To some people, speaking about life after death, hell and spirits are taboos that should be avoided. For others, it means another phase in the journey after death. To the Chinese community in Malaysia, during the month of August to early September is the period of honouring the deceased. According to Taoism belief, in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Gates of Hell will be opened for the wondering spirits to roam the earth and visit the living. It’s called Hungry Ghost Festival to the believers.

Usually, a week before the commencement of this festival, many Chinese organizations and temple associations in Malaysia will embark on this annual activity of erecting huge tents and stages for live performances on either empty fields or inside the temples. Such undertaking cost lots of money and is basically funded by its own members in the various associations/organizations. Sometimes, instead of organizing live performances (usually either Chinese opera or modern pop songs by young performers), traditional Chinese puppet shows can be witnessed.

A Koh Tai Performer Photo credit: Lim Soo Peng

A Koh Tai Performer
Photo credit: Lim Soo Peng

These performances are open to the public. It’s complimentary but the front seats will always remain vacant, courtesy of the organizers to their unexpected guest-of- honour. Believe it or not, those front rows are actually reserved for any “visiting spirits” – the VVIP patrons! Ignorant spectators seated on these reserved seats have been rumoured to fall sick, believed to be the result of unleashing the wrath of these “spirits”.

 

What is Hungry Ghost?

Hungry Ghost comes from a fusion of Buddhist, Taoist and Confusion teaching. In Buddhism, it is believed that world consist of six realms – one of them is called Preta which is loosely translated as “Hungry Ghost”. In this realm, the dwellers are said to be always hungry with insatiable appetite but they lack the means to either eat or drink. Hungry ghosts are ones that have been neglected by their living family for a long time, died unfairly or not been given proper send off when they died.

Hungry ghost festival offeringsPhoto credit:VKEONG.COM

Hungry ghost festival offerings
Photo credit: VKEONG.COM

Chinese tradition dictates that during this festival, besides food, families should provide offerings in the form of “hell money”, paper cloths (paper cars, houses and even servants are also not uncommon!) and also prayers to their deceased family members. These hell offerings are later burned to enable the departed souls to “use” them in their afterlife. Besides that, to appease neglected souls who may envy the living, a big feast is usually conducted at the huge tents erected on the empty fields or temples to appease the hungry and homeless ghosts.

Chinese Opera performance in Penang Island, MalaysiaPhoto credit:visitpenang.gov.my

Chinese Opera performance in Penang Island, Malaysia
Photo credit: visitpenang.gov.my

In the past, Chinese operas and puppet shows used to be very common but due to the declining interest in such performances and difficulty in finding trained performers, they have all been gradually replaced with newer type of entertainment for the living and the dead. Therefore, to the inquisitive mind during the hungry ghost festival every night near the venue, sounds of Chinese pop live music widely known as “Koh Tai” in Hokkien dialect can be heard blazing from the makeshift stage. The live performances are always a hit among the senior citizens who are always seen as among the die-hard fans attending the show almost daily.

Tai Su YeahPhoto credit:Nicholas Chan

Tai Su Yeah
Photo credit: Nicholas Chan

At the end of the festival, Tai Su Yeah (or King of Hades) in the form of paper effigies will be “sent back” to hell after the effigies are burnt. In some parts of Malaysia, the paper effigy will be placed in a sampan (small wooden boat) by the believers and burned as a medium to “transport” him back to hell. As the paper effigies are burnt, many worshipers will make their final prayers and hope that their ancestors or deceased family members are satisfied with their offerings this year.

For ethnic Chinese who adheres to this belief and living in Malaysia, it has become a part of their culture every year. There is nothing more satisfying to know that we are continuing this century old tradition of filial piety and honouring our ancestors that withstood the test of time and modern influence.

 

By KYLE TAN JIN SOON, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia

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