You will want to watch out this month in Penang. The gates of hell have been opened — according to Chinese Buddhist and Taoist beliefs — and ghosts are roaming freely. These long-necked spirits are hungry, both for food and entertainment. And it is the role of the living to satiate and pay respect to them: this is the Hungry Ghost Festival.
This tradition falls upon the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar: this year, that means August 1st until the 29th. While offerings and rituals will be enacted throughout this period, ceremonies will reach their peak on the evening of August 15th especially. This is the 15th day of the seventh month, therefore making it officially the ‘Zhongyuan Festival’ or ‘Ghost Festival’: this is when the ghosts are considered to reach their peak.
As a result, the streets of Penang will be host to a variety of roadside offerings. This will include plates of food such as fruit or biscuits, as well as the burning of Hell Money. Hell Money is joss paper that mimics a banknote: when burnt, it is considered to be given over to the underworld and enjoyed by the ghosts. These offerings will often be placed in the road in front of peoples’ houses, so watch out when you are walking or driving in George Town. It is bad luck to step on these.
While offerings are made throughout the day and night, when darkness falls there is an escalation in rituals, for it is believed that the spirits’ daytime is our nighttime. In the evening, then, there is often special entertainment – known as ‘Merry-Making’ – performed on temporary stages to placate the spirits. Performances might be traditional Chinese opera or more modern performances known as ‘Koh-tai’. Anyone is welcome to watch – as long as you do not sit along the empty front row of seats, for these seats are reserved for the ghosts only.
Nearby these stages will always be an altar where people can pray to the King of Hades, also known as Tai Su Yeah in Hokkien or Yama in Buddhist Pali language. And those figures flanking him? These are his two generals, Tua Pek and Zhi Pek, who regulate the spirits with the help of their own assistants. It is a well-organised affair.
The smell of burning joss sticks; the bright colours of the intricately-made paper figures; the lights and sounds of the performance – commemorations for the Ghost Festival are strong for all the senses of the living, let alone the dead.
During this time, although the Tai Su Yeah/Yama is thought to keep the spirits in check, there is always the possibility of a few slipping through the cracks. Therefore there are certain precautions taken during the Hungry Ghost month: for instance, people avoid staying out too late, leaving their washing out over night, or wearing red (for this signifies happiness).
Although the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated all over Malaysia, Vietnam, China and so on, Penang famously celebrates this festival very intensely. But where in Penang will you be able to witness these festival rites? The short answer — anywhere and everywhere. This is something that even if you don’t seek out, you will find hard to not come across. Streets will often have a smokey haze, for offerings are always being burnt somewhere near. Spots with notable celebrations in the past few years, though, have been Church Street, Queen Street, the Jetty, and the Pek Kong temple on Jalan Pasar over on the mainland. For a complete list of activities you can check on the Penang Tourism website.