Thursday, September 03, 2009

Zhong Yuan Jie - Ghost Festival - in Chinatown

This year, Chinatown's Hungry Ghost Festival (Zhong Yuan Jie) has taken on a bigger plane, by offering to show and explain more about it to the interested locals as well as tourists (including expatriates). Many have seen the Zhong Yuan Jie and could not understand the myriad of details in this festival that involves both residents and business people. It did not help when the festival could have a Hokkien/Teochew or Cantonese flavour which are now coming closer and blurred into one Chinese event. The rituals conducted by the Taoist priests are quite different, in some aspects, when performed by different dialect groups.

To the 140 participants of the Chinatown Hungry Ghost Festival walking tours (on 31Aug and 1 Sep) led by veteran heritage tour guides Diana and Charlotte, it was an eye-opener. There was quite a number of locals in these groups as well.

During this 7th Lunar Month festival, there are a number of important dates for the Taoists and Folk Religionists. The Hokkien and Teochew would "welcome" the wandering souls on the first day of the 7th lunar month and then send them off on the last day of the 7th month. The cantonese would pray to them on the 14th day of the month. On the 15th day, many would conduct prayers. The Taoists would pay respect to Ti Guan (of the trio of Tian Guan, Di Guan and Shui Guan).

Since long ago when Singapore Chinese lived in villages or in enclaves of Singapore such as the Chinatown (there was the Teochew, Hokkien, and Cantonese parts of the greater Chinatown, the Hainanese being further away), someone in each community (sometimes more than one) would take the leadership to organise a Zhong Yuan Jie. In those days when most could not afford it, the residents would contribute on a subscription basis, ending with an amount big enough to have quite a hamper of food to bring back after prayers. To us children then, this was one of the few festivals where we could enjoy duck, chicken, pork and fruits. Today, these are taken for granted. The organisers were and still are very innovative in how they could organise bigger and bigger events each year, based on the subscription as well as money collected through auctions during the dinner.
In the business district, Zhong Yuan Jie is deemed as very important because the business people wants to have a safe place (from accidents) and roaring business. And so, they would contribute actively towards the organisation of the festival. Auctions during the dinner would be more boisterous as each company (the bosses) would try to outbid the other for important items, which could be a red banner with two lanterns or black gold (big charcoal). A small business community's Zhong Yuan Jie celebrations could easily run into tens of thousands of dollars. Certainly a good boost to the local economy in the mid-year doldrum.
Zhong Yuan Jie is a time when it is believed that the souls would be released from "Hell" (better known as Hades to avoid misintepretation). These could be the ancestors and wandering souls. To the living, it is a time to remember our beloved departed and ancestors and so, we make offerings as a gesture of our remembrance of them. No ancestors, we will not be here, and there will be no descendants. What about those who have been neglected for some reasons, some could be just the end of a lineage? It is the collective community's responsibility to offer them something.
In a community - business or residential - it is a time of more interactions through joint prayers and dinners. In the past, a village or even a street would have Zhong Yuan Jie on one particular day. You could walk down the street and see almost every house putting up an impressive display of dishes, fruits, joss papers, flags and joss sticks stuck on to every food dishes on the five-food-way. In each of these houses, especially in Chinatown area, it could be a collective effort of the tenants (which could number up to ten!) and their landlord. I remember when I was young, in the house where we lived, we had a Bibik (Peranakan lady) who oversaw the organising of the prayers.
Apart from the offerings from each house, there would be the collective "street level" community prayers with even more impressive display of food, such as roast picks, big trayloads of roast ducks, roast chickens, deep fried fishes and other delicious food. The would often be pail loads of can food and the seven important ingredients - salt, sugar, rice, light soya sauce, dark soya sauce, vinegar, and cooking oil. At the end of the prayer, each participating household would collect their share home. Along with the prayers, there would be a street wayang (opera). It was a time when the hawkers would gather around the street wayang offering anything from fried oyster (barnacles) omelette to cheng-tng (sweet desserts - my favourite) to siput shellfish to hammered dried cuttlefish roasted on open fire with sweet sauce to tikam-tikam (kind of lucky deep except that for 5 cents you got to select a sealed slip of paper to see if you could win 20 cents or sweets to peep shows (movies on a tricycle).
In later years, getai (modern variety shows) with increasing (decreasingly in coverage?) daringly dressed girls - as we got more modern (^^) - took over the entertainment scene. The famous comedian duo - Wang Sa and Yeh Fong - probably started from this route.

Back to Chinatown where the Zhong Yuan Jie was held on 1 Sep (actual day), more traditional details were being worked on. There was the huge dias dedicated to San Qing from which the Taoist priests would conduct their rituals. The main altar would be dedicated to the wandering souls on one end, and to the Jade Emperor (Tian Gong) who is flanked by Nan Dou (Southern Stars) and Bei Dou (Norther Stars). To the left from the main altar was Da Shi Ye (the monster transformation of Guan Yin to ensure that the wandering souls are kept in their stride, especially when the loads of money and other goodies were burnt and being transported to them). There was also the boat as the mode of transport.
To the right from the main altar was the playground for the wandering souls - popular cards and even opium pipes - complete with toilets. These were the modern toilets! Some places use a mat placed on standing position making like a tent.

In this tentage, there is this unique "paper statue" of Da Bo Gong (known as Dai Pak Kong to the Cantonese), Cheng Huang (Seng Wong in Cantonese) and his assistant (as I was told). And there was also another Deity related to wealth (whom I was told to be San Ye Bo).
There was also a corner where paper tablets dedicated to the departed ones were placed by participating members. Two of the departed ones had their name written in English. One even has a photo pasted onto it.

As in any modern day Zhong Yuan Jie, it might be considered incomplete without getai. And so, here, there were two nights of getai that had overflowing crowds.

As part of the awareness and education, the Youth wing of the Taoist Federation of Singapore put up panels of posters (in English and Chinese) explaining about Taoism and Zhong Yuan Jie. Another eye-opener for the visitors. I could see many, young and old, studying closely the contents of the posters.

Another interesting innovation was the Sinema Mobile (reminds me of the old days of white cloth strung across two lamp posts with two noisy 16-mm film projectors - if we were lucky, more often than not, it would be a sole projector) showing the documentary-drama "Month of Hungry Ghosts" produced by Mythopolis which made its debut last year's Zhong Yuan Jie. For many of us, this documetary showed and explained much that most of us would not have seen nor known. This was an accidental project because the producer Genevieve Woo and director Tony Kern were looking for such information preparing for their drama movie, when they found out that they could not find any and so they set out to look for them. And so, we benefit a great work that will become of the archives of Singapore heritage.

The Chinatown Business Association and Singapore Tourism Board did a great job bringing an ancient tradition and folk culture to Singaporeans and visitors. This year could well be just a seedling of a bigger fest? (^^)
Special thanks to Chinatown Business Association for inviting me to witness this wonderful heritage event.

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