It’s the time of the year again, where Chinese gather their matchsticks, joss sticks and follow a set of what-not-to-dos and to-dos. Started on 14 August – and will last a month long – the Hungry Ghost festival follows a set of ancient Chinese beliefs, that the gates of hell will be opened this month to allow the dead to satiate their earthly desires here.
Master Koh Kuan Pang, a 73-year-old Taoist priest from Seng Wong Beo Temple says “the spirits from the netherworld are denied food as a result of their wrong doings. When released they search for food to satisfy their appetite and once satisfy they will not bring harm or ‘disturb’ the people. This is the reason why people offer real food (not paper food) to the wandering souls”. You don’t see fake paper food being offered this 7th Month Hungry Ghost Festival.
This shows that food is as important to them as it is to us. And as the saying goes, a hungry soul is an angry soul. As part of the Chinese culture, it abodes well to keep this wandering spirits satisfied and away from trouble.
So, what do they offer at these altars and why.
Offering to their loved ones
For the past five years, every Hungry Ghost month, Madam Tan Phuay Choo, 82-year-old housewife will set up a table filled with delectable offerings and most importantly a plate of fried glass noodles for her deceased husband, Lim Koon Hock. “My husband is a picky eater, but he likes the food I cooked for him, especially my fried tang hoon. He will pester me to cook this dish often but because it requires too much work, I only cook this dish on special occasions”, says Tan. And this is her way of remembering him, her spouse for more than fifty years.
Offering to your ancestors
Typically done on the 15th day of the seventh month, these offerings are a lot grander and bigger in scale as compared to the daily offerings. It is believed that the 15th is the day where the realms of heaven, hell and the living are open; and that priests would perform rituals to atone for their sins and to absolve their sufferings.
The grand table would be filled with whole roasted pork, roasted duck, fried fish, childhood snacks, fruits and any food items that signify wealth and extravagance. “This is done so to please the ancestors, received their blessings and to thank them for watching over the family over the past year,” says Master Koh.
Offering to the orphaned souls
A common sight for business owners, an altar would be set up to offer to the orphan souls (Hao Xiong Di) who have no family to pay their respects to them. In return, these souls would protect their business and assure fortune for them.
The food offerings may not be as grand as the ones given to the ancestors, or as heart-warming as the one offered to family; but it contains the same amount of sincerity given. And are not restricted to any; it can range from a packet of Nasi Lemak to a large meat bun with coffee.
This is why we do what we do, to honour the dead in a practice past down from generation to generation – to keep our identity and culture alive. Just like the Americans celebrating Halloween and Mexicans remembering the deceased on the Day of the Dead.