- According to Chinese tradition, the spirits of the dead are able to wander the Earth during the seventh month of the lunar calendar
- While the celebration is observed in Hong Kong and mainland China, people in Singapore and Malaysia take the holiday more seriously
The Hungry Ghost Festival kicks off today, and according to Chinese tradition, the spirits of the dead are believed to return to wander about. On this day–the 15th day of the seventh month under the lunar calendar– worshippers burn paper offerings to the souls who make a short return from the afterlife.
While you may know what Hong Kong worshippers do on this day, do you know what people do in Singapore?
Young Post spoke to Chua Yongsheng, who has helped his parents run New Shuang Rong Trading, a religious ceremonial supply company in Singapore for more than two decades, to find out more.
When and why did your parents decide to run this business?
My family has been involved in temples, prayers and these sort of religious ceremonies since I was young. And when we had to provide offerings for different occasions, we decided to set up our own business. This started out as a business venture between my father and uncle, but after some conflicts, they decided to go their separate ways. That was back in 1999 and we have since expanded from a retailer to a designer of these goods.
How would you describe how Chinese Singaporeans celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival to Hongkongers who are new to this tradition?
Singaporeans and Malaysians are quite particular about this festival. But from what I know, people in Hong Kong and mainland China are not so into it. It’s probably because of the culture, and also the different types of marketing and events involved. In Singapore and Malaysia, getais (temporary live stage performances held to entertain spirits during the Ghost Festival) are a huge thing . The performances are meant for ghosts but over the years, they have become popular with people too, and that’s one of the reasons why the Hungry Ghost Festival is such a huge event here.
How do Chinese Singaporeans celebrate this festival?
They burn offerings for the deceased, spirits and also deities, and there are celebrations and prayers held after.
What is the significance of making these offerings?
In the simplest terms, these offerings are made to get ping an (for peace and to ensure those who make the offerings stay safe and sound). Basically, we believe that when someone passes away, they will go to another world and the next generation will burn them offerings that they can use over in the other realm. Those who do not have children to burn these offerings will become wandering ghosts, and the Hungry Ghost Festival is mainly for the benefit of these wandering ghosts. It’s just like how things operate in this world – some of those who don’t have food and money end up robbing others. The Chinese believe the same goes for the nether world, and so they burn these offerings to appease the hungry ghosts.
Are there special days in the lunar calendar, which are especially important during this festival?
The 15th day of the seven lunar month is also called Zhong Yuan Jie, which is also the birthday of Di Guan Da Di – one of the three deities in Taoist mythology who controls the fate of mankind. Di Guan Da Di is also known as the ruler of earth and pardoner of sins. People believe he visits earth on this day every year to record the good and evil deeds of each person. On this day especially, believers visit temples to repent for their sins and pray for happiness, and priests perform rituals and make food offerings.
Is the 15th day of the seven lunar month the only day hungry ghosts can receive the offerings?
They can receive them throughout the month and the ghosts take turns to come out to receive offerings during this period. That said, there are a lot of different customs and beliefs around the festival depending on one’s dialect, with some saying all the ghosts can only leave the netherworld during a particular three-day grace period – which starts on the 15th day of the lunar month (August 22).
What kind of food offerings do people give with the paper offerings?
These are usually laid out together with the paper offerings before they are burnt. It can basically be whatever you’d eat. The more common ones are uncooked rice, noodles, and fruit. For Taoist deities – a whole animal (can be chicken/duck/pork) is usually offered.
In terms of paper offerings, what sorts of things are burnt?
Money and clothing are the essentials.
How have the designs of the clothing and money changed in the last couple of years?
The sort of money and clothes that are offered to the wandering spirits have stayed traditional all these years. It’s only those that are burnt for deceased family members and loved ones during the Ching Ming festival in April that have become modernised. That’s where you find your Hermes scarves, iPhones, and Tiffany and Co jewellery - basically things they would have used and worn or what they wanted when they were alive.
Are there new types of offerings for people to burn during the Hungry Ghost Festival?
I don’t think so. For this festival especially, people have mostly stuck to the traditional rituals over the years. But I think we can look to innovate and maybe offer new money in the future, such as crypto currency.
What are the best-selling paper offerings for Hungry Ghost Festival?
It’s actually a package that most paper offering stores have. It consists of joss paper ingots, money and traditional clothes. Some people will burn more offerings, especially if they are a business owner. They believe that appeasing these hungry ghosts will bring them good luck and prosperity, so they usually burn more. Also, it might be because they take inflation in the netherworld into consideration too.
What sorts of deities do people burn offerings to?
These are mainly Chinese deities, such as Tian Gong (the Jade Emperor), Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity), Guan Yin; and also some deities from the netherworld, such Dua Di Ya Peh, who is in charge of escorting the spirits of the dead to the underworld.
The interesting part about Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore is that it is practised by other religions, not just Taoists and Buddhists (who only burn joss stick and offerings to deities instead of ghosts). I have many Chinese Christian and Catholic customers who burn offerings too.