The Hungry Ghost Festival – A Symbol of Community Solidarity

By Lim Sok Swan, Alexander Fernandez

September 2022 PHOTO ESSAY
main image
The Hungry Ghost Festival in Bukit Mertajam is well-known for its giant Tai Su Yeah paper statue (an effigy representing the amalgamation of wandering ghosts in the area) that grows yearly. In 2019, it stood at 27 feet 7 inches. Though many businesses were affected by the pandemic, this year’s Tai Su Yeah has grown to an impressive 28 feet. It is a symbol of the local community's strong solidarity and spirit. The paper statue is ephemeral. After 15 days of ritual prayers and offerings, Tai Su Yeah has to be sent back to hell. To do this, the statue is moved to the junction between Jalan Pasar and Jalan Danby to be burned. Fire acts as a medium between different realms in traditional Chinese belief.

Photos by Alexander Fernandez

THE HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL, which takes place annually throughout the seventh month of the lunar calendar (which falls around August this year), is when many from the Chinese community would give offerings to wandering ghosts.

Different legends expound these ritual practices, the most common one being that the gates of hell are thrust open annually on the seventh month of the lunar calendar. For the entirety of the month, hungry ghosts are released to roam in the human realm. Another well-known story is an edifying one about filial piety – Mu Lian attempted to save his sinful mother from torture in hell through special prayers and offerings on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.

Presently, the Chinese give offerings to avoid offending unseen ghosts in their surroundings and, simultaneously, bring good luck to themselves. Different communities also practise collective prayers, for example, the long-established Hungry Ghost Festival in Bukit Mertajam, which involves local guilds, businesses and residents, has become one of the most significant and biggest ritual ceremonies in Malaysia.

Nowadays, such ceremonies are also a fundraising channel to help the poor or improve educational facilities in the community. In Penang, Teong Guan Association collects donations from sacrificial activities and helps educational institutions in need. “Teong Guan” means "mid-year" in Hokkien. The Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which is in the middle of the year. Therefore, it is also called the Mid-Year Festival or Por Thor, which refers to the sacrificial ceremony that releases souls from suffering.

Firefighters hose down the surrounding facilities and buildings to prevent them from catching fire and clean up the scene after the ceremony.
Because of its vast size, the Tai Su Yeah paper statue in Bukit Mertajam takes at least a month to complete. These paper statues in different regions of Malaysia differ in their appearances and clothing based on the preference of the local community and worshippers. However, all of them feature a Goddess of Mercy mini-statue on their heads, symbolising sympathy and sacrifice for the wandering ghosts and ensuring that the process can be carried out smoothly.
The Hungry Ghost Festival in Bukit Mertajam is the most famous community sacrificial event in Northern Malaysia and is attended by worshippers both inside and outside of the community. After two years of suspension due to the pandemic, the crowd has returned to its previous scale.
In George Town, the Hungry Ghost Festival is usually jointly held by the community of a street or several streets. Almost nightly throughout the month, pockets of communities gather for the ceremonial prayers and sacrifices. The picture shows the collective effort of communities from Lorong Selamat, Jalan Zainal Abidin, Jalan Rangoon and Lorong Abu Siti to carry the Tai Su Yeah paper statue out for cremation after five days of worship.
In the past, in addition to ritual offerings, the Hungry Ghost Festival also included a traditional opera show to entertain the community and nearby wandering ghosts. These performances are performed in the Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese dialects. In recent years, these events have been gradually taken over by stage performances of singing and dancing (ko tai in Hokkien).
This year's Hungry Ghost Festival in Lebuh Acheh features a Teochew puppet troupe from Bukit Mertajam. The stage faces the Tai Su Yeah paper statue.
An announcement by the communities of Cintra Street and People's Court detailing their participation in the Hungry Ghost Festival, written in Mandarin on a piece of red paper. It lists the names of people and businesses who are involved.
The communities of Cintra Street and People's Court have another way of announcing their holding of the Hungry Ghost prayers – a flag with the words "Yu Lan Sheng Hui" along the street near the place of worship. "Yu Lan" is another name for the Hungry Ghost Festival in the Buddhist tradition.

The Hungry Ghost Festival is an important event for those who believe in reincarnation. The picture shows a Hindu priest with offerings at a prayer session for the victims of the Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal bridge collapse on July 31, 1988, organised by the Penang Teong Guan Association. The ceremony also pays homage to Covid-19 victims and Penang Bridge suicide victims.
Oblations to the hungry ghosts usually come in the form of objects made of paper. The picture shows a paper model of a ferry at the prayer ceremony held on the 34th anniversary of the collapse of the Sultan Abdul Halim ferry terminal bridge.
Taoist priests play a crucial role in the sacrificial rituals of the Hungry Ghost Festival. They determine the timing, length and content of the ceremonies.
Offerings at the Hungry Ghost Festival include food, fruits, traditional pastries and all types of paper offerings – most of them paper-wrapped clothes and supplies for Tai Su Yeah and the hungry ghosts.
Paper statues and other paper offerings must be sent to the streets for incineration on time, even in heavy rain, as required by the Taoist priests.
Hungry Ghost Festivals usually end in a bonfire that "teleports" the offerings to the underworld.

Lim Sok Swan

is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.

Alexander Fernandez

is a USM graduate. While most people eat to live, he lives to eat instead.