Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Ghosts Are Coming

Singapore, like other Chinese-influenced countries, celebrates Ghost Month. It's not an official holiday, but is popular among the general population. This festival was also big in Taiwan (in fact, it was even a bigger deal than it is in Singapore; the Taiwanese are very religious generally speaking).
Processing the dead: some look in the mirror to forget their pasts (and be reborn), some are punished. Note ogre spirits at work.
According to traditional Chinese belief, there is not a distinct line between the dead and the living. (A little Taiwanese student of mine explained it to me thusly: "You shouldn't be scared of ghosts, they are just dead people.") Once you die, you go to the Underworld, which is very much like this world, complete with officious bureaucrats, paperwork, and social rankings. There you are judged on your behavior during this life, and punished or rewarded as you deserve by the Underworld's staff (which, because it's the Underworld, consists of ogres and the like).
The dead being judged by an Underworld official
Assuming that you aren't busy being punished, you may be given an official rank yourself and gain influence over affairs. You can use this influence to help people on earth (by improving their career success or exam results, for instance). You can also harm them if angry, by making them ill and causing misfortune.
Bad people being punished (in a pit of blood)
During Ghost Month, the dead are allowed to leave the Underworld and come into this world. Therefore, the festival is about placating these ghosts to make sure they use their influence to your benefit. This is mostly done through bribery, or giving offerings, which include certain kinds of food, incense, and most importantly, paper items. The most popular is paper currency, or 'hell money' (yes, that's the name, printed right on the bill), which the ghosts can use to buy things in the Underworld. A huge variety of other paper items are also available: credit cards, clothes, beer, cigarettes, jewelry, cars, houses...pretty much anything people on Earth might like.
Hell money
Offerings near our house
In Taiwan, it's considered an unlucky month, since everywhere is thronged with invisible, potentially malevolent ghosts, and so people try to avoid starting new ventures or taking trips (meaning hotels and tourist destinations are empty, nice for traveling Westerners). The air is smoky with burning paper money and incense, and people put out little shrines outside their houses (since you don't want the ghosts to go inside!).

So far in Singapore I haven't seen as much activity (though the official date of the festival is the 31st, so I will have to wait), but even so there are offerings about. They also celebrate with a unique tradition: kitschy song and dance shows called getai. Maybe I will get a chance to check one out: I will have to see.

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