While most Western countries have Halloween, which is celebrated every 31 October, Chinese communities around the world have the Hungry Ghost Month. However, unlike Halloween, it’s not set on a specific date every year, but is celebrated during the seventh month of the Chinese Lunar calendar.
Throughout the Hungry Ghost Month, certain rites and customs are observed out of respect for the spirits of the dead who are allowed to wander freely during this time. It is also the time when families pay tribute to their ancestors and burn offerings to appease them.
Besides honoring the dead, the Hungry Ghost Month is a celebration of life – it’s common for temporary stages to be built out in public for performances to take place for the enjoyment of the living and the dead.
Outside of China, the festival is widely observed across Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia and Singapore. If you happen to be traveling around the region during this culturally significant month, here are some do’s and don’ts for you to better understand its importance.
Do: Visit the temples
Drop by a Taoist temple and check out the wide array of offerings for the spirits. The offerings, in the form of food, are arranged in grand, brightly-colored displays at the foot of an effigy of the Leader of the Hungry Ghosts (the Taai Si Wong).
The Taai Si Wong gets first dibs on the offerings and is in charge of keeping lesser ghosts in line. On the 30th day of the Hungry Ghost Month, the effigy is burned along with the offerings to send the spirits back to the Underworld.
In Malaysia, the country’s largest Taai Si Wong is set up at Market Street in Bukit Mertajam.
Don’t: Disturb roadside offerings
Food offerings are also left on sidewalks and at the roadside outside of homes to entice ghosts to feed there, rather than indoors. So be careful when you walk around during this time of year, as it’s considered bad luck to step on or kick the offerings.
If you do accidentally touch the offerings, simply offer a quick apology to avoid facing the anger of a ghost.
Do: Attend a getai (live performance)
The Hungry Ghost Month reaches its peak on the 15th day of the month, also known as the “Hungry Ghost Festival” or “Ghost Day”. This is the best time to check out the festivities.
Public stages, known as getai (or “song stage”), will be set up. The lively free performances often comprise of Chinese opera, puppets, singing, and dancing.
But whatever you do, don’t sit at the front row, as it’s strictly reserved for the ghostly VIPs.
Don’t: Turn your head if someone calls your name or taps on your shoulder
It’s thought that mischievous spirits seeking to get your attention will try to call your name or tap your shoulder to get you to turn your head.
According to Chinese belief, everyone carries a flame on each shoulder, symbolizing a balance of yin and yang. Turning your head may put these fires out, making you vulnerable to possession by a ghost.
Instead, as a precaution, it’s recommended that you turn your torso or whole body around, rather than just your head.
Do: Be aware of what you wear
The colors red and black are considered inauspicious during Hungry Ghost Festival, as the spirits will be attracted to those who wear these colors. The same is said of black or dark colored nail polish.
Women are also advised to stick to flats, as high-heeled shoes mean that your heels are exposed, making you vulnerable to spirit possession.
Don’t: Pick up coins off the ground
Some people will leave coins on the ground as offerings for the spirits, so picking up such coins will likely offend the ghosts who were eyeing them!
It’s also believed that some ghosts use coins as bait to trick the living – touching their belongings allows them to possess you.
Do: Respect the locals’ beliefs
These do’s and don’ts may seem silly to some, and while you’re not required to follow all of them, it’s important to respect the beliefs of those who do.
This means that you should not openly make fun of those observing the traditional rites and customs… Or you may risk the ghostly wrath of the spirits.