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Aug 18, 2012

Festival of the Hungry Ghosts

七月 "Qi Yue" (7th Month) Hungry Ghost Festival.  A short documentary.

A short documentary about the individual beliefs on paranormal activities during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Director: Valerie Sing Producer: Nicole Nonis Shot: Welven Tan Post-Production: Cherie Chong, Welven Tan; Raudhatul Jannah. Uploaded by WelvenRealm on Nov 11, 2011

Conducted by the 92 year-old temple organisation 修德善堂 at Singapore Ngee Ann City's Civic Plaza on Orchard Road. The altar is covered red with fabric, embroidered in gold thread, worth $1 million. 3-day thanksgiving ceremony praying for world peace, good fortune and racial harmony. Uploaded by OperafanSingapore on May 11, 2008.

Source: Christine Chng on 16 August, 2012. (Come

The Hungry Ghost Festival can be said to be the Chinese equivalent of Halloween. At the seventh month of the lunar calendar, approximately around August to September, Chinese believe that wandering spirits are unleashed from the gates of hell and return to earth in search for their loved ones.

As a reunion of sorts, living relatives often come eagerly prepared for their arrival with a variety of customs and to pay their respects. As these spirits have been imprisoned in hell, they are hungry and poor. To satisfy the spirits and ward off bad luck, large meals are cooked and left out on altars as offerings to appease the visiting spirits. Food offerings are also left on the roads and outside houses for homeless spirits and to stop them from entering other houses.

Along with the festival also comes the constant scent of burnt goods in the air and scattered ashes. These are the remnants of joss sticks that have been burnt, hell money as well as houses, cars, televisions and phones made of paper to aid the spirits in their afterlife to live well and comfortably.

Of course with spirits running rampant, there are those who seek to cause harm and mischief towards innocent victims. As we are unable to see them with our own eyes, a large list of do's-and-don'ts are usually reiterated every year for caution. Such rules involve avoiding swimming because drowned spirits will seek to harm you the same way and avoid wandering spirits who can possess you by heading home early and staying away from deserted trails. New businesses, new marriages and moving into new homes are disallowed as they will be doomed to fail, and bright colours like red should not be worn as it will attract the spirits to you.

Despite the sombre feel, perhaps one of the more interesting things to see during the Hungry Ghost Festival are the nightly performances that occur throughout the country in various neighbourhoods. The sudden appearance of makeshift wooden stages in the middle of open fields are erected every now and again for singing performances and Chinese opera. While the show is meant to entertain the returning spirits, with the first row reserved for them, living viewers are also invited as performers revisit the good old classics of the yesteryears. Getai performances, which literally means 'singing on stage' in Chinese, consist of artistes dressed in elaborate costumes, singing popular Hokkien and Cantonese songs to entertain the spirits.

Chinese opera shows called wayang are also performed on the stages. These lively performances are often accounts of Chinese folklore and consist of rich and colourful heritage ranging from the symbolism of the costumes they wear to the significance of various hand gestures. Interested parties may also want to check out the Painted Faces guided tour for a better appreciation for Chinese wayang. At the end of the month, to see the ghosts off, a paper sculpture of Taai Si Wong; the policeman spirit, paper offerings and other goods are incinerated in a giant bonfire to seal them in, at least until next year.
Ngee Ann City on Orchard Road., Singapore, an office complex and shopping mall, is the Kongsi’s flagship commercial property and was built in 1993.   The complex sits on part of the old Tai Shan Ting cemetery, cleared in 1957 with large portions later acquired by the government, and other parts leased out to tenants to develop buildings such as Mandarin Hotel. The site was previously occupied by a 10-storey Ngee Ann Building, which was demolished in 1985.

Originating from the Teochew prefecture in China’s province of Guangdong, the Teochew people formed a large portion of Chinese migrants to Singapore in the early 19th century. In 1830, prominent Teochew businessman Seah Eu Chin (佘有进) gathered 13 Teochew clans (grouped by surname) including his own and established a religious observance and social welfare organisation named Ngee Ann Kun (义安郡). The organisation, named after an ancient term for the Teochew prefecture, raised funds to acquire land for temples and burial grounds.  In 1845, the cooperative was renamed Ngee Ann Kongsi with Seah serving as president, a post he held until his death. Seah was succeeded by his sons and later his grandson, Seah Eng Tong (佘应忠). The Kongsi’s accounts were kept private by the Seah family, and undisclosed even to other members.

The Kongsi also oversaw the burial of Teochews who died in Singapore, and purchased multiple plots of land to use as cemeteries. Over the years, many of these cemeteries have been cleared by the government for development. The unclaimed remains of some 20,000 burials from the exhumed cemeteries have been cremated and stored at the Teochew Memorial Park, set up by the Kongsi in Yishun.

How do the living communicate with the dead, the "ghosts"of other realms communicate with the human?

How was the huge plot of  land at Ngee Ann City, once upon a time the cemetery of Teochew ancestors  in Orchard Road,  over a long period of discussion, consultation, "negotiation" for the resettlement of their "homes" from Orchard Road to Yishun?

In the month of August, the Chinese in Singapore observe a large-scale tradition of paying respects to the dead. Taoist Chinese believe that during this month, the “Gates of Hell” are opened and souls of the dead are freed and allowed to roam the earth.

The best places to watch how the traditional rites are practised in Singapore are in the soul of the heartlands, where fellow believers congregate to burn incense sticks and present their offerings in the form of prayer, fruit such as Mandarin oranges, food such as roasted suckling pig, bowls of rice and occasionally a local Chinese cake made especially for the occasion. It is not uncommon to see various forms of tentage set up in open fields during this period, for the Chinese also believe in entertaining the spirits with boisterous live wayang and getai performances not only depicting tales of the divine gods and goddesses,

What Is the Hungry Ghost Month?

The Hungry Ghost Month (鬼月, Guǐ Yuè) or (中元節, Zhōng Yuán Jie) is held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (August 31, 2012).

During this month, it is believed the king of hell opens the gates of hell to allow ghosts to visit the living world. It is the only time of year that ghosts are released to freely roam the Earth. The hungry ghosts, also called good brethren, are believed to be ancestors of people who were not given a proper funeral or burial. People also give sacrifices to anonymous ghosts to keep them away and from harming them.

It is believed that during this time, the souls of the unborn and that of departed ancestors and friends are released from Purgatory to wander the earth for 30 days. The souls of the dead ignored by relatives may do acts of mischief, so steps must be taken to appease the spirits before they go on a rampage. Hell money, paper offerings and joss sticks are burnt to see to their material needs; food is offered so that the souls do not go hungry and thus less likely to wreak havoc. Neighbourhood celebration dinners or zhong yuan (popularly known as getai) are held on the feast day, with auctions of goods, operas and song performances being part of the festivities. The Buddhists and the Taoists have different ways of celebrating the feast. As ghosts are believed to dominate events, no auspicious activities such as weddings and business launches are held during this period.

Legend - Mu Lian
The story of Mu Lian, who tried to save his mother from Hell, is connected to this festival. Mu Lian was reputedly a favourite disciple of Buddha. However his mother had broken her vow of abstention from meat-eating and was cursed to suffer the afflictions of hungry ghosts in Purgatory. Although filial Mu Lian offered rice to his dead mother, hungry ghosts would consume it before she could eat it. In anguish, Mu Lian appealed to Buddha for help. Buddha pointed out that only the monks of the Ten Directions could save her. They had to prepare all kinds of food and items and offer them to the ancestors of the past seven generations on the 15th day of the 7th month. Thereafter, Mu Lian's mother was delivered from her torments. Learning filial piety in Buddhism here .

This blog is posted at the request of my foreign friends about  the "culture shock" of "Festival of Hungry Ghosts" when they arrived Singapore and ways done in the past for this traditional festival since I was a young boy in Bukit Ho Swee.

I have never seen a "hungry ghost" before, so how can I describe this to the foreigners or anyone else.

A friend once told me many years ago that his younger brother met a "Little Green Man Martian" in the nearby field on the grasses".  I cannot bluff him and said that he was talking nonsense. It wasn't me to prove to the world.

Many things on  this universe are unexplainable and has remained a mystery.  I am not a curious and adventurous person, compare people with people or trying to compare human with "hungry ghosts",

The following text from the Samyutta Nikaya came to mind:

Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambi in the Simsapa forest. Then, picking up a few Simsapa leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, “What do you think, monks: Which are more numerous, the few Simsapa leaves in my hand or those overhead in the Simsapa forest?”

“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, Lord. Those overhead in the forest are far more numerous.”

“In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are far more numerous [than what I have taught]. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.
 "Festival of Hungry Ghosts" in Singapore in the past

"Festival of Hungry Ghost" dinner and auction in 1974
"Festival of Hungry Ghosts" in 1999

NB: The archived photo credit to National Archives of Singapore with thanks and acknowledgement to share with everyone on this blog.



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