Monday, August 1, 2011

When hungry ghosts come out to play

IF you are wondering why the Chinese lit candles and joss sticks, and offered food by the roadsides yesterday (and for the next four weeks), wonder no more. You are in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar and it's the month of the hungry ghosts.

Yesterday marked the first day on which families offer food, incense, hell bank notes, and paper replicas of earthly possessions for their dearly departed. Until the last day of the Hungry Ghost festival on Aug 28, believers fete free roaming spirits with offerings of food and prayers by the roadsides, light candles and incense and burn joss paper.

The celebration peaks on the 15th day with a tribute to the King of Hades, known as Phor Tor Kong among the Hokkiens. The event, known as Phor Tor, takes on a festive air as believers pay homage to the guardian of the netherworld and ask for his blessings for a year of prosperity and freedom from fear of malevolent spirits.

Various offerings, including the burning of giant paper effigies of horses and men, are made at the height of the celebration. In days of old, Hokkien operas were held to entertain the spirits and the living. However, this has been replaced by modern concerts.

This is a month to be careful in speech and action so as not to offend the spirits, believers say. Exercise caution or risk having to be exorcised. Auspicious events like weddings and official openings of businesses are postponed if it can be helped, usually to next month. And if it cannot be helped, the event will be held on a smaller scale so as not to disturb the peace enjoyed by the free roaming spirits.

If your luck is on the ebb, you are advised to keep a low profile as a close encounter with the unearthly kind is possible. But the daring and the foolhardy say they can take a peek into the other side by rubbing the blood of a black canine on their eyelids and watch the spirits come for the food offered by the roadsides. However, it is not known if anyone has tried and survived to tell the tale.

In the old days, parents also discouraged their children from going swimming in mining pools, rivers or the sea because they believe that the spirits of those who died an untimely death would be roaming the area seeking a replacement so that they could be reborn. Those who drive for a living were also advised to be careful when approaching stretches that were known for tragic accidents, as vengeful spirits were believed to be on the prowl for substitutes.

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, it was also taboo to ask for mooncakes. To do so would earn you the wrath of your elders. You would then be called eow kwee (Hokkien for hungry ghost).

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