Thursday, 10 July 2014

Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival 2014

Hell Gate Open Day. Ghost on Parole.

When I first arrived in Singapore, I was curious about the rusty bins scatter around Singapore. They don't look like garbage bins. I peeked inside and saw no garbage, except a metal grille and some ashes. I was mystified.

The Festival of Hungry Ghosts had crept up on me like a creepy ghost... It's only today that I started to see scattered rusty bins with plumes of rising smokes appeared on street curbs outside some shops. Nearby are the food offering accompanied by candles and incense. When I got back to my HBD flats, a few of such food offerings and joss-paper burnings also have been taken place.

I suspected that this is the start of the Festival of Hungry Ghost, but just to be sure, I looked up the Lunar calendar online (I don't even own a calendar). My suspicion was confirmed - today is the 1st day of the 7th month of the Lunar calendar (probably better think of it as Chinese Calendar because this is strictly a lunisolar calendar. But then since it's used by not just Chinese, maybe it's best to call it Asian Calendar. But then since Asia include part of ME, which uses a Muslim calendar, ah...I give up).

Officially, this Ghost Festival is on 15th day of the 7th lunar month. But the Singaporean 'celebrate' it the whole of 7th moon. 'Appeasement' is a better word than 'celebration'. The ghosts are actually prisoners and were simply given a month long break from Hell, which the Chinese word is "Di Yu" 地獄, the literal translation is Earth Prison (Earth refers to 'in' earth, not 'on' earth. The more meaningful translation would be Underworld Prison). As we know in prison, meals are rationed in small portion, hence it explains the hunger.

All this brings back very warm and fuzzy nostalgia from my well-spent childhood in Cholon ('Chinatown' in Ho-Chi-Minh City). For some odd reasons, I had never been freaked out by this Ghostly business as a kid. I suspected nobody took the trouble to illuminate me the dark side of this Festival. There are several similarities and differences between my memories (just under 30 years old) and the modern day Singaporean one. In Cholon, only Hokkien Opera was performed (for the appeasement/entertainment of the ghosts) during the Festival, no modern songs and musicians were performed. Maybe Singapore also didn't have these modern performances, but was added later on. Maybe some old Singaporean who read this blog can tell me if this is true. Another very interesting ritual that intricate part of the festival yet missing from Singapore today is the throwing of coins. I remembered my mum would be holding a large canvas bag of coins. After all the rituals of food offering and joss-paper burning was done, the last thing was the throwing of the coins into the streets. Kids that already swarmed around waiting for this coin-throwing. When the shower of coins hit the ground, the kids would be scurrying, hopping onto the pavement like frogs on summer nights. It was an incredible scene of chaos and mayhem. And when one coin-throwing is done, the throng of kids swarmed to the next one like locusts moved onto fresh crops. Yeah..i was one of those locusts (more like a grasshopper). The noise, the smell of sweat, the hustle and bustle were all quite amazing and unforgettable. There would five to six such occurrences in our block. The coins I collected bought me a tendon beef ball noodle soup (I drool just thinking about it), and a movie in a cinema - a great day-out. One year, the crowd was so rough that my clothes was torn. Another year, I came home with a bloody nose. Good time! Some of these kids were neighbouring boys, others are beggars. Maybe Singapore had something like that too 30 years ago, but was understandably outlawed. One can imagine the chaos such events would cause to the traffic. Again, maybe some old Singaporean who read this blog can tell me if this is true. I wonder if this ritual still takes place in Vietnam today. I suspect not. If there are still Chinese remain in Vietnam, that is.


The ritual materials on this rack sold by 7-Eleven store just across from where we live. They include all essentials like joss papers (Hell's banknotes or money), joss sticks, candles, etc for a good burn offering to the departed. The stock on this rack is going to sell fast for the rest of this lunar month.


This is a pile of joss paper or hell's banknotes, probably amount to millions (even billions), being burnt to offer to the poor souls (now becomes moderately rich). What would they need money in Di Yu? Buying cigarettes I imagine (or anything they fancy). Of course, some would simply burn the actual objects like cars and houses for the departed, thus saving them for the shopping trips. Cash is king even down there and the spirits can buy whatever they please. How do you know what kinda cars they want - a sexy convertible, a luxurious stretched limo or trendy hummer? Or what kinda houses - posh mansion, cozy cottage, hell-gate front property? Cash is not only king, it's democracy. So burn them some dead presidents.

Some people said that this Hungry Ghost Festival is a Chinese Halloween. Two major differences. One, this is a whole month event. Two, much more importantly, Halloween in the West is an excuse for people to party and for business to capitalise on it. Westerners don't really believe in it, nor buy it (the ghost story, not the costumes). I suspect most would only remember the ritual but not the real meaning of Halloween. The Chinese in SE Asia actually believe this hellish story. They are deadly serious (pun intended). Ironically, China, the country where this Festival originated doesn't 'celebrate' it. Another irony is that almost in every way, Singaporean Chinese are more sophisticated and 'progressive' than mainland Chinese, but this superstition (and surprisingly many other) lives on in Singapore. This is because the so-called Marxist Scientific Socialist Revolution in China discouraged superstition and outlawed religion. How do you outlaw superstition though? After the open-door and reform policy in 1978, things have been different in China. HK people also are as sophistical superstitious as Singaporean because they too were given the freedom to believe anything...just like the Freedom of Speech, you have the right to talk nonsense, it's in the Constitution.

El Día de los Muertos Festival in Mexico is probably is closer comparison. Deepavali is an Indian festival that is also celebrated in Singapore. Oil lamps are placed on the ground to guide the departed spirits as they are descended from heaven not unlike the two rows of lights on the airport runway to guide them in the planes' touch down. I can visualise the spirits coming down with their arms spreading out like wings. This is clear evidence that the ancient Indians already had a correct basic design of an aiport. The main difference between Deepavali and Hungry Ghosts festival is the place of origin where the departed are coming from while their destination is the same: earth. In both cases, the earth is their favourite destination. I wonder why...

When the Chinese Communist Party during the Mao Era outlawed religious practice, people's thirst to worship had to be satisfied in another way. Communism filled the void left by Budhism, and Taoism. The Communist propaganda department wasted no time in creating a Mao's personality cult that modelled on previous religions (whether the propagandists knew it ot not). Instead of effigies and statues of deities, photos and memorabilia of Mao enjoyed ubiquitous existence. Mao's Little Red Book substituted the Buddhist Diamond Sutra/Bible, and Mao's suit is the new saffron robe/habit. People sung the lyrics of East is Red, and entranced by its dances (I, too, was mesmerised by this song during my adolescence in Vietnam, swept away by its power. Well, I was only a boy. Ok...I am still enjoying the song. I'm only human. It's easier to sell anything with a song, just ask the Coca Cola marketing department. Life is it!). The colour red is Chinese cultural festive colour, and now the Communist colour. Even the theme colour matches (coincidentally the colour of Coca Cola, not trying to connect any dots here). This saved the propaganda machine a lot of elbow grease. Mao himself became the embodiment of the very thing he tried to ban - a religious figurehead.

Guess Why Chinese dominates the game of table tennis? Sure they also dominate a few other sports like badminton, diving, gymnastics, weightlifting (recently), etc, but none is even remotely matched its dominance in table tennis. To give you an idea, there are about 30 or so countries that have Chinese pingpong players representing these countries at the national level. They emigrated to play in another country because China is swamped with top players who simply can't break into the Chinese national team. So they try their luck with other countries. Especially European countries where this game is popular and many Chinese players successfully broke into their national teams. If some day when another country beat Chinese in table tennis, it's quite possible that it might just be another Chinese (representing, say, Singapore - Feng Tianwei who ranks number 5 in the women's category according to ITTF in 2009. The rest of 1 through 7 are PRC players).

The reason for this Chinese national obsession? Chairman Mao just so happened to be a keen player of table tennis. Monkeys see monkeys do (Actually Mao isn't alone, several other Communist founding fathers also played it, not that anyone knows or cares). This popularity led to famous Ping-pong Diplomacy in the 1970's with USA. Despite this, USA has yet to produce a great pingpong player as the game has never caught on in the US, except for Forrest Gump who gets most of his energy and inspiration from a box of chocolates (Me, I prefer cappuccino. Ah, life is like a cup of cappuccino, it's all frothy at the surface, and the real substance lies underneath).
If Mao had chosen to play golf, Chinese would produce the best golfers today (actually they are getting better). But I can't imagine Mao would pick up the (golf) club of the Western decadent bourgeois sport. It was in fact outlawed for that reason. If there was Chinese Idol TV program in China while Mao was in power, many testosterone filled, adrenaline rushed youngsters would get an outlet for their idol worshipping - a safety valve to relieve the pent up demand for this basic drive. Judging by the Cultural Revolution, the impressionable youth is the ones that struck under the spell of Mao Mania the deepest and were perfect to be mobilised to this political rousing.

In the West all kinds of idol worships were available for the citizen to shop around: religious leaders, musicians(Kenny G, Ozzy Osbourne), rockers(Ozzy Osbourne), actors(Hank Azzaria), athletes(Ben Bickham), writers(Jackie Collins), TV celebrities (Opra, Ozzy Osbourne), billionaires(Warren Buffet), reality TV show personalities (guess who?), radio announcer, beauty pageants, cult leaders, Playboy models, reality TV participants, ad nausea. Just about anyone can be the object of adulation, icon of idolisation. Individuality and freedom at its extreme/highest/purist form. Mao was the outcome of all that worship energies a billions strong channel into one outlet. Zap! 5 millions volts of power plugged in! This is a very simple economics equation: demand for idol worship is the same for all of countries, but in the West there are idol/hero worships galore, in China, an overwealming undersupply.

After the Open-Door and Reform policy in the post-Mao Era since 1978, as the Door of China is swung open to the world, the Chinese kids have found idols in all other places, even a blondie like the primatologist/anthropologist/greenie Jane Goodall - an all round good gal (her name says all). Her global program Roots and Shoots where Chinese kids belong can now look up to a caring person and mending the earth at the same time (instead of tearing the country apart like their crazed elders).

After Mao's death, religious practises are bouncing back on the trampoline of the reform policy, as are most of the old traditions and cultural values that Chinese Communist Party detested and vouched to quash during the Mao Era, especially during the heyday craze of Cultural Revolution when temples were ransacked, religious idols smashed, anything traditional destroyed. Many ideas resurrected after Mao's death. Confucianism, for example, which was considered an outdated feudal value system is now snapping back and slap your face flush red in a big way. Chinese Communist Party plans to install 500 Confucius Institutes 孔子学院 worldwide (300 down, another 200 to go). The Institute even reaches the virtual world of Second Life where virtual avatars can learn about ancient philosophy between bouts of virtual sex with strangers. If the Chinese Communist Party embraced the very antithesis of Capitalism into the New China, surely religion, and Confucianism can also be thrown into this healthy mix of smoothie that is post-Mao China. Yummy tummy! Feed me more smoothie! Before the Fall of Berlin Wall, the Commies renounced their pasts, tried to replace their ancient civilisation by re-inventing a whole Brave New World of communist cultures expressed in their red songs, dances, sculptures, uniforms and the most visible and concrete of all - architectures (which to me resembles art deco style) that created by the Northern neighbour Ruskies. In short, it was a country that are ashamed of its past and wanted to deny it (much like one of my brother). Communism didn't live very long. Its inventor USSR has fallen, and China is still keeping a piece of crumbling relics and placed on the altar of the Party.

Actually, what China practises today isn't so much Marxism, or Communism, or Socialism, or even Capitalism, or Confucianism, or Taoism, but the most practical 'ideology' of all - Pragmatism (aka Whatever-Works-Ism) - unleashed by uncle Deng with the black cat/white cat variety so that China is eventually free of rats infestation[1]. Finally Chinese people are drinking the cappuccino caffeine, and not the milky froth above it.

I have a feeling that China would probably get rid of the relic eventually, not through an abrupt crumbling of the Berlin type of revolution with a sudden collapse of government, but a turtle-paced evolutionary type of constant tweaking through reforms, which China is witnessing in the last 3 decades since the Door of China was swung open by uncle Deng (actually it was only ajar at first with his head peeked out, but the iron-laced bamboo door is open wider and wider as time goes by). Actually this turtle moves at a soaring dragon speed, but compare to a metamorphosis over night, it's a sort of fast-paced catalytic evolution - the catalyst being an external influence. So what's the hurry? China had been left so far behind because of all the dilly-dallying with the Slow Dance with Mao while it's nice and fun, the unsightly after party mess had to be cleaned up (they won't see the mess while they were swept off their feet with his charisma as their collective swoon heads rest comfortably on his and powerful, broad shoulder like nothing in the world to care while the slow romantic music filled the country, not even hunger and a little thing called freedom). It's time to play catch up with the rest of the world, much more importantly, to stave off starvation of the millions, and lift some into the higher echelon of middle and upper classes. Yes siree Bob, the socialist classless society is turning on its head while Mao is turning on its grave (and I'm turning a frown into a smile). They were forced to stop dreaming, woken up by the loud, concerted kerching of millions of cash registers. You can't dream when you're starving because there's no sugar going to the head to fire those little sugar suckers called neurons. Keep your stomach full, then day dream, not the other way round, which was happened in the first 30 years of PRC from 1949. Who knows? Maybe dreaming kept them forget about their hunger.

It's quite amazing that within a span of little more than 0.5 of century, China went from the Qing Dynasty who took on themselves the role of safeguarding and keeping one of the oldest civilisation alive, to Red China, whose shedding of old baggage knows no bounds. Nothing was too new to these PRC comrades to embrace, and nothing are too old to get rid of. Don't think any country undergo such cataclysmic changes in such a short time. Another first for China, I supposed.

These days, she's getting something old (from China), something new, something borrowed (from the West), something red (from the Party), and marry all these together, and you get the New China - a union made in heaven, a cause for celebration. Of course, one needs to be reminded that marriage is a work-In-Progress (WIP), not Rest-In-Peace (RIP), and put your feet up and hope for the best. Especially an arranged marriage.

Back to the brighter and lighter subjects of ghosts and demons. Not only different cultures around the world have their ways to deal with ghosts that personify their inner demons, but ghosts manifest in various masks in different stage of our life. Kids are freaked out by ghosts that embody the instinctual fear of the unknowns, the strange, the strangers, the dark, but the aged are comforted by ghosts that exemplify hope for survival instinct of what lies beyond death, the continued existence of our soul. But our biology don't make lies easy for us, it hands us an over-active imagine in youth to fuel those fear, and the critical faculty in mature years to temper those hope. It would be great if things were reverse. This so typically of us - kids want to be grown-up, and the old wish they were youngsters. The grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-fence symptom.

Atta's colleague told her today that she should be careful not to stand in front of the candles and food offering as hungry ghosts are wolfing down those food and you would be in the way. Especially candles, which supposed to be energy bars for ghosts. She was quite serious. I think this is crazy talk. When you are sitting down on a bench, you could be sitting on top of a ghost that enjoy the wafting aroma of the burning incense, and when I lay down in my bed tonight, I might be laying on top of a conjugal couple of ghosts taking advantage of my soft yet firm mattress. I'm just saying.

Good night!
[1]during the Vietnam War, the South Vietnamese government call the Vietcong "Rats" (not Reds) because they hid in the tropical jungles and emerged time and again to conduct guerrilla warfare. Ironically, the while the South didn't even know about the Cui Chi Tunnels where the commies hid underground like rats under their very noses.

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