Singapore in August can be an eerie place with the sound of wailing and wisps of smoke filling the nighttime sky. The arrival of the Hungry Ghost Festival is marked by various rites and rituals as believers of Buddhism and Taoism welcome visitors from the spirit world. For about one month, pedestrians must dodge candles lining the footpath and random plates of food on the ground as followers make elaborate offerings of food, paper money and entertainment to the departed.
The festival is celebrated by Buddhists as a time to comfort and remember deceased family members who have come back to ‘visit’. Taoists believe that during this time, ‘wandering spirits’ let out from the netherworld must be appeased and ‘fed’ so they do not cause trouble or misfortune. This inauspicious month has many superstitions still observed by some Chinese such as refraining from moving house, getting married and even swimming. In fact, some say that non-Chinese may even benefit from buying a house during this time due to less competition!
This festival has made a great impression on me since I started living in a housing development estate in the older suburb of Toa Payoh. I’ve been amazed by the array of practices carried out around my neighborhood and keen to learn more. Last year, my daughter and I watched the Chinese opera troupes singing at a stage set up right outside my apartment building. We felt sorry for the performers as no-one seemed interested in listening to them despite their determined singing for hours in the heat. I hung around taking photos of preparations for some kind of party at the apartment block opposite but was too shy to ask any questions.
It seems that my ‘kaypo’ (sticky beak) presence was noticed by locals and this year I was honoured to get two invites to attend the same block party! One was from ‘Ah Pong’, a friendly neighbour who works at the nearby mini-mart and is the neighborhood beacon for intelligence and gossip. I’m only assuming this as I’ve yet to actually exchange more than a few sentences with her in Mandarin. I attempt to chat with Ah Pong at least twice a day when I pass by her shop on the way to childcare. She’s always got health advice for me and biscuits for my kids and I feel lonely during the day if I can’t hear her booming voice from the sixth floor of my apartment! I also got an invite from an Indian Singaporean ‘brother’, who is interestingly one of the few non-Chinese living here.
I bought my ticket from Ah Pong’s shop despite feeling that $100 price was a bit steep. Over the next few days, I saw the large marquee erected and small shrines set up inside. A large number of red plastic buckets appeared outside Ah Pong's shop and were gradually filled with a variety of goodies. I was surprised to see very practical items including household staples such as oil, rice, biscuits and fruit. I then realised that the ticket price covered the banquet as well as enough basics to last quite a while.
On the morning, a Wayang Chinese opera troupe began their performances at the outdoor theatre. My two-year-old son didn’t think much of them but we stayed to watch for while. Like last year, there wasn’t a soul around (that we could see!) but the singers took their job very seriously and were there for several hours. Before the banquet started, they came over to the marquee and to pray at the shrines set up inside. I also saw a man chopping up piles of cold meat - I guess that it had been offered to the deceased in the afternoon and was then being cut up to give to guests. I was told to take a pack home and saw that it contained several kinds of cold meat.
That evening, I brought along my children and sat with Ah Pong. Our table was at the back and it gave us a birds-eye view of staff preparing food on site. University students had also been hired to serve us and my children got an orange ‘moustache’ caused on the bright orange soft-drink! We should have come starving as there was a lot of food and strongly urged to eat it all up! I hear that there are usually 8-10 courses and it seemed like at least that many.The food was very mild without any chilli and a lot like the banquet food I’ve had at Chinese weddings.
The cheerful announcers at the banquet used a mixture of Mandarin and Hokkien - none of which I understood but I got the general gist of things. A brisk auction got underway as ‘lucky’ items including a bunch of leeks, charcoal, a giant baked cake, whiskey and framed LED flashing pictures containing images of banknotes were sold off. Ah Pong urged me to get something by saying, ‘money buys money’ and that I could pay up next year! When it came time to announce the wine, the auctioneers suddenly announced in English that the wine was ‘made in New Zealand’! Apparently the money raised in the auction is used to subsidise the banquet for the following year and some also given to charity.
We really enjoyed the atmosphere and it was nice to feel part of the community despite not understanding much. My direct neighbours looked amused to hear that we had attended the party as I told them of my experiences. When I chatted to a Peranakan neighbour with an English education, he commented that he didn’t partake in such ‘Chinese’ things. A nearby Chinese shopkeeper who runs a soybean stall and is a ‘freethinker’ (this is Singaporean for atheist or non-domination) said that he had never even been to such an event. It’s fascinating to hear about the individual differences between Singapore Chinese themselves towards various customs. As an outsider, I must admit that rituals I didn’t grow up with always seem more interesting than those back home - and my family is certainly always learning something in this established nook of old-time Singapore!