You will see plenty of things in Singapore to remind you of your Westernized home. Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Hard Rock Cafe – they’re all here.
The great thing about Singapore, though, is getting to bathe in Western coziness right alongside things you have never experienced before. Like the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts.
The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is celebrated by Taoists and Buddhists in many countries including Singapore. During the festival, the dead are believed to visit the living, to the extent that the dead are given seats at the dinner table. The living get to feed and entertain the dead.
During the festival, the vehicle that transforms things from the living to the dead world is fire. It is believed that anything burned during the Festival will go to the deceased. The burned item could be the actual item (like money, which is a regular offering) or a physical representation of the item.
For example, a family may build and then burn a papier-mache model of a child, so that a deceased grandparent can play with them.
Offerings can be small – like a cell phone or video game – to really big, like a house. Although it’s not frequent, is it fairly common for a full size house with furnishings to be built for the sole purpose of burning it down. Again, any of these can be the real thing, or a paper model of same. For those who need help with the paper models, street vendors will often sell “kits” to help celebrants build whatever they need.
The actual burning ritual can take place at the home, or even at work. During the Festival, you’ll see people gathered just off company property, like right at the curb or sidewalk, to perform the burning. Members of all religions are typically welcomed into these smaller rituals.
There is some important etiquette to keep in mind during the festival. First, do not sit in the front row of a concert or similar event. These seats are reserved for the dead, and will often be blocked off anyway. Second, you may find offering items in the parking lot, or along the roadside, or most anywhere. Don’t touch or disturb them. Third, it is impolite to comment on offering items as you see them. Much like you would not comment on a funeral procession.
In general, offer the same respect to this festival and its rituals as you would any other religious ceremony.
The date of the festival is determined by the Chinese calendar, and is generally around August or September. The festival is celebrated in Singapore this year on August 10, 2014.
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