and then warned us not to venture outside while Ghosts are roaming the world. We were so curious, that Jennifer, Craig and I attended the Penang State Hungry Ghost Festival at a local park a few minutes from our house anyway, just to experience the excitement.

The temporary shrine pictured above was set up specifically for the Hungry Ghost Festival. It is actually a representation of hell, and once you enter in, you are in hell. Jennifer, Craig and I all went in. Don't worry, we didn't stay there. The large figure against the back wall is a representation of Ti Kuan, the deity who is ruler of hell, or more accurately, the spirit world. In the Hungry Ghost tradition, all the departed go to hell. While Ti Kuan's demeanor may look frightening, he's actually merciful, which is why he allows the deceased souls to re-enter the realm of the living once a year. Located in front on the tables are offerings of fruit, drinks, incense, and other representations of earthly goods that departed souls may not be able to get in the spirit realm.

One of the traditional forms of entertainment is opera, pictured above. It is very different from Western style operas, with high vibratos, Chinese string instruments, gongs, and so forth. The costumes were extremely well done, and the performers were very good. We didn't catch the plot because it was sung in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, but from what we could tell the man dressed in black had kidnapped the true heir to the queen's throne in an attempt to claim the monarchy for himself. It was really interesting, albeit loud.

Following the opera, we saw a traditional Chinese Lion dance. The orange and white lions pranced around to the beat of a large Chinese drum. Craig really liked it.

After the Lions had provided their entertainment, the dragon came out. The dragon chased all of the spirits back into the spirit realm, at which point it was closed up for the night. It was really awesome to see the 50 foot dragon being carried about. The movements were so well choreographed that it appeared to move as a natural animal, not a cloth and stick representation held aloft by dancers.

Providing for the Hungry Ghosts is not just an act done in large state sponsored festivals. The picture above is a small offering made outside the front door of an apartment in Georgetown. You can see the burnt remnants of offerings (paper representations of physical goods that dead people might need) as well as bits of food and incense. On certain nights during Ghost Month, entire streets will be littered with burning incense and spent ashes from offerings made to one's ancestors.

Shrines can also pop up at seemingly random places. One shrine was set up at Jennifer's favorite street market, with the representation of hell being somewhat close to the fish mongers. It's all in an effort to honor one's ancestors and hopefully bring luck and fortune to the living.


  1. I'm glad you guys made it out of hell alive :) What an interesting place you live!

  2. PS - I want to see pictures of Craigy's first day of school, Jennifer's new-do, and your vacay you took last weekend. GET BLOGGING!