Written and photographed by Maureen Mai.
I recently had a great experience attending a Singapore tour on the Hungry Ghost Festival through the AWA Singapore (American Women’s Association of Singapore). The Hungry Ghost Month is an old Chinese tradition stemming from Buddhism and Taoism beliefs to honor gods and their ancestors during the seventh lunar month of each year. In 2019, the Hungry Ghost Month is from August 1 to 29. As folklore suggests, this is when ghosts get a month-long vacation from the underworld to visit local neighborhoods. To appease these ghosts, often referred to as “good brothers,” the neighbors offer food and entertainment for their honored guests. Keeping the spirits entertained reduces the risk that they will play “trick-or-treat” on the living.
(The tour started at the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.)
Our tour started at the famous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore’s Chinatown. After an introduction and brief history by our Singaporean guide, we soon made our way to Yum Cha for a delicious dim sum dinner. We also viewed a store where you could purchase some paper offerings for burning.
The official Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as Chung-Yuan (or Zhong Yuan), happens on the 15th lunar day. This year, Chung-Yuan happens to fall on August 15, the day when the ghosts are the most active. It’s a time when many Singaporean neighborhoods pray for good luck for the spirits and burn offerings. People will use urns to burn these offerings, which are usually bright red or silver. The offerings can consist of a select denomination of ghost money, real food, and sometimes tiny houses, computers, mobile phones, and cars, all made out of paper for natural burning. Be careful not to step on or disturb any of the offerings or prayer items displayed on the ground. And remember not to pick up any stray coins off of the street. It’s part of the ritual for coins to be left for the roaming spirits.
(A satisfying dim sum meal before choosing some firecrackers for the festival.)
During this time, there are many activities that people who observe this tradition will avoid. You will see a decrease in weddings. Clothes will not be hung out to dry overnight so that the spirits won’t be tempted to try them on. People will refrain from going camping or hiking. People will not stay out too late at night and prefer to return home before sunset. Some will wait to purchase a house, postpone travel, and avoid going swimming, especially in the sea.
There are neighborhood gatherings, known as Getai, with stage entertainment, food, and drink, and of course, mediums who give out gold coins, sweet treats, and occasionally share their drinks. During this time, the neighborhoods are exceptionally welcoming and hospitable. Just don’t sit in the front row during the stage performances. Those VIP seats are to remain empty for the hungry ghosts! You may even get a chance to cross the bridge into the other realm. Here you can experience a haunted house exhibit similar to what you would find at Halloween in the U.S.
Cross the bridge to go and experience the other realm. (Not suitable for young children.)
Are you planning a visit to Singapore? If you travel during July or August, you can join a local tour that will share the history of this cultural tradition. You may even get the opportunity to meet some of the hospitable Singaporeans who will welcome you to observe this festival. For additional information, please visit the following link: Visit Singapore.
Note: The AWA Singapore is a sisterhood of women from around the world, who come together to enhance their Singapore experience through fun and fulfilling volunteer-run activities.
This is so cool, I had never known about this! I love the way they respect their visitors as such honored guests.
Honestly, I can’t wait to visit Singapore, it’s so colorful and traditional, but at the same time so modern and technologically developed. I think that I would love this festival even more than Halloween!
This is amazing, it reminds me of a Mexican Tradition, Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), because of all the offerings they leave. All your photographs are beautiful. I truly wish to be able to experience this myself one day, it would be a wonderful experience. Thank you for sharing this, it always shocks me how many differences AND similarities different cultures have.
Yes, I agree! When I travel, I’m always amazed at how many similarities there are among different cultures around the world.