Friday, September 14, 2012

Hungry Ghost Festival

To many tourists and locals, the 7th Month or the Zhong Yuan Jie is probably better known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. But to the local Chinese who observe this traditional customs, it is an important time of the year. On the surface, one would see neighbourhoods, temples, offices, industrial complexes, hotels and malls organising community based offerings for the ancestors (in neighbourhood and temples) and the "Good Brothers", meaning the wandering souls and the "visiting souls".

Because it is almost impossible to translate all Chinese terms (and even for each Chinese dialect, sometime, they defy accurate translations), the English words used here would be loose translations or what is commonly used, even not meaning exactly the same.

In the old days and as much as today, although because of urban renewal, much could not be seen in Chinatown, certain business activities go into overdrive. Chinese traditional products, ranging from joss papers, joss sticks, candles to many paper offerings for the departed (from traditional parcels to iphone lookalikes and even OSIM lookalike chairs) were in big demand. In the Cantonese part of Chinatown (generally speaking), there are at least two traditional shops of such kind, one at Smith St (now better known as Food St) and the other in an HDB flat facing the Tooth Relic Temple. Business is brisk at this time of the year, other than Qing Ming and other minor Chinese traditional events.

Apart from the Cantonese who do their "public" offerings (by the side of the road) on 15th of the 7th Month, the other dialect groups such as Teochew and Hokkien would do it on the first day, 15th and the last day of the 7th month. Food offerings were also made. So, you can imagine that the shops and the wet markets (and supermarkets as well) are also doing brisk business, from fruits to meat (some would buy back to cook while others might just buy ready cooked ones like roast pork, roast chicken and duck), and even Chinese Rice Wine and Tea.

For the organised community based prayers, the organisers would buy them bulk from shops or even supermarkets which have identified this market demand. Supermarkets from Sheng Siong to Carrefour could be seen offering 7th month offerings. Specially prepared forms were prepared for the organisers to tick and place their order according to some set "menu".

In the old days, in a kampong (village) or street, there would be organisers who went round collecting subscriptions for this event. Today it is still happening. Because of the urban renewal and migration of people from different villages, you could see more than one organisers for this 7th month event in the same group of HDB blocks. Interestingly, you might find similar events organised in some faraway HDB estate where the participants are from another part of town or kampong which has become history. But the community spirit and the sense of belonging continues. At least, maybe until the people involved leave this world?

In Chinatown, it is interesting too to note that a number of similar 7th Month celebrations were being organised. There was one organised by the wet market and food stalls, another by the Chinatown Business Association and yet another by the stalls at the Food Street. And as in traditional practice, those shopkeepers who believe would also make offerings from outside their shops.

The bigger organised events might engage the Taoist Priests to conduct rituals. For the temples, they would include a Chao Du (Salvation ritual) for the ancestors of the participants. Some temples might have street wayang (opera) or marionette. Others might have getai (variety show). Getai since the days of Wang Sar Yeh Fong has come a long way and attract thousands of fans. Getais are probably the main medium with which dialects are kept alive, through songs and the skits managed by the MCs. In Chinatown, there could be more Cantonese songs, where others would have more Hokkien songs, bolstered with Mandarin and others that could range from Teochew to Malay! Singers flock from the region, from Indonesia and Malaysia and could be as far as Taiwan, the pace setter in many ways in getais.

In many of such events, there would be the traditional 8-course dinners where participants of the 7th Month prayers - the Hokkien call it Por Tor (Pu Du) - would join. Local leaders such as the MPs are also invited to grace the event. This is an important event where members of the mall or neighbourhood come together to eat, drink and do their bit, getting to know each other better in the process. There would be items raised for auction during such dinners, that sometimes irritate the neighbours who do not appreciate this community event, that helps to provide the funds to manage the next year's event. These days, most people who bid for the auctioned item would pay immediately, whereas in the old days, they have one year to pay, just before the next year's event. The difference in these two changing models must be the economic condition today compared to the past. In the past, especially in the neigbourhood, some might bid in the belief that Por Tor Kong would help them get some money to pay for it when the time comes.

Not in the public would be the remembrance of the ancestors by the Chinese families. In this month, families would offer prayers for their departed. Extended families would gather. Where there are Chao Du in the neighbourhood or temples and the families participated, you can see the extended families come together. In the old days, much of such activities could well be in the home, for some with simple offerings and meal. These days, with better organisation and the lack of time for many, many opt for such activities organised for them. Some families might add more to the offering by bringing the favourite food of their departed.

It was a time when sometimes, grandma would introduce her grandchildren to the departed whom they have not met. It is a time when customs and traditions are reinforced and imprinted onto the young.

While many might think that this is a month that ghosts or spirits roam wild on the streets, it is the month when families remember their roots, it is the month when community comes together - be it in the neighbourhood or the office complex.

Unknown to many, the 15th of the 7th month is when Taoists offer their respect to Di Guan, the official responsible for the Earth Realm. Hence the term Zhong Yuan Jie.

Zhong Yuan Jie can be considered as one of our intangible heritage.