The Penang Hungry Ghost Festival is underway on the Malaysian island this month. That means the gates of hell have opened and the spirits are roaming the streets of Georgetown in search of food – just like us.
The Penang Hungry Ghost Festival
Okay, so they’re not simply seeking out a decent meal. Starved of comfort and companionship, the hungry ghosts are also dropping in on their living descendants.
And their ancestors and neighbours are in turn busy preparing for their month-long visit, which takes place on the seventh lunar month every year.
When we arrived on Penang two weeks ago we assumed that the wooden stages being constructed and decorated in quiet cul-de-sacs and sleepy back streets were for the Georgetown Festival, which was one of the reasons we had returned to the island for the first time in fifteen years.
As we would quickly learn, the small theatres where artists were backstage applying elaborate make-up and sumptuous costumes, had been erected for Chinese operas and puppet shows that would be held in neighbourhoods each evening to entertain the spirits.
Beside the stages, colourful canvases were hoisted up and temporary shrines were installed so prayers could be made before each performance by the troupes of artists who had travelled from as far as Thailand and China for the nightly shows.
On the first evening of the Penang Hungry Ghost Festival, a Straits Chinese tradition practiced by Chinese Buddhists and Taoists, we saw tables of food offerings set up outside homes, joss sticks lit, paper money (‘hell bank notes’) being burnt and effigies torched on the streets to satisfy the needs of the hungry ghosts.
Georgetown is a city that’s changed tremendously since we first visited, so it was a relief to see such old traditions and rituals still being practiced in Penang, as they are here in Cambodia and other neighbouring countries.
Penang’s Hungry Ghost Festival coincides with the full moon, the start of a new season and harvest period, and the peak of monastic asceticism – unlike Cambodia’s Hungry Ghost Festival, which marks the end of Buddhist Lent.
It’s believed that hungry ghosts exists due to any number of reasons, from the tragic circumstances that might surround their death to the failure of their descendants to continue to venerate them.
The spirits leave the underworld and return to our realm to satisfy their needs, whether that be a proper burial, the desire to tie up loose ends and unfinished business or, heaven forbid, seek revenge.
For believers, the Hungry Ghost Festival is both a chance to appease these dissatisfied spirits, as much as it is an opportunity to make amends for their neglect of duties.
As frightening as that all sounds, the festival is also a time for local communities to get together to practice traditions that are at risk of disappearing in the face of modernisation and globalisation, as much as it provides a chance for visitors like us to get an insight into local lives.
How to Experience the Penang Hungry Ghost Festival
- This year the month-long Penang Hungry Ghost Festival takes place from 3-31 August 2016.
- The dates shift slightly each year, however the Hungry Ghost Festival takes place on the seventh month of the lunar calendar.
- The 15th day is Ghost Day, which is when tables of offerings are set up outside homes, joss sticks are lit, and ‘hell bank notes’ and effigies are burnt.
- Chinese opera performances and puppet shows take place nightly in neighbourhoods across Penang for the duration of the month, however, you’ll have more of an opportunity to witness rituals in the old town of Georgetown.
- The Visit Penang website has a schedule of opera performances and puppet shows being held during the Penang Hungry Ghost Festival.
- If you’re going to watch a Chinese opera, whatever you do, don’t sit in the first two rows, which are reserved for the ghosts.
- Generally try not to attract the attention of any ghosts – leave anything red in the suitcase and wear subdued colours, avoid getting intoxicated in public, and don’t stay out too late. Do, and you’ll bring bad luck upon yourself.
- Locals won’t open businesses, shift house or get married during the Penang Hungry Ghost Festival, which takes place on an inauspicious month.
- If you have kids, don’t let them out of your sight and definitely don’t sit them down on a table of offerings – there’s nothing more tantalising to a hungry ghost than a small child.