The Chinese Dumpling Festival of the 5th lunar month is over. No sooner had it passed away then the 7th month Ghosts Festival is here. This once a year affair is also known as the Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节).
Within the Chinese community, whenever this annual festival arrives people try to make it as joyful a celebration as possible. Wherever one goes, whether by the road or in the streets, around the HDB flats or in the compound of the shopping complexes, one sees canvass tents and colourful bulbs all over the place.
On the 15th of the 7th lunar month, celebrants can be seen milling around altars with bundles of burning joss-sticks. some kneel on pieces of pillow and throw the two little bean-shaped wooden bits into the air to gauge the changing moods of the Shen(神).
If one of the two pieces turns upside down, this implies that the Shen is showing displeasure. But if both pieces follow suit, the thrower is bemused by the Shen’s supposed laughter at this awkward request. In order to be assured of the Shen’s blessings for his request, the thrower persists until both of them turn to the correct side. The contented thrower then withdraws and stop bothering the Shen; for fear he might offend the Shen on this busy day.
In the late afternoon, a great variety of goods are then distributed equally in the red-coloured plastic pails to the members who have made contributions to the celebration.
Some money is set aside for buying miscellaneous items, like bicycles, cassette players and also the popular “black gold”. These items are auctioned at many more times than the original prices. The celebrants try to compete with one another for the limited items. Everyone tries to bring home something so that he can show it around to friends and relatives and also for remembrance. If they can afford it, the day is usually concluded with a delicious dinner.
Usually, the auction is held in the middle of the dinner. The many announcers can now take the opportunity to impress their friends, especially girlfriends by shouting as loudly as possible the auction prices. This generates a lot of excitement and commotion whenever an item is sold off. The money collected is used to finance a portion of the next coming year’s festival expenses.
Nowadays, some organising committees of Zhong Yuan in the midst of their ghostly celebrations even raise funds for charity organisation from the sale of miscellaneous items. This encouraging sign clearly demonstrates that the Zhong Yuan Jie is no longer restricted to the Chinese community.
The Ghosts festival has assumed a greater role and a wider scope in our multi-racial Singapore society. This fact was highlighted in our local newsapapers last year. It was reported that a certain community centre in Toa Payoh incorporated the idea of raising extra funds for its activities by staging the celebration of the festival at its compound. This dual purpose of Zhong Yuan Festival should be openly applauded by all civic-minded citizens.
This year the Merchants’ Association of City Plaza Shopping Centre organised the festival with the view to donating extra funds to a certain secondary school’s educational programmes. Those members whose children are in the school can be expected to be generous with their purses when they bid for the prices of goods. Help the ghosts and benefit themselves, what a good idea! Much joy is added to this jubilant occasiion.
The spokesman for the City Plaza Zhong Yuan organising committee said that though the committee has been existence for only 2 years, it already has a list of 175 members. He went on to say that due to these days of high inflation, even this simple celebration costs them as much as fourty thousand dollars. Later, he looked at the three giant-size “dragon joss-sticks” incense saying “Those alone cost us hundreds of dollars”, as if to emphasize his point.
A certain company at Lorong 40 Geylang is also plagued with high costs of putting up a reasonable pompous Ghosts Festival celebration. But fortunately, the company has found an answer to it. They brought down costs and at the same time avoided minimising any enjoyment or lessening the magnitude of the celebration by introducing “open air” movie shows to entertain the ghosts. This is indeed a radical move. To modernize even our Zhong Yuan Jie?
Traditionally, Wayang performanace or popular singers are engaged to appease the ghosts and of course, the people. Since the “seven and a half month” singers are expensive and wayang artistes are an endangered species, why not bargain for a change? “After all, the ghosts won’t mind something interesting and new”, reasoned the enterprising businessman.
According to traditional folklore, during this time, the malevolent guardians of the underworlds’ gates set the 7th lunar month as earthly days. The malevolent guardians are aware that the condemned ghosts undergoing torture while in the process of self-redemption are quite homesick and want to return to earth. Those on earth should try to share what they have with the ghosts. This is to avoid antagonising the hungry ghosts.
Merchants, if they have suffered a bad business year, will certainly make an extra effort to appease the fearsome ghosts. This is in line with the saying, “if the ghosts are happy, we have no reason to feel sad.”
Most conservative Chinese parents do not allow their children to wander about in strange places, especially in the middle of the night. School excursions and holiday camps during this time are rejected because of this.
If you go to our beaches on a Sunday during this time, you will be surprised at the relatively small number of swimmers and picnickers. So for those couples who are fond of dark places, beware of the watching ghosts around you!
PS: This article written by me as a student was published in Sep 1982 on “Newsville” – our quarterly school newsletter.