The Hungry Ghost Festival











The Penang state government has taken an initiative to introduce the cultures of Penang to the international front, and one of the largest festival in Penang that received such attention is the Hungry Ghost Festival. In year 2010, the state government had began sponsoring a venue for this event as part of the state's effort to boost the cultural interest and tourist attraction.

What is the significance of this celebration? In the past, this Chinese lunar 7th month is a time when parents forbid their children from swimming or going out late at night, out of fear for the hungry ghosts who may be seeking for a replacement. This is, after all, a time when the Gates of Hell are opened, and the ghosts are free to roam around. However, who are the hungry ghosts?

Along the streets, one will see the burning of paper effigies and the offering of foods to those we call the “good brothers”. The hungry ghosts are perceived as “brothers” and they are usually wandering spirits with no relatives offering them anything to ease their pain and hunger during the normal tomb sweeping days that occurs each year. There is probably not even a place for them to rest, being that some of them may have died in accidents along the roads and failed rituals were not able to bring them to rest in peace under the care of their descendants.

On the other hand, ancestors too will be home to their descendants for a food feast specially prepared for them. In most cases, the descendants will go to one of the makeshift altars housing the Ghost King and participate in the ritual to appease the souls of the late ancestors by putting the names of these ancestors up on a piece of yellow paper stuck on the wall. There may be offerings of foods, clothes and hell notes for their use, and the offerings depend very much on which religion group the altar belongs to.

The Makeshift Altar

It looks more like a tent for a party. The party is full of foods set on a buffet line, and the main cast for this party is the Ghost King, the Da Shi Ye. The Da Shi Ye has a wrathful look, with fangs and fiery eyes, and sits majestically in the middle of the altar, a gigantic statue made of paper too. The Ghost King, also called the King of Hell, is said to originate from the Avalokitesvara, or the Bodhisattva Goddess of Mercy, who took the wrathful physique to make the mischievous and naughty ghosts humble and scared.

There are taboos pertaining to the offering of foods to the Da Shi Ye. The table which is set right in front of the huge statue should all belong to the Da Shi Ye, and parents would advise children to stay away from it. One story said that a mother once had to temporarily put her baby on the table because her hands were full. The moment she returned, the baby had died. The spirit medium who became the middleman in the conversation stated that the Da Shi Ye had thought that the baby was a food offering to him, hence he had eaten the child. It was not known whether the baby was then returned to the mother or not.


During the festival, a makeshift stage is often constructed facing the altar directly. There will be performances, such as Chinese opera or modern singers, who performs not for the public but actually for the 'brothers'. In many instance, seats are placed in front of the stage with the first rows reserved without any visible audience. In many cases, those who reportedly has the third eye said that the front row seats were full of 'brothers' sitting there to enjoy the show.


The end of the duration for the makeshift altar is usually marked by the ceremony of burning paper effigies, including the statue of the Da Shi Ye as a mark to send him back to hell. Prior to that, there will be a lot of offerings depicted by the burning of paper effigies, hell notes, clothes and other items made of paper, blessed by the chief monk or master who chairs the ceremonies in the makeshift altar.

These are offerings to the wandering ghosts. During the burning of these paper effigies, some strange phenomenon may happen, especially the formation of strong, wild fires that seems to resemble hands snatching the items in a fiery manner, even if there is no strong winds during that time. It may rain too, and the explanation to this is the concentration of “Yin” aura around the area with too many hungry souls around.

Each altar has a different master and a different ritual. Visitors may watch, but not to make comments to avoid offending the Da Shi Ye.

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