When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the streets of Malaysia and Singapore, looking for mundane entertainment
By Marco Ferrarese
On the stage tonight, a scantily clad Chinese Venus is seeking some serious attention. Spotlights play hide and seek on the tiny cloth wrapped around her long legs, which bend provocatively as she drizzles pure pop sugar into the mic. Under normal circumstances, such a performance would command roses thrown at her feet and frenzied calls for an encore. But not tonight. Tonight she performs to a row of sad, empty seats.
“Do not sit in the front rows!” screams Ang Hoi over the pounding dance beats. He is a Chinese shop owner-turned-medium for the occasion. “Those chairs are reserved for the ghosts!” he insists.
During this seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar – starting around mid- to late-August – one of Southeast Asia’s most colourful and entertaining festivals takes place in Malaysia and Singapore: Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. Far from being steamrolled into a steel and concrete mass grave in these quickly modernising nations, the traditional beliefs of the huaren (overseas Chinese) are alive and well, and celebrating the time of year when the king of hell, Tai Su Yah, opens the gates of Hades and unleashes these hungry ghosts upon Earth.
“You do not want to mess with them,” Mr Hoi continues frantically. “They deserve our utmost respect, as they are back from hell… such a bad, hard place. They are hungry for life.”
Visitors need not fear, however, as they do not pitch up in this world with a taste for human flesh. On the contrary, they look for the comforts they have been deprived of in the poorly stocked aisles of HellMart: tasty food, respectful prayers and trivial entertainment.
For a whole month, the Chinese community winds down from the usual six ‘til nine daily grind and ushers in a display of burlesque devotion. On most street corners, impromptu homemade shrines display towers of fruit, cold beers and barbecued pigs. Devotees with coloured joss sticks come and go all day long, drawing slow, smoky circles in the air. Tai Su Yah, realised in six-metre-high cardboard form, enjoys the show from his paper throne, his grin revealing a pair of menacing fangs.
A deep-rooted respect for the deceased is what makes the industrious huaren halt their daily business to please the spirits by praying to the small shrines, organising Chinese opera performances, or staging saucy singing shows that have a special VIP ghost section. Those of the mortal world are only permitted to sit at the back.
The spectacular show of unity with the dead does not find favour with all of the two countries’ diverse ethnic groups. “I think they are crazy,” confesses a Malay Muslim passer-by. “They should not mess with the spirits, it is dangerous… In my religion, we are taught to steer well clear of the supernatural.”
Yet the huaren seem to have a different idea of their cult of the dead. “Our ancestors feel very lonely down there. They miss this world and their past lives,” says Chook Moi, a middle-aged lady pausing from her ghostly errands. “When they come back to us for a month every year, we have to give them something special to help their life in hell.”
She sets fire to a stack of hell notes – replica currency emblazoned with the face of Tai Su Yah – a humble gift to her dead parents. “I am sending them a bit of money for the upcoming year,” she concludes with a smile.
When the end of the month draws closer, with ghoulish hunger satiated, a procession of howling devotees will carry the statues of Tai Su Yah around town for one last glorious ride. As the clock strikes midnight, the remaining hell notes are piled on huge pyres and the king of hell is sent back from whence he came in a ritual street bonfire.
The pretty pop performances continue until the very last and one French tourist caught up in the maelstrom wonders if the shows aren’t a little out of place. But with young and old huaren coming together in a celebration that sees them forget the pressure of business for just a short while, sometimes it is better not to wonder too much and, instead, just enjoy a little miniskirt exorcism.