Hungry Ghosts roam the Streets of George Town
Hungry Ghost also known as Phor Thor festival is an annual month-long celebration observed by the Chinese enclaves not only in Penang but also throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Phuket.
On the basis that Penang is known as one of the best food destinations in the world, it is a fair bet that this is where the majority of the starving spectres would want to go. Thus, in Penang, this festival of the Taoist belief in the afterlife is celebrated on a grand scale. It ritualised a link between the living and the dead, earth and hell as well as body and the spirit.
According to the Chinese folk belief, the first day of the Seventh Moon is when the gates of hell are flung wide open to set loose its captives, allowing them to return to earth and roam freely and to visit their living descendants.
Spirits who were not given a proper burial and were banished to the underworld and those whose living ancestors have failed to pay them proper tribute are able to return the land of the living. They come, hungry for comfort and food, and some, revenge or to tidy up unfinished business. Either way, for believers, it probably pays to be respectful to the spirits and stay on their good side.
Prayers, incense, food and the burning of ‘Hell bank notes’ as well as paper effigies of worldly possessions, such as houses, cars, televisions and even the latest hand phones are often offered to appease the spirits, centred around the 1st and the 15th of the month. It would be ironic if one were to also include Richard Dawkinds’ The God Delusion in the bonfire. This would indeed be an interesting read on the other side. For some, a feast will be prepared at home especially for departed ancestors who “return home”.
Private enterprises and businessmen armed with the conviction that appeasing the spirits will bring them good fortune join in the festivities by supporting the staging of Chinese street operas and puppet theatres, which can be seen throughout George Town most nights of the month. These performances are not just for the entertainment of the spirits but for the public as well. Spectators leave the first row empty to accommodate the spirits.
The month of Hungry Ghost Festival is, generally speaking, a bad time to do anything. Having a wedding or relocating to a new home are considered inauspicious and heaven forbids that one should die during this month too!
Chinese believers avoid travelling or performing any significant ceremonies throughout the festival. Businessmen avoid going on board air planes, buying property or closing business deals during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Children and young toddlers alike are caution from venturing out of the comforts of their homes to avoid being lured by the spirits to the kingdom of the dead. Swimming is also a scary prospect – children are often reminded that hungry ghosts will pull them under, so they will have a soul to take their place in Hell!
The 30th day of the seventh moon is the last day of the festival. At midnight, the ghosts return to Hades and the gates are shut after them. Paper deities, more “Hell” money and other goodies are burnt in a giant bonfire as a final gift. With a sense of relief and ease, the Chinese will resume their daily way of life, filled with the confidence that they have fulfilled their duties towards their dead ancestors.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 1 August 2019