Hungry Ghost festival: A Malaysian's memory of the day the ghosts roam Earth


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It's that time of the year again, the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated in the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar.

For believers, this is the time for high-alert vigilance, heightened taboos and worshipping of the King of Hades, the God of the Underworld.

I remember gazing at the gigantic paper statue of the black-faced, fierce-looking Tai Sui Ya, as a child grasping at my mother, thanking the God for safeguarding us from evil spirits and asking for another year of peace. The almost 3m-tall effigy was then burnt at the end of the festival which lasted for 14 days.

As the door of hell is opened during this time, it is advisable for night owls to hibernate early, be home before dusk, as the ghosts are granted freedom to roam the Earth. Coincidentally and strangely, freaky accidents do occur more frequently than other times, if you have noticed.

Uncle Danny met with a near-fatal accident, driving head-on to a pole, in his attempt to avoid knocking into a long-haired, white-gowned apparition in the middle of a night. His face, once handsome, was badly distorted after the fateful accident but he was lucky to be alive.

Aunty Chan, a pious Buddhist who chants often, related an incident of a spirit tugging her leg, relentlessly, while on a pilgrimage trip. It is believed that lost souls would cling onto pilgrims, hoping to ride on the holiness, to ascend to a higher altar, to be among the noblest of phantoms.

Aunty Chan warned the spirit, allowing it to tag along as long as it stopped disturbing her. Weirdly, the annoyance ceased.

Walking home from school, my schoolmate Yein forbade me to step on or walk over hell notes (a common litter on streets as prayers are offered to wandering spirits), alleging that it would bring disaster.

To this day, my wild imagination of a group of hungry ghosts in tattered clothing fighting one another for the tokens, still keeps me wary of the unclaimed papers lying on the ground.

My teacher taught me that a hungry man is an angry man. I bet the same applies to a ghost. I wouldn’t want to provoke the ire of an angry ghost, would you?

Moving house in the month of the Hungry Ghost is a taboo and deemed inauspicious for an otherwise auspicious event. I had to rush the renovation works of my new house recently so that I could move in a month earlier, not wanting to clash with the roaming spirits. Better be safe than sorry, I reasoned.

Chinese weddings too, are rare at this time of the year.

My nephew, who attended his grandpa’s wake in a funeral parlour lately, got a bloody knee after trespassing another deceased person’s paper mansion. Despite it being barricaded, he climbed over it to take a close-up look at the intricate mansion, adorned with paper paraphernalia and “servants”. Moments later, he tripped and fell. Curiosity kills the cat. His brother, looking from afar, was unharmed.

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