Who Ya Gonna Call? Ghost Distracters

It’s the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar. That means the gates of the underworld have opened, and for 28 days, the ghosts of the unreincarnated walk among us. There’s nothing to eat in the underworld, so when they come back to earth, they’re very hungry.

In Penang, where about 40 percent of the population is of Chinese descent, Hungry Ghost month is an important festival. Having all of those spirits at large is scary; you want to keep them happy so they don’t cause trouble for you. Thus, it seems like every Chinese Buddhist or Taoist temple has erected a big tent where people can make special prayers and leave food offerings for the spirits. Popular offerings include fruit, cases of raman noodles and rice, round hard white biscuits, and roasted ducks or even suckling pigs (much to the disgust of the local Muslims, no doubt). Often the back of the tent is covered by a large effigy of the Lord of the Underworld, which is ceremonially burned sometime during the festival.

Another effigy of the Lord of the Underworld

Burning things is a big part of Hungry Ghost observances. Besides the small incense sticks routinely used for prayers, people burn huge incense sticks (at least as tall as a person), which often have dragon heads molded on them.

Spirits have trouble using material objects, so the best way to give them gifts is to make paper replicas and turn those into smoke, which reaches the spirits. During Hungry Ghost month you see bonfires everywhere—in front of houses, apartment buildings, and shops or just on the side of the street—where people offer the ghosts elaborate paper clothes, paper shoes, and heaps of paper “spirit money.” July and August are usually hazy months in Penang, as smoke from agricultural fires in Indonesia blows over to Malaysia. But during Hungry Ghost month, the hazy smoke is just as likely to come from next door.

You see big piles of offerings being burned on the side of the road

Besides appeasing the spirits with gifts, it’s important to distract them so they don’t get up to trouble, especially at night. Thus, many temple associations hire performers to stage Chinese operas or puppet shows. In some places, those traditional entertainments are being replaced with pop singers and even karaoke shows, presumably because younger spirits have more modern tastes. Although people (like us) sometimes stop to watch the performances, they’re being staged for the spirits. The show would go on even if no human beings were in attendance. At such performances, the area in front of the stage—or, if there are chairs, the front row—is left vacant for the spirit audience. Luckily, we read about the Hungry Ghost festival ahead of time, so we knew not to plop ourselves down in the first row of seats.

A Chinese opera performance in a side street near a big mall. The front seats are left vacant for the spirits.

There are lots of other things you’re not supposed to do during Hungry Ghost month. It’s considered an inauspicious time to get married, to travel (oh well), or to start a construction project. It’s a bad idea to look under a table or to keep an umbrella open inside the house; spirits like to hide in those places. And it’s best not to let your children out of the house after dark during this month because they might get snatched by a hungry ghost. It’s not clear whether most people who observe those traditional practices still believe them, or whether they figure “why not? It can’t hurt. Maybe my granny knows what she’s talking about.”

Part of the fun of Hungry Ghost month for us is the chance to stumble on something entertaining unexpectedly. Places where a performance is going to be held are usually marked a few days ahead of time with special flags. (It took us a while to figure that out.) If we see those flags, we know to keep an eye on that spot, or to peek around the corner. Other times, we’ll be out somewhere at dusk and suddenly hear loud music or gongs or smell smoke. Wandering nearby streets, we discover a show in progress or a bonfire being lit or a community gathering in full swing. Each time, we get another glimpse into the fascinating cultures of the place where we’re spending our summer.

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