Background Information: Ghost Month, or “Hungry Ghost Festival”, is something I have seen being celebrated among Chinese families in Singapore, around houses and apartment buildings. The majority of Singapore’s population lives in public housing units under the Housing Development Board (HDB), and it is primarily around these buildings that the rituals take place. I interviewed Amanda about this festival. Amanda is a Chinese Singaporean, and she and her family grew up in Singapore.
Ankita: Can you describe this festival for me a little?
Amanda: Um, it’s like a month starting in August… the whole month of August is considered Ghost Month, um for Chinese people, at least in Singapore. So there’s kind of like, a lot of superstition involved, because its considered the month where the gates to hell have been opened, and so ghosts from the… other world, I guess, flood our physical world. And so, if we have ancestors who are dead, which most of us do, haha, um then we need to like, burn things for them, because we believe that if we run things like joss paper like money, or like little paper houses or something, they will be able to receive it in the afterlife. Um, and we also leave food out for them. So this is like the kind of thing where you see shrines, or not really shrines, but like small little offerings by the side of the road or whatever, um, you’re not supposed to step on it because it’s the dead person’s property.
Ankita: Is it mostly in these like everyday urban spaces that you’d find them? Like sides of the roads?
Amanda: Mostly on the side of the road, on the outside of houses, like outside gates and stuff… like most people live in HDBs in Singapore, so mostly on the walkways leading up to the apartments and shit. And there’s like these specific burning kind of garbage bins, where people burn joss paper, so it ends up being smelly
Ankita: Is the burning itself a big thing? Like do people get together to do it or something?
Amanda: My family doesn’t do it, because my grandmother’s like, not that superstitious, and my grandfather just doesn’t give a shit. So we don’t do it, but I see a lot of Chinese families in HDBs do it. I don’t think they do it like as a big occasion, but like a couple nights a week someone in the family will go down and burn something. But. There’s also like, a lot of other superstitions, and I think because Chinese people form the majority in Singapore, and it’s such an invasive sort of ritual, haha, like really smelly and all that…that it ends up being like, everyone acknowledges or everyone in Singapore knows that it’s ghost month, so even though there’s no like banners or festivities or whatever, everyone knows that the moment it turns 1st of August, there are specific superstitions that you can choose to follow or not. Like, never stepping on these sorts of things. Or, actually you cannot go swimming, because apparently there’s going to be a ghost in the water… Never shower at night for the same reason… Never walk alone at night, or too late at night. Um, and… stupid things like that.
Ankita: Do you know of any differences in the practice, like, for people in Singapore as opposed to let’s say, Chinese people in China?
Amanda: I’m not totally sure, but I just know like, that is the time for families to take care of their dead. Probably Chinese people in Malaysia would do it differently too.
Thoughts: It is interesting how the rituals or customs of a particular culture can offer insight into the worldview of that particular community. For example, from Amanda’s description of Ghost Month, it becomes evident how death and the afterlife are a significant presence in this culture. A person, after death, does not cease to be a part of a family or the community as a whole, and festivals or superstitions exist to remind people about them and to be wary of them, or as Amanda said, to take care of them.