If you’re in Penang and feel like you’re being watched as you tuck into your bowl of asam laksa or char koay teow, you might just be right. The seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar is known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, when the gates of the underworld are opened and a whole host of salivating spirits come out to roam the physical realm, in search earthly delights, entertainment and – as you might expect – food.
The festival takes place from 7 August to 4 September 2013, and on the basis that Penang is known as Malaysia’s culinary capital, it’s a fair bet that this is where the majority of the country’s starving spectres turn up. During this month, ghosts who were not given a proper burial and were banished to the underworld, or else those whose living ancestors have failed to pay them proper tribute, are able to relive their physical lives.
Some of these underfed, long-necked ghosts are merely hungry for comfort and food, while others may want to seek revenge or tidy up unfinished business. Either way, it probably pays to be respectful to the spirits and stay on their good side. The seventh month is thought to be very inauspicious and there is a long list of things you should avoid doing during the festival, for fear of gaining unwanted attention and bringing bad luck on yourself or your family.
Locals avoid getting married, opening new businesses, moving house or even buying new furniture. Parties are avoided, and many people will try to get home before dusk descends. But how does this unlucky month affect travellers? Well, you should ideally avoid all land, sea or air transport. You shouldn’t walk around late at night. You should never whistle or sing after dark. Drinking alcohol is a definite no-no (you will need your wits about you). Oh, and swimming is not advised.
Given that this is meant to be a festival, it may not sound all that fun and indeed, it seems that most of the celebrating is done by the ghosts, rather than the living. Human activity seems to be concerned with damage limitation and appeasing these potentially malevolent visitors. But fear not: most of these ghosts are entirely harmless and for those that aren’t, there are plenty of people in Penang who are doing their bit to try and keep the ghosts happy.
Throughout the streets of Georgetown, you will see offerings of food laid out at the sides of the road, along with smouldering joss sticks. People also burn paper money, known as ‘hell bank notes’, as well as paper effigies of worldly possessions, such as houses, cars, televisions and even iPads, in their efforts to mollify the angry ghosts, and it is fascinating to see these rituals alive and well in the heritage town.
Many streets hold gatherings on different nights throughout the festival, where people join together to socialise, eat and pay homage to the ghosts. Trestle tables are set up, laden with fruit, cakes and joss sticks, and people light huge pyres of hell money and paper effigies, filling the air with smoke and — hopefully — satisfying the ghosts’ cravings.
This is also a great time of year to experience traditional Teochew and Hokkien open-air operas and puppet shows, laid on for the entertainment of both departed and living souls, which take place across the whole of Penang. A full list of performances can be found on the Penang State Tourism website. These are dying art forms in much of Asia, yet still have a strong following in Penang; there can be few more impressive backdrops for these shows than the historical streets of Georgetown. Just make sure you don’t go and sit in the apparently empty, yet very much reserved, front row of seats — you may just find yourself sitting in the lap of one of those moody, hungry ghosts!