Sunday 14 August 2011

Singapore: Hungry Ghost festival

Hungry Ghost food - Buddha Tooth TempleThe Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated on the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar when the spirits of the dead roam the earth. During this time, many Chinese make offerings to their deceased relatives and to the unknown wandering ghosts that might bring bad luck or misfortune.

To ensure that the spirits have lots of good thingsThe Tenth Hell - Buddha Tooth Temple in the afterlife, relatives send presents such as hell bank notes and replica credit cards, cheque books, airline tickets, mobile phones, laptops and even iPads (only iPad 1s are available in the shops due to a rush on the iPad 2 apparently). These items, as well as goody-bags containing an assortment of personal items, are burned in the belief that their essence is sent to the recipient in the underworld. Small fires (and some not so small fires) can be seen all over Singapore puffing smoke over the racks of underwear hanging from the windows in the HDB blocks.

The Buddha Tooth temple is the centre of Chinatown’s Ghost Month celebrations. We started our Hungry Ghost tour on the night of the 15th day (Ghost Day) when the gates of hell are opened. The sides of the building were lined with hundreds of tables containing neatly arranged plates of food, including beautifully constructed mock-meat dishes to satisfy the apparently vegetarian preferences of the spirits. The sound of chanting and music echoed around the temple as we wandered past images of the ten judges that sit at the head of various courts giving judgement on ghosts in the realm of the dead. Once a ghost has fully repented, it then goes to Old Lady Meng who makes a Five Flavoured Tea of Forgetfulness (or soup accordBuddha Tooth Temple - Hungry Ghost Festivaling to the sign) which induces amnesia, effectively wiping away all memories of past existence. Not drinking all of this tea will cause flash-backs or déjà vu.

Outdoor concerts, or getais, are an import part of the festivities. Professional, amateur or just sufficiently enthusiastic singers and dancers entertain the public who leave the first few rows of seats for the hungry ghosts. The female singers in Bedok that were dressed in slinky, sparkly dresses are apparently quite tame to some of the acts in the past when clothing was removed to entertain the ghosts. Pole dancing was also popular at one time until the authorities clamped down on all this sauciness. Some entertainers perform at different venues in one evening and repeat their performances over a number of nights in the month to earn substantial amounts. Clearly, the most important thing to remember as an entertainer is volume. The sound level at Bedok Hungry Ghost getaisBedok ensured that no spirits would have been able to sleep down in the bowels of the earth.

On other nights, large communal feasts are organised. The highlight of the night is an auction where guests bid for donated items and large lumps of charcoal. Yep. As a symbol of great prosperity, these pieces of ‘black gold’ can fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The money raised goes to charity and also to make offerings to those spirits who have no one left in the living world to look after them.

At 10pm back in the Chinatown, the food was being cleared from the tables outside the temple. Anything that was still edible after sitting outside for most of the day in 90-% humidity is given to foreign workers while the rest is burned. The full moon hung eerily over the temple. Piles of ash, fruit, melted wax and hell money littered the streets. It was all over for another night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

crazy times.... sounds pretty awsome, how come i didnt see any culture and theres loads of it on the blog??? guess you have to be there at the right time of year... big squadgles, cant wait to see ya xxx