Food for thought: the Hungry Ghost Festival of Singapore

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Henry Wu
Henry Wu is a final year student at Singapore Management University, majoring in economics. He finds joy in reading and writing, although not everyone can say the same while reading his writing.

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If you were to visit Singapore on the seventh month of the lunar calendar, you could be in for a very unusual experience. There will be no gentle afternoon breeze, just hot smoke with a serving of glowing embers. Instead of pristine streets, only piles upon piles of burning ashes lay in plain sight.

With the start of the Hungry Ghost Festival, Singapore is clean and attractive no more. Her once spotless alleys have disappeared overnight, turning into personal playgrounds for amateur arsonists. Houses and cars are deliberately set on fire, alongside jewellery and other prized items. Many are warned by elders not to return home late.

For many Singaporeans like myself, this opening of the Gates of Hell is neatly juxtaposed with the closing of our windows to keep our living quarters smoke-free. I do the same each year, but this year it hits a little different. I notice less activity on the streets, less burning, less smoke, presumably due to the government restrictions on social gatherings in public due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But a certain part of me couldn’t help thinking of another reason: maybe, just maybe, this festival has run its course in today’s modern society.

The Hungry Ghost Festival

Rooted in Buddhist and Taoist culture, the Hungry Ghost Festival is observed by the Chinese to honour memories of the dead, not unlike the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico, or those in the West celebrating the occasion of Halloween.

During this particular month, it is believed that the souls of the dead roam our surroundings. In order to appease them, food is left out in the open and offerings are made to ensure their needs are well taken care of, even in the afterlife. Special care is also taken to avoid unwanted attention, such as avoiding attire that is black or red, as they are said to be the most attractive colours for the dead. Water activities should similarly be avoided, in order to steer clear of vengeful spirits who drowned in their previous lives.

A quick visit on Singapore’s official tourism site also tells me that these ghosts can sometimes “get up to mischief”. My university course mate, Rui Guo, attests to that, and relates a story to me over lunch:

“I was on a Zoom meeting while walking back home. It was somewhat dark, I was plugged in to my earpiece, and I ended up stepping on a bao (steamed bun) at the roadside. I didn’t mean it,” he shrugged, before describing how, shortly after, he suddenly faced issues with his call. “No one could hear me even though I was clearly unmuted and talking.”

It was a peculiar incident, but being a skeptic, I ran through the many possible alternate explanations. Maybe a drop in the mobile network, or a weak Bluetooth connection? He seemed to sense my doubts, and grinned, “Honestly, this kind of stuff? For me, it’s best to believe. If you don’t believe, it’s okay, but you’d better not say it out, or you will end up offending our brothers.”

He was of course referring to the spirits. The short conversation served as a stark reminder of how discussions around these topics were often unwelcome in my conservative society. My parents would often react the same way when I was a young boy with questions on such practices. In essence, I was to ask less, and to figure it out on my own when I grew up.

Changing concerns

In recent years, however, skepticism around the Hungry Ghost Festival has evolved into something more tangible than invisible spirits. The younger generation is increasingly concerned about the social and environmental impact of the festival. Each year, without fail, pictures of joss paper strewn in public areas are uploaded to discussion forums like Reddit, where online netizens shame and decry such inconsiderate actions.

Doubts have also been cast on the necessity of the festival, especially in this age of climate change and global warming. Rather than fear, the Hungry Ghost Festival appears to now be more likely to elicit public outrage, instead.

I showed Rui Guo a news article on cleaners having to clean up the streets during the festival. He responded: “Nothing wrong with the festival itself, just the people!”

Each year, countless of notices and reminders are issued by the town councils to urge observers to carry out their practices in a responsible manner. In preparation for the festival, eco-burners and designated incense containers are set up well ahead of time in public areas. From my own visits to the local columbarium, I also noted the availability of closed furnaces, where the air is passed through several filters before being released, keeping the discharge of harmful pollutants to the minimal.

A lit match

It seemed to me that these practices could be carried out in a sustainable way, but for the poor conduct of our very own citizens. Maybe taking a punitive approach might work? After all, Singapore is known for being a nation of laws, such as the recent one on having to clear our food trays and table litter when dining out. If years of extensive education cannot change mindsets and civic mindedness, perhaps it would be worthwhile to strengthen enforcement efforts instead.

I posed the question to Rui Guo, who agreed initially before reminding me that it is likely observers might still avoid the common public burners to preserve a sense of exclusivity. He jokes, “What if the Ferrari goes to someone else instead?”

More than meaningless

Rui Guo told me I was seeing things through the lens of a non-believer, and that I had a static understanding of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Although it was designed for the dead spirits, it is very much a ritual for the living as well, and these practices are not meaningless vestiges of tradition, as many may think so.

For many, the festival’s underlying idea of remembrance is what remains most important. It is an expression of respect for those before us, without whom we would not be here today. It is an opportunity for us to gather and connect with one another through shared experiences about our forefathers, be it stories of love, courage, and resilience.

For those who grieve and mourn the recent loss of their loved ones, it is a journey back into time, preparing the favourite food of their grandparents, or in rarer cases, of younger relatives they’ve lost. It is a way to regain control of their lives and soothe their wounds. It is also a poignant prompt to the living that one day, they too shall cross the bridge to join the abode of the dead, and that they should live their lives to the fullest while they still can.

These were perspectives that I had not associated with the Hungry Ghost Festival, and I started to appreciate the greater purpose behind what once seemed to be a pointless charade. In my attempt to learn more about the festival, I have seen for myself that there are reasons to retain it, as well as ways to balance the tides of modernity against the shores of tradition. More importantly, I learnt that while such rituals and practices may not be strictly necessary for survival, it is part of what makes us human, and on a more granular level, part of what makes us Singaporean.

Singapore as a nation has always thrived on being a melting pot of cultures and diversity. The Hungry Ghost Festival, for now, remains an unmistakable aspect of our heritage.

Many are hoping to keep it that way. Shops providing joss paper and offerings are finding ways to innovate, and keep coming up with intricate designs and improved products. Entertainment shows held during the festival, known as getai, have also shifted online, partly to avoid large gatherings of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, these attempts have not all been successful, with some choosing to put up their shutters for good. As interest continues to wane among the younger generation, the future ahead for the festival is as hazy as it gets.

One can only wonder, the next time the Gates of Hell open, are the hungry ghosts doomed to stay hungry?

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