SELANGOR MCA strongman Datuk Donald Lim was full of apologies for not being able to attend the KL Fashion Week 2003 dinner organised by The Star next week.
His reason: “I have to attend a Hungry Ghost Festival dinner.”
It may sound strange, even bizarre, to the uninitiated but every Chinese politician worth his salt would know exactly what he is talking about.
The month-long Hungry Ghost Festival or Phor Thor, observed by Chinese who practise Taoism, has over the years grown into an important calendar month for Chinese politicians.
Lim, who is deputy chairman of Selangor MCA and PJ Selatan assemblyman, has been attending Hungry Ghost dinners almost every single night since the festival began on July 29.
On Wednesday night, he was at a rather grand one in the middle-class locale of Taman Megah. There was the standard dinner, speeches, auction to raise funds for worthy community causes, glitzy stage-show and, of course, speeches by the local personalities and politicians.
Among those at the main table was Kampung Tunku assemblyman Dr Wong Sai Hou, who joked that his waistline was showing the strain of the nightly feasts.
“Phor Thor has always been big in Penang but it has caught on in the Klang Valley the last six or seven years,” said Dr Wong.
The dinners are an indication of the organising skills of the Chinese informal sector. They are organised by local area or street committees, usually connected to small-time shopkeepers and businesses.
Their early purpose of celebrating Phor Thor was to appease the spirits so that they did not create trouble for their businesses. Over the years, the fest has grown in scale and proportion and, not surprisingly, political significance.
More than 100 of such dinners would have been thrown in Selangor by the time the festival comes to a close or, rather, by the time the ghosts return to the netherworld on Aug 24. In Penang, some 300 of such street dinners have been planned throughout the month.
How is it that these dinners now draw not only ghosts but also big shots like top Chinese politicians?
First is the fact that it is an important cultural date among many Chinese. Second, it involves some rather influential local community leaders and, lastly, the event draws sizeable crowds.
All of these add up to a scenario at which many politicians would want to be seen and, if possible, heard.
“It has become part of our yearly responsibilities and we try to attend as many as possible,” said former Penang MCA chief Tan Sri Dr Sak Cheng Lum.
In Penang, this can mean three or four dinners a night.
Over the years, the Hungry Ghost Festival has acquired an altruistic side to it.
According to Dr Sak, the Penang organising body, known as Teong Guan, raised a whopping RM1mil for various education causes several years ago. This year, its target is RM500,000 for needy university students.
Politicians are not invited just to make up the number at the VIP table. They are expected to make a donation and a dinner a night can add up to a hefty sum.
Those who can afford it do not mind for these events sometimes resemble election campaigning.
For one, there is the free advertisement: the organisers often make a grand effort at naming each politician present and thanking them individually for their help in the past year.
The politicians on their part get the chance to address a crowd whom they would normally not have access to.
But some Christian politicians refuse to attend such functions.
Said one wakil rakyat: “I understand it’s an important festival and that people should be free to celebrate their beliefs but this is against my Christian principles.”
The organisers, who make it a point to invite politicians from the ruling and opposition parties, sometimes have to remind them not to exploit the stage for politics.
And, as Dr Wong put it: “Ghosts aside, these evenings are a good opportunity to network and get together.”
But the dinners and shows are not just for the ghosts to enjoy.
At the Taman Megah dinner, the emcee was a popular local singer who specialises in Hakka songs. He burst onto the stage in a cloud of smoke carrying a toy machine gun in one hand and a sword in the other. His machine gun sprayed confetti on the VIPs, much to everyone’s amusement, and he showed off his other talent: playing the trumpet with one hand.
Then, during the auction, he told the audience not to waste his time by topping up bids with just a few ringgit but to bid in amounts of hundreds. Meanwhile, his wife made the table rounds selling his CDs.
Unlike Penang, the highlight of the show was not scantily attired women but an auction for such mundane items as a pineapple handicraft (known as ong lai in Hokkien, it sounds like “luck coming”), a rice bowl (to symbolise a future of plenty), three golden goats (this is the Year of the Goat) and a toy junk ship (to signify smooth sailing in life).
Earthly issues like education, having a prosperous life, political success and, of course, having a bit of fun continue to prevail even at an event aimed at appeasing lost souls and wandering spirits.
It seems to reflect the pragmatism of Chinese life.
The Chinese, whether living or departed, have few hang-ups about what it takes to have an enjoyable time. They embrace life with all its peculiarities and imperfections, whether here on earth or in the hereafter.