Survival Guide to the Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival
Welcome to LTL Mandarin Schools guide to the Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival.
If you’re in Singapore in August/September, you’ll probably be asking yourself what the hell is going on? The pristine city is full of trashcans on fire sending ash everywhere!
You’ll also find offerings strewed out across footpaths and large tents in parks with live performances.
Late August and early September is a very out of character period of time for Singaporeans given what we know about the government’s harsh penalties for littering.
However, there is a straightforward explanation. It’s the Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival!
Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival, known locally as just Ghost Festival or Zhongyuan Jie (中元節), Gui Jie (鬼節) or Yulan Festival (盂兰盆节) is a Buddhist and Taoist festival celebrated in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Similar to America’s Hallowe’en, the Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival is a mysterious and eerie time for locals and can be downright frightening for those who do not obey the rules of the spiritual festival.
What is the Story Behind the Hungry Ghost Festival?
The origins of the Ghost Festival go back to ancient India from a Mahayana Scripture which depicts the story of Maudgalyāyana (birth name: Kolita) who was one of Buddha’s closest disciples.
Legend has it that when Maudgalyayana reached enlightenment (Abhijñā), he then used his new powers to find his deceased parents.
He discovered his mother to be in the hungry ghost realm (hell), not surprisingly she was withered and hungry, but when Maudgalyayana tried to give her a bowl of rice it turned to ash.
Maudgalyayana asked Buddha to help him. Buddha explained that you can transfer merits to your parents in this life and past lives.
You can do so by offering food during ‘Pravarana’ (Buddist Lent) which is around the end of the monsoon season and occurs on the 15th day of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar.
How Long is the Hungry Ghost Festival?
The Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. Being lunar-based means the official date on the Gregorian calendar is constantly changing.
To see all previous and upcoming dates for the Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival, check out this Chinese calendar.
The Hungry Ghost Festival then lasts a total of fifteen days.
Some previous and upcoming dates for Singapore Hungry Ghost Festivals:
- August 15th, 2019
- September 2nd, 2020
- August 22nd, 2021
- August 12th, 2022
What do you do During the Hungry Ghost Festival?
If you believe in the superstitions of Hungry Ghost Festival, you’ll have plenty of reasons for wanting not to upset the troubled spirits that are wandering the streets.
Many people in Singapore give out offerings to appease the wandering spirits of their ancestors. These offerings are usually ceremonial victuals (food), incense, joss paper, hell money and origami-like paper gifts.
You’ll see designated tents and sheds appear around the city as a designated area for locals to burn their offerings.
Go check out the nightly Chinese operas, which are put on to entertain the living and the dead. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT sit in the front row as these seats are reserved for the ghosts.
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What CAN’T you do During the Hungry Ghost Festival?
We have already touched on a big NO-NO when attending the nightly Chinese operas during ghost festival but there are a few more good practice don’ts for you during Singapore’s Hungry Ghost Festival.
- DON’T touch the food offerings.
- DON’T stand your chopsticks vertically into your rice as starving ghosts might take this to be an invitation to join you to eat.
- DON’T wear red or black as these colours attract ghosts.
- DON’T take selfies unless you want some supernatural photo-bombers.
- DON’T swim in the ocean at night, spirits who drowned are looking for a people to trade places with them so they can be re-born.
- DON’T move to a new house, start a business or get married as this is considered to be an ill-omened time.
- DON’T pick up money on the street as ghosts might think you’re doing so to bribe the guards of hell and might make the afterlife harder for you.
- DON’T sleep facing a mirror as they attract spirits.
- DON’T kill bugs, they might be your reincarnated ancestors coming to visit you.
Bonus: avoid number 4 at all times but more so during ghost festival as it sounds like ‘death’.
What is a Hungry Ghost?
A Hungry Ghost is a concept taught in Chinese folk religion, Taoism and Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhism.
A ‘Hungry Ghost‘ isn’t a literal hungry ghost.
To understand what a Hungry Ghost is, first you must understand the meaning of a regular ‘Ghost’.
When you die, you become a regular ghost and would slowly weaken and die a second time.
By contrast, a ‘Hungry Ghost’ is s spirit of a person who has died under miserable circumstances.
Hungry Ghosts can emerge from death by violence, being unhappy or when a whole family is killed, and the family can no longer pay tribute and make offerings to their ancestors.
Buddhism and Taoism also say that a soul can be reborn as a hungry ghost if you commit evil deeds such as killing, stealing or sexual misconduct.
When was the First Ghost Festival celebrated?
The Ghost Festival first appeared in the first half of the 6th century AD as a Buddhist festival.
In Singapore the festival was first mention in a newspaper in 1873 meaning it would have been celebrated around the same time the British arrived.
Discover more about Singapore’s history.
Is Hungry Ghost Festival a Public Holiday in Singapore?
Sorry to tell you, your Singaporean boss will NOT be letting you take the day off during the Ghost Festival.
Even though the Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival represents the ‘gates of hell opening’ and the spirit realm and earth being closer than usual. Buddhist teachings tell us not to be afraid, in fact, quite the opposite!
It is a time of joy and celebration! Hence the pop-up stages with performances called getais (歌台).
Please do enjoy the show at the getais, the locals don’t bite, and it’s truly a very special thing to be a part of as this tradition is only performed in Singapore and Malaysia as part of their ghost festival.
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Singapore Hungry Ghost Festival – FAQ’s
Where did the Hungry Ghost Festival originate?
The Hungry Ghost festival originated in the 6th century AD in India as a Buddhist tradition.
Today it is celebrated in southern China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Is Hungry Ghost festival a public holiday in Singapore?
It is NOT a public holiday during the Hungry Ghost festival in Singapore.
What can’t you do during the Hungry Ghost Festival?
Some superstitions around the Hungry Ghost Festival are not to touch food offerings, put your chopsticks vertically in food, pick up money on the street or go swimming at night time.
See our full list of Do’s and Don’ts during Singapore’s Hungry Ghost Festival and the reasons behind each rule.
When is the Hungry Ghost Festival in 2021?
The Hungry Ghost Festival always begins on July 15th according to the Lunar calendar.
In 2021 it will begin on August 22nd according to the Gregorian calendar.
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