What You Should Know About the Hungry Ghost Festival in Singapore

Credit: Peter Novak @  Messy Nessy

Credit: Peter Novak @ Messy Nessy

If you are new to Singapore, you might not have heard of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Yet.

So if you happen to be around here in 7th lunar month (August), open your eyes wide and watch around you! 

Chances are, you will notice the national flag everywhere, decorating houses, HDBs, condos and tall buildings. 

August 9th is the date when Singapore celebrates its independence from Malaysia. But while enjoying the patriotic decor, be careful to not trip over the offerings in the middle of the sidewalk… 

Every year, on the first day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Chinese believe that the gates of hell are open. That means that spirits from the lower realm are released to roam wherever they please. This lasts until the end of August.

Although considered an unfavourable month - where there are hardly any weddings and real estate transactions in the city, this year it coincides with Singapore's largest celebration, the National Day Parade (NDP).

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HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL IN SINGAPORE 

Watch out, people! At this time, evil spirits might come back to haunt the world of the living. 

Since I moved to Singapore, this question has always intrigued me. Who were these evil souls, finally?

In Malaysia and Singapore, there are a few legends about a woman who died during childbirth. She is called Pontianak. According to the tales, she became a vampire and today lives inside banana trees.

In some remote places in Malaysia, people do not even extend clothes in the yard at night, as they believe that Pontianak is attracted to the smell of clothes.

She is also known for killing men using her fingernails to rip off their organs.

Well, I always imagined that hungry ghosts had something to do with mysterious mythological beings. 

I was mistaken.

WHO ARE THE HUNGRY GHOSTS?

The hungry ghosts are souls of ancestors who would possibly return to earth in search of food and material needs. 

That means that any deceased family member could fit in that category.

It’s the job of the living beings to keep their ghosts entertained, well-fed and taken care of.

Credit: Patti Neves

Credit: Patti Neves

I understand that Asians have always had a respectful relationship with their ancestors.

Just look at the Japanese, who borrowed the Chinese custom of worshipping their ancestors. They often keep fresh fruits, flowers and cooked rice on altars inside the houses.

A few days ago I finally took my courage in hands and asked my Singaporean friend:

So, have you prepared your offerings?

She laughed and said she did not believe in this syncretic version of Buddhism, mixed with ancestor worship.

Then she gave me a very serious look and said:

How the spirits of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, to whom we owe so much respect, can become evil ghosts only for a few weeks a year?

We laughed about it. This was my next question…

HOW IS HUNGRY GHOST CELEBRATED?

Well, this is not a celebration.

People who believe in the power of hungry ghosts perform a series of rituals, mainly consisting of spreading offerings across the city's flowerbeds and sidewalks.

We also see incense sticks and food plates carefully put beside the entrance of a small business or even large skyscrapers, sometimes in the heart of the financial centre.

Some Chinese temples, such as the Thian Hock Keng, also offer special events inviting everyone to pray for a peaceful journey for their ancestors.

The ritual known as Yu Lan Pen, which means to absolve the souls from suffering, can be reserved online. Devotees can scan a QR code and pay 30 SGD per deceased relative.

Credit: Patti Neves

Credit: Patti Neves

GETAI CONCERTS

It is also common to spot getai concerts at this time of the year.

The music concerts are held at empty parking lots in the city's neighbourhoods. These shows are meant for wandering souls, but also living beings.

In the past, these performances were typically Chinese operas or puppet shows.

The particularity of these shows is that the front row seats are always left empty. These are reserved for evil spirits. 

No need to say that no one dares to occupy them.

According to the site Visit Singapore, with the decline of Chinese opera and traditional puppet shows, performances have evolved. 

The stages are now set with LED stages and illuminated panels. Some young and sexy performers not only sing traditional songs in dialects but also techno or pop versions in Mandarin. 

But you can still see some of these traditional presentations - or almost!

We spotted this completely random getai in Kuching, Malaysia.

Credit: Patti Neves

Credit: Patti Neves

HUNGRY GHOSTS OFFErings

Fruits, food, incense, and entertainment are always good, but they don’t seem to be enough to appease the hungriest of spirits.

Thus, it is common practice to burn money and material goods for the dead.

Curiously, some Taoists and Buddhists also believe that the deceased family member also needs money to meet the needs of the spirit world.

But for the Chinese, burning cash also can bring bad luck. So how to you solve the impasse?

It’s simple! Producing fake money made from joss paper, a type of bamboo or rice paper. This money is called hell money.

There are stores in Singapore where you can find an incredible variety of material goods, reproduced in the smallest detail:

Miniature cars (BMWs or Mercedes, of course) iPhones or iPads, clothing - or even luxury goods like Chanel bags or Louis Vuitton shoes.

All made of paper, ready to be burned!

Credit: Patti Neves

Credit: Patti Neves

Some temples have special drawers for burning joss paper.

A few days ago I was taking a stroll in Chinatown when I saw the most amazing thing. A traditional store which was selling kits with dental supplies and bras.

I didn’t know that it was even possible to have bad breath in the underworld.

We, expats in Singapore, find all this very curious, but this business is far from being a joke in Asia.

In the Taiwan temples alone, the annual revenue reported from the burning paper tradition was estimated to be $ 400 million in 2014.

TABOO LIST

Are you afraid of ghosts? 

If you want to avoid them, try the recommendations below (extracted from the website Feng Shui).

  1. Avoid swimming this month. It is believed that those who died in the water can pull you down into the pool or lakes. The drowned ghost needs to find victims before they can reborn.

  2. Children and young adults are advised to come home early and not to walk alone at night. Wandering ghosts can possess young people more easily.

  3. Avoid moving to new homes and starting new businesses this month as it is considered unlucky.

  4. Avoid getting married during this month. Some evil ghosts can cast a spell and the marriage will end badly.

  5. Avoid jungle trekking or camping as chances of injury, possession and death are high.

  6. Drive very carefully this month as many wandering spirits have died from accidents. They are also looking for the next victims to reincarnate.

  7. Secure the entrance to your home with the genuine peachwood sword. This is an excellent protector against ghosts and evil spirits, evidently sold on the website listed above.

  8. Avoid starting any construction work or performing renovation repairs on the home.

  9. Avoid spitting and blowing your nose on the street or any tree/plant.

  10. Do not leave open wounds as this will attract ghosts. Keep them closed with band-aids all the time.

  11. Do not make negative comments or jokes about the offerings on the streets. Don't make fun of Chinese opera (or empty community chairs).

  12. Do not take anything, including money, found on the street and never, under any circumstances, take these items home.

  13. Avoid feeling emotional and crying in the middle of the night. A weak and sad mind allows ghosts to possess and harm them.

  14. Do not whistle after sunset. This will attract the attention of ghosts making you permanently unlucky.

  15. Stay away from the walls as ghosts are believed to like to stick to the walls.

  16. If you were born during the ghost month, avoid celebrating your birthday at night and blowing out your cake. It is better to celebrate during the day.

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TABOO LIST FOR TRAVELLERS

Don't think that just “passing through Singapore” or being away on this time will exempt you from them!

Those travelling should be cautious when staying in hotels. The hotel is considered to be a yin place and is one of the favourite places for lost souls.

Below are some tips to avoid haunted encounters:

  1. Give a respectful knock on the hotel room door before you enter.

  2. Avoid entering the room immediately. Whisper to yourself that you are renting the room to stay temporarily as a way of asking permission.

  3. Put your pair of shoes or sandals facing the door. The shoes should be away from the bed. One side of the shoe points to the door and the other side points inwards.

  4. Put a glass of saltwater next to your bed. Salt is an excellent antidote to negative energy.

  5. Wash the toilet before using it.

  6. Avoid black or red clothes.

  7. There is usually a bible or a Koran in the drawers. Avoid touching or moving them from their original positions.

  8. Always keep the bathroom door closed with the lights off when you go to sleep.

  9. Try to avoid sleeping in front of the mirror. If the mirror is designed this way, cover with a towel.

  10. Avoid placing any shoes by the bed when sleeping.

  11. Be careful with what you say. Ghost storytelling should be avoided at all costs this month.

  12. Have with you a sword made of peach wood. It must be made of real peach wood.

CURIOSITIES THAT CAN AFFECT LIFE IN SINGAPORE

It is not uncommon in Singapore for some taxi drivers to refuse to drive through certain areas of the city during this period.

Places where many people have died (such as wars) or winding roads are avoided at all costs, especially at night.

For a complete list, see the list of haunted roads in Singapore.

Examples include Lim Chu Kang Road, Punggol Road, Old Upper Thomson and South Buona Vista Road.

If you live near these roads… well, I don't know what to tell you.

hungry-ghost-festival-in-singapore

For two years I worked in the Science Park area, so I went through South Buona Vista at least 10 times a week. Even during the hungry ghost.

This area is near Opium Hill, a place where bloody battles took place against the Japanese during World War II.

I was lucky enough to survive. Maybe just to write this article and warn you about it!

WHERE TO EXPERIENCE HUNGRY GHOST IN SINGAPORE

  • Just go for a walk in Chinatown. You will spot offerings at random places. My favourite temple is the Thian Hock Keng, perfect for observing some rites as well.

  • Go to the Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple. Devotees gather at this Taoist temple on Arumugam Road, near Paya Lebar Road, during the hungry ghost festival. Among the temple festivities, there is a popular auction of auspicious items as well as variety shows.

  • Take a look in the Asia Paranormal Investigators (API) website. Founded in 2005, this is the region's paranormal research society. They are the Singaporean ghostbusters.

  • Go for a walk around Bukit Brown, the city's oldest Chinese cemetery, where more than 100,000 people were buried. The Chinese believe it is necessary to bury the dead with their backs against the mountain to let them have a clear and unobstructed view in front.

Credit: Patti Neves

Credit: Patti Neves

A lot of people feel apprehensive about taking a stroll in the cemetery, imagining that they will find wandering souls there, but in my case I only found monkeys.

Or were they gargoyles?

Bad jokes aside, watch out for graveyard dogs. Some of them can be very aggressive and there are reports of attacks. This is what you should be concerned about.

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