For most of us in Singapore, the first indication of Hungry Ghost Month – also called Seventh Month, Zhongyuan Festival (中元节) and Yulanpen Festival (盂兰盆节) – is when we see (or rather, smell) paper offerings being burned. Some things never change – irresponsible people have always left remnants of their half-burned paper effigies and joss sticks scattered all over sidewalks – but some things have evolved in light of the pandemic.
What is Hungry Ghost Month?
The name ‘Hungry Ghost Month’ literally refers to the idea that ghosts of Chinese ancestors are let out of hell for the whole of the seventh month (of the Chinese lunar calendar) as a break from all that torturing, so they’d be hungry for food and entertainment. These are the ghosts of those neglected by relatives or have died in violent deaths, so they’re going to be mischievous or malicious.
This is why the Chinese avoid swimming or being alone at night, lest the ghouls get them. Businesses will refrain from celebrations, and people tend to avoid moving into new homes during this time. People will burn paper money to appease/bribe these spirits; these days, you’ll also see paper versions of mobile phones, credit cards, sneakers, and even maids. Getai performances are held to entertain them so they don’t disturb the rest of us mortals.
The most important dates during Hungry Ghost Month are the first day, the 14th or 15th (Hungry Ghost Festival), and the last day. You’ll find that most activities tend to happen during these 3 dates, but with COVID-19, things have had a bit of a change.
2020 and Hungry Ghosts
Usually during Ghost Month, you’ll see colourful and loud getai performances in various neighbourhoods, with the first row of seats ‘reserved’ for them. However, with COVID-19 restrictions these days, live getai performances are halted, so some have taken to performing online instead. So in 2020, these ghouls are going to be super bored, unless people have been burning paper laptops and wifi routers for them to surf the internet.
Much like in previous years, we’ve all seen half-burned paper money strewn across the streets. While we may see the occasional rare item – like a sports car or designer clothes – you may even find effigies of face masks this year, because even in hell you’ll need protection from coronavirus. This is 2020, so you can also buy your paper offerings online.
With the world being woke about food waste this decade, some people (ok, freegans) have taken the fruits that are usually left together with joss sticks on the ground for their own consumption. Apparently, it’s not a taboo because according to the custom, the offerings can be taken away once the joss sticks finish burning since it indicates that those from the underworld have finished ‘eating’.
Many netizens have joked that this year’s Hungry Ghost Month will only allow the ghosts 2 days to enjoy earth’s bounty, seeing as they would have to quarantine for 14 days on earth, and again back in hell. That’s in addition to mandatory temperature checks and health screenings, and the rule of social distancing. With so many events cancelled and offerings decreasing, even the ghouls are feeling the hardships of COVID-19.
On the final day of Ghost Month – slated for 16 September this year – there will be more burning of paper offerings, so if you missed the bonfires on the 15th day (ie. 2nd September 2020), you can look out for this one.
Ghost Month, Qing Ming Festival, and other similar festivals
Hungry Ghost should not be confused with another Chinese festival that honours the dead: Qing Ming Festival.
During Qing Ming (held in spring), living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, while during Ghost Festival, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
Qing Ming (or Tomb Sweeping Day) pays respect to older generations by sweeping their tombs, while Hungry Ghost pays respect to all deceased, including younger generations.
The Chinese are not the only people to celebrate the dead. The Japanese have Obon (or just ‘Bon’), a Buddhist custom to honour ancestors with family reunions – people return to ancestral homes and clean their ancestors’ graves much like Qing Ming. There are also regional dance parades (Bon dances) that happen during this 3-day summer event.
South Koreans celebrate Chuseok in autumn, when they visit their ancestral hometowns and feast on traditional Korean food such as songpyeon (송편) and rice wines (sindoju and dongdongju).
Hindus in India celebrate Pitru Paksha, a 16-day festival when they pay homage to their ancestor (Pitrs), especially through food offerings.