Hungry Ghost Festival: What 5 traditional paper offerings in Singapore represent, from dragon boats to ancient clothes

  • People burn different types of joss paper to help spirits in the realm of the dead go on holiday, make new clothes, let go of grievances and more
  • In Singapore, the Hokkien, Fujian and Cantonese communities are so integrated that they adopt elements of each other’s culture, including their traditional offerings
Doris Wai |

Latest Articles

Top 10: What habits did you grow out of as you got older?

Taoists and Buddhists believe burning paper offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival will help the spirits in the netherworld. Photo: Shutterstock

Observed by many Taoists and Buddhists in certain East and Southeast Asian countries, the Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the seventh lunar month of every year. During this period, also known as Ghost Month, spirits are believed to revisit the land of the living, particularly on the 15th night, Ghost Day, which falls on August 12 this year.

In Singapore, it’s common to see people burn a variety of joss papers as offerings to the dead. Ong Ming Khoon – the third-generation owner of Chye Seng Joss Paper, a supply company for religious ceremonies in Singapore – explains five common types of paper offerings and what they represent.

According to Ong, Singapore’s Hokkien, Fujian and Cantonese communities are so integrated that the different groups adopt elements of each other’s culture, including their traditional paper offerings. Thus, the city state’s Hungry Ghost Festival traditions will look slightly different from other places like Hong Kong.

This art is on fire: the craftsman behind these chicken wing paper offerings

1. Soul permit pass

Before spirits can even collect the offerings, they must first cross from the realm of the dead to the world of the living, and to do so, they need a “passport”.

The soul permit pass is a document that allows ghosts to leave the underworld during the seventh lunar month and ensures that they return on the festival’s last day. Some people believe burning more soul permit passes will bring them wealth and prosperity.

Spirits need soul permit passes to enter our world during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Photo: Handout

2. Seven-coloured paper

As its name suggests, this stack of paper offerings usually consists of seven different colours – red, orange, yellow, green, white, blue and pink. These sheets are meant to be pieces of fabric, and after they are burned, it is believed that these papers will become brightly-coloured strips of cloth, which can then be used by the deceased.

If you were a spirit, what clothes would you make with seven-coloured paper? Photo: Handout

Behind the scenes at the Hungry Ghost Festival, here’s what you need to know

3. Reincarnation dragon boat

The netherworld is thought to be similar to ours, and just like us, the deceased also yearn to go on holiday. Many people will burn special dragon boats that can take spirits on a leisure trip.

These boats are folded from yellow reincarnation paper, which is printed with special incantations and scriptures. As Taoists and Buddhists believe we live multiple lives, these papers help increase the blessings of the dead, and this speeds up the reincarnation process so that spirits can move beyond the afterlife and be reborn.

Yellow reincarnation paper (left) is folded into blocks to assemble dragon boats, which will take the dead on holiday. Photo: Handout

4. Relief mantra wheel paper

While this may look similar to yellow reincarnation paper, the relief mantra wheel paper serves a very different purpose. The mantra printed on the dharma wheel of this offering is meant to dispel any grievances and resentments a soul might carry so that it can return to the netherworld in peace.

Relief mantra wheel paper helps spirits return to the realm of the dead in peace. Photo: Handout

5. Ancient clothes

The first thing you might notice about this paper offering is that it depicts many different essential items such as clothes, boots, scissors and umbrellas. If you look closely, the items are also divided into sections for men and women.

These ancient clothes offerings are usually reserved for homeless, wandering spirits who do not have any living relatives to burn offerings for them. People who are honouring their loved ones usually choose to burn more elaborate clothing and accessories.

Ancient clothes offerings are usually burned for spirits who have no living relatives. Photo: Handout
Sign up for the YP Teachers Newsletter
Get updates for teachers sent directly to your inbox
By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy