SOMEONE asked me why the Chinese burn so many paper effigies for the netherworld.
No one knows, I said. But my elders say it's one way of keeping the inhabitants there happy so that they will leave mortals in peace and only come around once a year on the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar, during the Hungry Ghosts Festival.
On the fifteenth day, when the festival is at its grandest, tribute is made to the King of Hades with even more offerings.
This year, said a friend from Penang, the King of Hades (known to the Hokkiens as Phor Tor Kong or the Tai Su Yeah deity) has decreed that no scantily clad singers be allowed as part of the celebration, at least not in George Town.
The Phor Tor organising committees in Klang Valley had better pay heed to the warning if they want to invoke the deity's blessings before the festival ends on Sept 7.
Songs and performances at Chinese religious festivals held at temples are not new.
They were introduced in the '70s to arrest the waning interest in temple celebrations among the younger generation.
Back then, a couple of nights of Chinese opera were usually part of the celebration.
Even at its most modest level, there would be at least three nights of operas or puppet theatres. Sometimes the shows are extended another night or two, courtesy of those who had benefited financially from the resident deity's patronage.
Showtime started at sunset and choice places were taken on a first-come, first-served basis.
You had to bring your own chairs and stools, of course. Folk tales that featured special effects such as acrobatics and fire-stunts often left little standing space even before the curtains were raised.
Although the crowd comprised mostly the elderly, all-time favourites like Madam White Snake, Journey To The West, and the Tale Of Mu-lien The Filial Monk also attracted the young.
The premiere show was reserved for the deities, and in Phor Tor celebrations, for wandering spirits known to the Hokkiens as Hoh Hnia Tee (or "good brothers").
To insist on watching the premiere during a Phor Tor celebration was to invite trouble. Tales were told aplenty of those who were possessed or had fallen sick after they offended the spirits.
The second day of the opera was for humans. An hour of songs usually preceded the show. In Hokkien villages, singers engaged from bars and nightclubs would belt out Mandarin oldies like Mei Lan Mei Lan Wo Ai Ni (Mei Lan I Love You) and the Hokkien evergreen Siau Lian Siau Chua Boh (The Young Are Dying To Get Married). Back then, the singers rarely performed in sexy costumes.
Those days, it was considered disrespectful to the deities if one came to a temple improperly attired. For women devotees, the limbs had to be properly covered. To wear a mini skirt would invite stares and possibly the scorn of temple elders.
Today, when people are no longer ashame of their lack of respect for places of worship, anything goes -- including performances by singers who make up for their lack in vocal talent by entertaining the crowd in their skimpy costumes.
It is not difficult to understand why even the King of Hades is not amused, for each time such mischief gets into the limelight, it must be one hell of an embarrassment for him.