You don’t need to meet a ghost to know the seventh month of the lunar calendar has started.
There’d be the smell of something burning in the air, the sight of flyaway joss paper strewn by the roadside and the din from getai stages that pop up to entertain heartlanders.
Starting this year on Aug 11, the Hungry Ghost Festival – or ghost month as it’s colloquially known – is a yearly month-long practice of ancestor worship observed mainly by the Chinese in Singapore.
While the burning of offerings and other ritualistic performances are Taoist practices, they have been the focal point of disputes – each year, the National Environment Agency receives over 500 complaints regarding the burning of joss paper.
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Whether you’re a believer or not, the festival has deep cultural roots in Singapore and has spawned superstitions that have become a part of our local culture.
Here’s a guide to surviving the ghost month, without stepping on human (or ghostly) toes.
Do not disrespect offerings
Over the years, some believers have earned the ire of the public for tossing joss paper carelessly during prayers, causing ashes and half-burnt offerings to fly everywhere.
Although the Taoist Federation has taken steps to remind its devotees to use burning bins provided by town council to reduce the mess, it’s still common to see makeshift altars and offerings left along foot or bicycle paths.
Annoying as it may be, it is extremely rude to deliberately kick an altar as these are sacred to some. For believers, these offerings are meant to provide reprieve to ancestors who have not attained nirvana, with the hope that the spirits would move on to a better place.
Ideally, it would be great if the offerings were laid out in an orderly line instead of haphazardly along the path. And if you accidentally knock an offering over, try and place everything back neatly. I’d also offer a word of apology. You can, too, if you’re inclined.
Do not hang your clothes out to dry overnight
If you live on the lower floor of an HDB flat, you might have already developed a tolerance to the smell of incense and joss paper. Your laundry, however, might not.
There is the belief that laundry left hanging out to dry overnight, especially red ones, would attract spirits. While you might not believe that you could be sharing your favourite H&M top with a seamstress from the ’40s, you wouldn’t want it smelling like teen spirit, would you?
You could do the smart thing by drying your laundry indoors during this month.
Do not stay out late in the night because spirit might follow you back.
During this month, it’s common for parents to warn their children not to stay out too late as it is believed that spirits start to roam the earth when it gets dark. So staying out would mean hanging out with these spirits, and worse than that, they could follow you home.
The ghost month is about ancestors, but it is essentially about family. Even if you aren’t a believer, it’d be a great time to be back home early for some family bonding time, especially if there are no living human friends hanging out with you late in the night.
Avoid renovations or changes
It is said that during the ghost month, one should avoid making big changes to the home as it disturbs resident spirits. Thus, many families avoid moving to a new home or renovating their living space during this month in order to avoid the bad luck associated with incurring the wrath of their ancestors.
The belief is apparently widespread enough that it causes a dip in the property market. A study done by Agarwal Sumit, the vice dean of research at NUS in 2015, showed that non-superstitious buyers were actually able to save up to 7.43 per cent of property prices during the ghost month.
So if you’re not superstitious, this month might be a great time to get into the property market. And if you’re planning on having renovations done to your abode, whether it’s old or new, do spare a thought for your neighbours who would rather not have the spirits of their ancestors disturbed. You may not have to deal with spirits, but your living neighbours might give you hell afterwards.
No doubt the ghost month may pose inconvenience to non-believers, but it is ultimately a festival that is observed and celebrated in the spirit of peace. If you’re one of those with exacting standards for public hygiene and hate having your peace and quiet disrupted, bear in mind that this will last for only a month.
By being gracious during this period, you would also be improving the chances of living in peace and harmony with your neighbours for the next 99 years or whatever remains of the lease on your property.