Folklore, superstition abound this time of yearFolklore, superstition abound this time of year
THIS Hungry Ghost (Phor Thor) festival in Penang, if you see a devotee offering sweets, ice cream cookies or jelly, you can be sure that person has a thought for ghost children.
Penang Kwang Tung and Teng Chow Association Secretary Datuk Lee Wing Kong said countless generations have made the effort to include ghost children during the festival.
“If we put offerings on a table, we have to throw sweets and cookies under the table. Some of the ghost children may be too small to reach the offerings on the table,” he said.
Lee said some Chinese believe that stillborn babies will invariably turn into hungry ghosts, and these particularly prefer the sweet offerings of candies and cookies.
For adult ghosts, a row of beer cans can be provided for them, with the beer can tabs open to make it convenient for them.
Hungry Ghost Festival kicked off on July 29 and will last for 29 days, the number of days in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar this year.
The festival culminates at midnight this Friday, although temples and communities may hold their main celebrations a few days before or after the day.
In a few high-rise buildings on Macallum Street Ghaut in George Town, around 30 open-air parking lots have been cordoned off by the apartment management committee for residents to make offerings between July 28 and 29.
This is when the gates of hell would open for the first time this year to allow tortured souls to enter the human realm for a month’s respite.
Among the dozens of residents holding food and other offerings in the parking lots was 65-year-old peddler Tay Lee Chen.
Since selling lam mee and claypot noodles, Tay has offered these classic Penang hawker dishes along with the other usual offerings.
“I pray for a prosperous year ahead,” she said.
Pensioner Teoh Siang Huat, 66, brought his seven-year-old granddaughter Kok Xin Yu to the cordoned off parking lots to join him in making offerings to wandering spirits.
“I want my granddaughter to discover our culture and our traditions.
“For the past two years, we have been making small-scale home offerings.
“Now that we can get back to some form of normality, I look forward to helping out at the local getai (Mandarin for stage shows) for three nights,” he said.
These stage performances are held in Chinese temples and associations, mainly for the entertainment of spirits.
There will be performances of Chinese opera to entertain the ghosts who were once humans over a century ago, while singers sing contemporary songs for the “younger” ghosts.
After a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, getai troupe manager Lim Poh Chye, 54, is happy things can return to normal.
“I received requests to perform at 15 locations in Penang and my singers started performing on the first day of the seventh lunar month.
“We have over 40 performances throughout the month, including a five-day show at Perak Road,” he added.
Lim said that before the pandemic, his troupe performed more than 70 performances at about 20 venues during the festival each year.
With the rise in Covid-19 cases, Penang Teong Guan Association President Datuk Jessen Ang called on celebrants to strictly adhere to standard operating procedure, especially wearing masks.
Ang said there were about 250 Phor Thor committees and over 100 temple organizations across Penang.
“These committees will raise funds to organize performances, prayers and getai parties.”
The merits gained from sharing feasts are transferred to hungry ghosts, he said.
Folklore and superstition abound during the Hungry Ghost festival, and perhaps most macabre is that the front row seats of every getai are always empty.
They are reserved for ghosts and woe betide anyone who dares to sit in them and inevitably ends up sitting on a ghost’s lap.
To ward off the misinformed, some Phor Tor committees will place large incense sticks on these VIP seats.
Other tips on how to behave during the seventh month are also frightening: never hang up the laundry after sunset, to prevent ghosts from wanting to wear them. Never turn around if you hear someone calling your name at night. Do not comment if you suddenly smell something fragrant or unpleasant.
Ang believes some of the observances are ways for parents to keep their children safe in general, such as not going out late during the seventh lunar month.
“Some things are acquired. Prayer food given as an offering should not be taken,” he said.
“Another no-no is walking in the ashes of burnt offerings during prayers.
“We use water to wash away the ashes and clean the place.”
Ang said another thing to avoid is singing and dancing with the performer during a getai. It’s to show respect.
On the other hand, the things to do at the festival are simple: give back to society and ancestors.
“Do more charity, help others and pray. This is our way of paying our debts to those who have died,” he added.
According to Chinese belief, spirits enjoy a month-long “holiday” in the human world when the gates of hell open.
It is customary to have live performances to entertain wandering spirits to ensure a peaceful and prosperous year.
The actual festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which is August 12 this year.