As a reunion of sorts, living relatives often come eagerly prepared for their arrival with a variety of customs and to pay their respects. As these spirits have been imprisoned in hell, they are hungry and poor. To satisfy the spirits and ward off bad luck, large meals are cooked and left out on altars as offerings to appease the visiting spirits. Food offerings are also left on the roads and outside houses for homeless spirits and to stop them from entering other houses.
Along with the festival also comes the constant scent of burnt goods in the air and scattered ashes. These are the remnants of joss sticks that have been burnt, hell money as well as houses, cars, televisions and phones made of paper to aid the spirits in their afterlife to live well and comfortably.
Of course with spirits running rampant, there are those who seek to cause harm and mischief towards innocent victims. As we are unable to see them with our own eyes, a large list of do's-and-don'ts are usually reiterated every year for caution. Such rules involve avoiding swimming because drowned spirits will seek to harm you the same way and avoid wandering spirits who can possess you by heading home early and staying away from deserted trails. New businesses, new marriages and moving into new homes are disallowed as they will be doomed to fail, and bright colours like red should not be worn as it will attract the spirits to you.
Despite the sombre feel, perhaps one of the more interesting things to see during the Hungry Ghost Festival are the nightly performances that occur throughout the country in various neighbourhoods. The sudden appearance of makeshift wooden stages in the middle of open fields are erected every now and again for singing performances and Chinese opera. While the show is meant to entertain the returning spirits, with the first row reserved for them, living viewers are also invited as performers revisit the good old classics of the yesteryears. Getai performances, which literally means 'singing on stage' in Chinese, consist of artistes dressed in elaborate costumes, singing popular Hokkien and Cantonese songs to entertain the spirits.
Chinese opera shows called wayang are also performed on the stages. These lively performances are often accounts of Chinese folklore and consist of rich and colourful heritage ranging from the symbolism of the costumes they wear to the significance of various hand gestures. Interested parties may also want to check out the Painted Faces guided tour for a better appreciation for Chinese wayang. At the end of the month, to see the ghosts off, a paper sculpture of Taai Si Wong; the policeman spirit, paper offerings and other goods are incinerated in a giant bonfire to seal them in, at least until next year.
In 2012, the Hungry Ghost Festival will fall between 17 August and 15 Sept.