Monday, June 26, 2006

Hungry Ghosts

My most vivid memories were those of the Hungry Ghosts’ Festival, the seventh lunar month during which the Chinese believed that spirits were allowed free from hell to roam earth for a month.

To keep these ‘hungry ghosts’ away from their homes, people burnt ‘hell money’ outside their houses as offerings for the ghosts to use in the underworld. They also left food such as oranges and bananas.

Chinese operas (wayangs) were performed in marquees and empty seats were left at the front for the invisible ghosts. The performers wore elaborate silk costumes and bright make-up. The ghosts were served food such as fish, meat and vegetable dishes.

The seventh lunar month is believed to be an inauspicious season and one avoids getting married. Similarly, they do not make long journeys. Outdoors activities such as picnics and swimming are prohibited. Drownings and traffic accidents were attributed to the spirits. In short, all auspicious events like weddings, travel plans, birthday celebrations and renovations were avoided at all costs during this month.

To appease the ghosts, wayangs were staged along the streets. Mainly consisting of two stages, one for the operas, the other for the altar and prayers.

The wayang stage was constructed with wooden scaffolding and the stage lined with planks with gaps in between. We used to go under the makeshift stage to prick at the feet of the opera singers with long wooden skewers. It was hilarious to hear the crowd jeered when the actors reacted in pain. At other times, we would sneak up to the wings, silently sitting there until the climax came, and then joined in by singing gibberish. Sometimes they got so annoyed with us they splashed hot water at us, or chased us away with rods.

Hungry Ghosts’ Festival was memorable not only because of the splashes and dashes of gaudy colours, not only because of the delicious bordering on putrid smell of rich fatty meat which the rich splurged on to save their souls, not only because of the piercingly haunting voices of the opera singers. There was another thing, which made it so alluring: the prospect of gaining money. Prayers were offered by mostly superstitious housewives to appease the spirits. They would also tossed coins into the air as offerings. We would then go search for the coins after they had finished their rituals, and were always delighted in finding extra allowances to spare. It was a taboo to pick up these coins, which were meant for the spirits, but the fear of being cursed was not of concern. The cash was good, that was all that mattered.

Every year we raided the offerings placed at the back of the altar and consumed them at our favourite hangout – tenth floor of Block 13.

What audacity!

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