Now that the seventh month is upon us, here’s what you need to know about the Hungry Ghost Festival

Burning incense. (Photo: Chloe Evans/Unsplash)
Burning incense. (Photo: Chloe Evans/Unsplash)

The scariest time of the year is here. And no, we’re not talking about Halloween.

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls on the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, is observed in countries like Singapore, where Buddhists and Taoists believe that the gates of hell have opened, setting spirits free to roam on Earth, seeking food and drink offerings — and yes, even money (not real notes, though).

From Aug 1 to 29, most neighborhoods across the country will likely be shrouded in smoke as families who observe the custom burn paper goods and hell money, which is a form of joss paper resembling legal tender bank notes.

In keeping with the times, ancestral offerings now include paper replicas of everything from luxury vehicles and branded goods to modern gadgets and lavish jewelry. This is all done in the belief that families can provide for their deceased relatives’ material needs in the afterlife. (Plus, the fact that ghosts are said to act out in mischief if ignored is motivation enough.)

In Singapore, bins are placed at housing estates for burning purposes, and the public is expected to keep their areas tidy and free of litter as they go about with the rituals.

Meanwhile, non-believers should remain respectful of the culture and, perhaps, avoid areas where burning is taking place if they are concerned by the smoke hazard. During the month, food offerings and altars with joss sticks will typically line the pavements along roads, so pedestrians are encouraged to watch their step, as trampling on them is considered a sign of disrespect.

Other than burning paper materials, boisterous performances will also liven up heartlands areas as tents are set up to house massive dinners, auctions, Chinese operas and, of course, getai­ (“song stage” in Chinese) shows.

For those interested in the performances, some of the well-known getai performers in Singapore include Hao Hao and Lee Pei Fen. If you’re planning to catch them, just be sure to leave the front row seats empty for the “spirits”. (Hey, they crave entertainment, too.)

Other superstitions that are followed during this season include refraining from leaving umbrellas open inside the home, as that is believed to invite homeless spirits. Some avoid killing insects as they could be deceased ancestors who have been reincarnated, or they stay away from water activities like swimming to avoid being “drowned” by vengeful spirits.

It is also believed that chopsticks should not be stuck upright in a bowl of rice because that might invite ghosts into the house, and families should avoid hanging clothes out to dry overnight as spirits wandering nearby might wear them.

Since ghosts are known to be more active at night, it’s best to return home early during this period, just to avoid any unwanted supernatural encounters. But if you do hear an unfamiliar voice calling out to you from behind… you might want to keep looking forward.


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Residents caught on camera burning joss paper right along the common corridor

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