Hungry Ghosts roam the Streets of George Town
The Hungry Ghost Festival, locally known as Phor Thor, is an annual month-long celebration observed by the Chinese communities not only in Penang but also throughout Malaysia, Singapore and Phuket.
According to Chinese folk, it is believed that on the first day of the seventh moon of the lunar calendar, the gates of hell are flung wide open to set free its captives, allowing them to return to earth and roam freely, some even venturing to visit their living descendants.
It is reasonable to assume that the bulk of the ravenous specters would want to travel to Penang, which is known as one of the top food heavens in the world. This Taoist festival of the afterlife is celebrated on a grand scale in Penang. It ritualises a link between the living and the dead, between the earth and hell, and between the physical and spiritual realms.
Spirits which were not given proper burials, banished to the underworld or whose living descendants had "failed" to pay proper tribute to are once again able to return to the realm of the living. They come, hungry for comfort and food, and for some, revenge or even to "tidy up" unfinished business. Either way, for believers, it probably pays to be respectful to these spirits throughout the month-long period and also wise to stay in their good graces.
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 that month. It would be ironic to include Richard Dawkinds’ The God Delusion in the bonfire which would indeed make for an interesting read on the other side. For some, a grand feast will be prepared especially for departed ancestors who would have a "return home” visit.
These rituals are believed to help the departed pass through the 18 courts of hell, where their souls face judgment and punishments before they can be reborn.
Armed with the conviction that appeasing the spirits will bring them good fortune, private enterprises and businessmen frequently join in the festivities, supporting the staging of Chinese street operas and puppet theatres, which can be seen throughout George Town. These performances are not only intended for the entertainment of the spirits but for the public as well. So come join in the festivities and catch a story or two of the live entertainment. With distinct and often garish make-up, donning elaborate sequined costumes, the Chinese opera performers entertain their spectators in front of hand-painted backdrops, raised above the ground on makeshift stages. Remember to leave the first row empty as it is meant to accommodate the spirits.
The month of the Hungry Ghost Festival is, generally speaking, a bad time to do anything. Having a wedding or relocating to a new home are considered taboo actions and heaven forbids that one should die during this month too! Devout Chinese believers avoid travelling or performing any significant ceremonies throughout the festival. Businesspeople avoid boarding airplanes, buying property or closing business deals during the Hungry Ghost Festival. This might all sound quite extreme but for those who are shackled by such belief would find it a good time to consolidate their plans and take things easy.
Children and toddlers are cautioned against venturing beyond the comforts of their homes in the evenings to evade being lured by the spirits to the kingdom of the dead. Swimming is also a scary prospect – children are often reminded that the hungry ghosts may drag them under, so they will have a soul to take their place in hell! With the advent of technology and the information age, some of today's children find such tall tales difficult to swallow.
Have you ever noticed a small image of the Goddess of Mercy adorning the elaborate head-dress of the King of Hell? It is believed that the King of Hell is actually the transformation of Guan Yin, embodying both benevolence and fierceness. Guan Yin assumes this fearsome form to gain control over the restless spirits during the seventh month.
The 30th day of the seventh moon is the last day of the festival. At the stroke of midnight, the ghosts return to Hades and the gates are shut behind them. Paper deities, more “hell bank” notes and other faux paper ingots are set ablaze in a giant bonfire as a final send-off. With a sense of relief and ease, many communities, in particular the Taoists, will resume their daily way of life, confident that they have fulfilled their duties towards their departed ancestors.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 15 August 2023