THE SEVENTH MONTH of the Lunar calendar is often referred to as the month of the “Hungry Ghost”. Believers hold rituals and ceremonies to pay respect, and a great variety of offerings are made, to wandering spirits during their month-long return to the human plane.
In Penang the Hungry Ghost Festival dates back more than two centuries. But with the establishment of Persatuan Teong Guan Pulau Pinang in the 1970s, the celebrations are better coordinated and have become more uniformed. The association currently manages about 400 committees.
Notwithstanding its cultural significance, the festival also holds important social values. Each year, one Chinese primary school is selected to be the recipient of fund-raising efforts during the festivities. The donations collected are for the improving and upgrading of the school’s facilities. To date, 40 schools have benefitted from this financial assistance; and the selection has gone beyond Penang Island to include Seberang Perai.
For decades, Ooi says, she had witnessed the troupe’s many ups and downs, but never had it been without income.
Owing to the Covid-19 pestilence, however, grand celebrations have given way to small-scale ones. This means that traditional performances and the burning of large paper effigies will not take place this year. “This has been a difficult yet necessary decision to make, but we have to consider the safety and health of the community. We are appreciative of the understanding and support from our members throughout this process,” says Heng Yak Hoi, the chairman of Persatuan Teong Guan Pulau Pinang, who is in charge of coordinating the festival’s celebrations with stakeholders.
When asked about the impacts of downsizing the festival, Heng says, “It is still too soon to tell. However, the core elements of the ritual are based on the sincerity of devotees. And with this in mind, the tradition will live on and be passed down to following generations. Next year, when the conditions are better, we will celebrate together again.”
Decades of Crafting Paper Effigy
On the last day of the Hungry Ghost Festival, the Da Shi Ye will be burnt to symbolise the deity’s merry send-off for the year. Photo: Ch'ng Kiah Kiean.
The ghost king Da Shi Ye is the festival’s main deity. Its paper effigy is often placed at the centre of the altar to be worshipped. On the last night and as the climax of the celebrations, the paper effigy will be burned in a huge bonfire, symbolising the deity’s merry send-off for the year.
Penang is home to a wealthy tradition of paper offerings and effigies. But with the ready availability of China-made products today, many of these traditional workshops have been forced out of business. Only six are left standing; 358 Custom Effigies Workshop at Lebuh Macallum is one of them.
Koh Beng Hock, 63, learned the skill when he was 15, and he has made sure to pass his expertise down to his son and successor, Koh Eng Keat. They typically receive about 40 bookings in the months leading up to the Hungry Ghost Festival. But when I visited their premises last July, the workshop was shockingly empty of paper effigies. But Koh does not seem perturbed by the situation. “Everything that happens has its reasons and purposes. This is the first time in 30 years that I am able to take a rest. More importantly, it has allowed us to rethink and revise our designs. I’m always trying to incorporate more characters into my paper offerings and effigies. Perhaps now is the time.”
Traditional Troupes in Financial Straits
The puppets and decorations of the Beng Geok Hong troupe.
Traditional Chinese opera is yet another indispensable component of the Hungry Ghost festivities. They are often set up on streets, in open spaces and at temples to pay tribute to deities during their birthdays or on special occasions, and to entertain the community with classic Chinese plays such as “A House Filled with Wealth and Prosperity”, often with educational and moral values blended into the storylines.1
Traditional performing art troupes would also travel to temples in various states. But Covid-19 has financially derailed many of them, including Beng Geok Hong, one of the oldest Hokkien glove puppet troupes in Penang. Founded in the 1930s, the troupe is currently managed by Ooi See Han and consists of four main members, all above 60 years of age, juggling a variety of roles as musicians, singers, drummers and puppeteers.
Pre-pandemic, each member was able to earn about RM1,000 per month, after deducting travel and logistics costs. Since March however, there has been zero performances. To add insult to injury, July is usually a big month for Beng Geok Hong, during which about 20 days’ worth of performances are usually slotted in. For decades, Ooi says, she had witnessed the troupe’s many ups and downs, but never had it been without income.
Still, she is hopeful that the tide will soon turn.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.