When I was very young, we would go with my grandaunt to watch Chinese operas that are set up during the Hungry Ghost month (the 7th lunar month in the Chinese calendar). My grandaunt, born in the late 19th century would of course love to watch Chinese opera shows.
By the time I am in university, the opera shows got less and gradually filled with Chinese oldies and sometimes modern songs sang. Each night, the shows would start and the speakers would blast through – which you can hear the songs many roads away.
Hopefully you are also aware that if you would like to watch, never sit on the first roll of seats that are always vacant. Because these seats are specially reserved for the ‘invisible guests’.
Tents set up in certain areas for collections:
Also, during the start of the 7th lunar month, you would see temporary structures and tents that are set up to house offerings at certain areas located near markets, shophouses or residential areas.
An example of the set up is as per below:
Paper effies with God of Hades, helpers, horses, ox head-horse face (牛头马面) and various offering items like houses, ships and hell money are being displayed under the tent. There are also food being offered.
There would usually be collection centres and custodians from certain persatuan or organization to help with collection of funds. Usually Chinese businesspersons, residents and patrons would drop by to offer a little donation and light a jossticks. The donations would help to cover the cost of set up and purchase of various items and food stuff.
The offering items would be burn on the Hungry Ghost day (14th day of the 7th lunar month).
Roadside Offerings and food for hungry ghosts/spirits
In Chinese community in Hong Kong and Singapore, it is common to see folks offering food like fatt kuey, rice, tauhu, cooked dishes, peanuts, biscuits, wine, tea and burning offering paper offering items like hell notes, ‘travel documents to the netherworld’, clothings, etc on the 7th lunar month, especially on the 14th day.
When I was growing up in Malaysia, as the sun sets on the 14th day of the 7th lunar month, I would see Chinese neighbors coming out to light jossticks and candles by the street (usually either in front or close to their home) and then lay out food offerings. After that, they would burn the paper offerings. Our family does the roadside offerings and I would see another 2 or 3 houses during the same. But just on that night, we do not wave or say hi to our neighbors. Everyone just did their offerings quietly and then go back inside the house.
However with time, less and less people are following this tradition. Now, I do not see many houses during this anymore.
About 2 years ago, my mom was not able to do these offerings. At that point, we could have decided to discontinue this. When I was young, I was told that houses are doing these offerings so that they would appease the wondering spirits. Houses that do not do it may end up offending these spirits and there may be trouble. That is why in the past, many people did it out of fear.
Personally, I made the decision to continue and took over the tradition of doing yearly offerings by the roadside on the Hungry Ghost month.
My experience left me no doubt that these beings exist and it is gesture of offering that I want to do just once a year. They are able to breathe in the essence from the food that is being offered to them so it helps them a little. And I have heard from a few people who known of someone with ‘the eye’ who is able to see that these beings do come and partake in the food.
But in terms of burning paper money and offering items, there is conflicting accounts of whether burnt items can reach the departed. Because logically it does not make sense, ie how can anyone have any use for ashes….or how can a paper shoes turn into a real pair of shoes in the netherworld. Scientifically using any physic laws… it just did not make sense. Hence, the tradition is steadily on the decline.
However, it is the intention that goes into doing it because when people buy these items- they have the wholesome wish that the beings would be able to receive and enjoy the offerings. This brings comfort to them in their suffering state.
The simile I would like to give is …. imagine you have a friend who is terminally ill. There is nothing you can do to cure your friend. But… you went to visit your friend, sit down by your friend and offer your time and care. Even though ‘technically’ you cannot ‘save’ your friend, but your willingness to invest that part of yourself brings unspeakable comfort to her.
Yes, perhaps by burning hell money, ghosts and spirits may not be able to use them. But if in their human form they were from the Chinese culture, they are able to associate the intention that comes from doing that. And whether they could actually get these items or not.
Do check out my past article on a similar topic: Hungry Ghost Festival- of ghosts, burning ghost money and being ‘blocked by ghost’.