Every 7th month of the Lunar calendar, Chinese people in various parts of the world will celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival (or Feast of the Wandering Souls). On this day it is believed that the gates of hell are opened to allow the ghosts and spirits to roam the earth for 30 days. How this festival is celebrated varies from country to country and over here in Singapore, it’s a busy time for Chinese who are Taoists or Buddhists.
Here, Chinese people typically burn hell papers (hell money) and set up tables laden with fruits and food for not just their deceased ancestors and family members, but also for all the dead who wander the earth during their ‘holiday month’. This is the month where temples and big corporations owned by Chinese bosses throw a sort of ‘party’ with feasts and concerts for the dead and the living. Some multinational companies that do not want to ‘offend’ the wandering spirits and would rather err on the side of caution will throw a feast where their employees can contribute a small sum of money to buy the offerings while the companies contribute the bulk of the expenses. Rice, canned foods, sugar, salt, biscuits, cooking sauces (necessities), sodas and beer are the usual stuff being offered but for those with big budgets, expensive stuff like canned abalone are also included. These offerings are then distributed among the donors. The total cost of the distributed items is usually worth more than the contributed amount.
Companies/temples will set up tentage in their premises or nearby vacant land (with permit, of course) and host dinners with auctions, operas and concerts meant to entertain the dead, as well as the living. The first row of seats in front of the stage are always left empty. They are meant for the wandering ghosts and spirits. There will be wayang (puppet shows) and Chinese operas depicting the Chinese myths and legends, and the getai (literally translated as ‘song stage’). Entertainers of getai range from young vivacious kids with good vocals and stage presence to seasoned mature performers. The emcees are usually celebrities in their own rights. Banter between emcees and adult performers are usually bawdy and resembles a stand-up comedy.
These entertainers will cover a few different getais in an evening, making big bucks in this one month of celebrations. They will finish off the show in one town and ride off to another town only to perform again. Elaborate costumes are the norm and skirmishes between performers happen because everyone wants to be the first on stage so they can move on to another show as quickly as possible.
Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend one of the many 7th Month dinners held all over Singapore. The dinner I went to with my family had a getai (performance stage), a 8-10 course Chinese dinner and the noisy auction held over dinner. My brother is in the organizing committee and was given a table for his family members to join in the celebration. The guest of honour was our Minister of Finance, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
The items up for auctions are donated and they include expensive liquors, electronic goods, tonics (like bird’s nests), and in the case of the one we attended, there was even an education scholarship. According to my brother, past years’ auction for the scholarship was around $30-50K. Guess how much it was this year? Keeping you in suspense here…hehehe…
Naturally the smaller items were auctioned off first while the 8-10 course dinner was being served (about 100+ tables were set up). The XO’s, Martell Cordon Bleu, Cognac, etc, all went for a few thousand dollars. There were other stuff on auction too but I was too busy eating I didn’t pay attention much 😛 Oh, mum was joking while all the auction was going on that why don’t they just give her the money LOL No mum, you can’t have all that money…what would you spend it on? LOL
The scholarship wasn’t up for auction until the Finance Minister had arrived. My mum was delighted when he shook her hand and wished her good health in Mandarin (he’s non-Chinese). The chance to sponsor the scholarship and impress the public and the minister with their generosity had the many businessmen hotly contesting the bids. It went over the $50k mark very quickly and even more quickly, it topped $100k. But that wasn’t enough. $110k…going once…going twice…GONE! The guy who bid and won was invited up the stage to receive the certificate and had his picture taken with Mr Minister.
Of course the Minister didn’t leave immediately after that scholarship auction or it would seem he was there only for the money 😛 But when he finally left, my mum had the chance to shake his hand again.
I will post pics of the food in the Food Gallery. Hope you enjoy this write-up of my weekend at the Hungry Ghosts Festival held in Jurong, my old hometown.