Tai Su Yeah (King of Hades) presiding at a Phor Thor (Hungry Ghost Festival).
Photo by Wuan.
The Chinese seventh month is upon us. It is popularly known as Phor Thor in Penang. When I was a kid, I was instructed to strictly observe taboos related to this month when the gates of hell were opened for one month to allow things that go bump in the night to cross over to Earth for food, fun and entertainment. I did not want to be haunted or possessed. Therefore, I followed those instructions to a T.
First taboo was that I should not refer to them as ghosts but as “ho hia ti” or hou heng dai” which meant buddies or brothers. This was supposed to appease them. Calling them “kui” was deemed crude, just like calling disabled people handicapped or crippled. Ok, I can relate to that feeling. Hello buddies!
I had to be home before dusk. The time after that were happy hours for the ho hia ti. They would roam the neighbourhood looking for offerings of prayers, wine and food left on the roadside. They roamed because they did not have a family to go back to for such offerings. Like they say, a hungry man is an angry man. Likewise, it is not a good idea to bump into a hungry buddy.
Under no circumstances should I step on those prayer items and food. Buddies unseen by my eyes could be feasting there and a misstep on their victuals could earn me their wrath. How would you feel if someone were to step on your food while you were eating? I know what I would do. I would beat the daylight out of him. Likewise the buddies, only worse.
I was told tales of people who inadvertently stepped on prayer items and became sick and no doctor could make them well again. The only way was to seek the help of mediums to ask the offended buddies what could be done to appease their anger. Failing to make amends could result in death. Those who did as instructed would miraculously get well after that.
Coins were also tossed during prayers and food offerings. These were bribes for the guardians of hell, namely the Gu Thau Beh Bin (Bull Head and Horse Face). Yes, we have to offer bribes to these officers from the afterworld, too. There is no escaping that. I was expressedly forbidden to pick those coins up. Imagine what the “mata” would do if you gave him a bribe and then asked for it back. I shudder to think of the consequences.
If I hear my name being called in the middle of the night, I must never turn back to look or acknowledge. I should just pretend I did not hear it. It could be a buddy trying to take my soul. I have always wondered how these buddies knew my name. It was not like I wore T-shirts that screamed “My name is Peter.” Friends, if I do not respond to you calling out my name after dark, please know that I am not being snobbish. You now know the reason.
And the final and most important taboo: Mm thang si sua pang jio (Do not simply pee wherever I want). If I really had to go, I should first put my hand together in prayer as a sign of respect requesting buddies in the vicinity to move aside. The consequences for giving them a golden shower without giving due warning could be dire.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is also a month of entertainment for buddies and the living alike. Local communities would stage Chinese operas and kotai, which essentially is a concert. The first row seats are always reserved for buddies and kept empty. Woe betide anyone who dares to occupy those seats. The kotai of late have run into controversy for featuring scantily clad entertainers. Apparently these shows are by popular request of the audience, mostly of the breathing and living kind rather than the buddies.
Tai Su Yeah (King of Hades) is invited to preside over these celebrations, his presence symbolised by a huge paper effigy standing before sumptous offerings of foodstuff that will later be distributed to worshippers and charities. Dinner banquets would be held to raise funds for charitible organisations. At the end of the event which may span from three to seven days, the effigy is lighted into a bonfire together with other paper offerings to mark the end of the festival and the buddies returning to Hades to wait for another year.
There had been instances when some wayward buddies refuse to return so that they can enjoy more of the good times, sort of like foreigners coming into our country on a tourist visa and then hang around to work illegally afterwards. Anyone who is down on his luck and had the misfortune of being possessed by these buddies would have a voracious appetite and yet be hungry all the time. In cases like these, mediums would have to be called in to exorcise these buddies to send them back to where they belong.
Now that I have grown up, I still observe some of these practices, not out of fear, but out of respect for Taoists and what they believe in. It would be rude to trample on the offerings left indiscriminately on the roadside or make a mockery of those taboos, no matter how far-fetched they may sound. After all, no matter what our faiths are, there are similarities when it comes to respecting souls, ghosts, buddies or whatever we chose to call them.