When I was a kid, I used to help my grandmother out in the various Taoist rituals and beliefs. my grandma used to observe the rituals of the Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as 7th month (of Lunar calendar), where it is believed that in this month, the gates of hell open and all ghosts come out to play. So to appease them, believers will burn joss paper, sticks and offer fruit and food to ensure no mischief.
Performances are also arranged to entertain these ghosts. these shows are either wayang shows (traditional chinese opera), puppet shows or getai (literally translated as song on stage). the first two are often matched with traditional chinese music performed with chinese instruments. the latter is more modern, like performance karaoke. the front row seats of these shows are typically left empty for these “ghosts”.
my office holds incense burning sessions coz the land which we sit upon has had a bloody history and those who follow Taoist traditions would rather take precautions to ensure ping an (peace). i would contribute to the fund but i rarely attend these things. however, i’m quite close to one of the people in charge of these things and she asked me to join in the office session (there were 2 others for public areas). i didn’t ask why but i guessed it could be because I do stay late at work at times.
the session was held at the back of the office. we spent a few minutes folding “ingots” out of the gold and silver paper before setting it all on fire. as the flame grew bigger, we all took turns to toss something into the metal barrel of ash. i took care of the 10,000 dollar bills (my colleague noted i was like my boss, handled only the big notes) and was told that I had to say something while tossing money in. my only question was, “do they speak English?” so i asked for peace and happiness and more bonus.
in this month they also hold the hungry ghost dinners. i really have no idea the purpose behind it except that during these dinners, which are much like chinese 10 course wedding dinners, they also hold auctions where they sell off items of fortune. everything was fortunate. Fortunate barrels of rice blessed by Taoist monks, fortune Martell VSOP liquor, fortune golden phoenix statue, fortunate mahjong tiles, fortunae blinky light thingy with Chinese word of fortune in the middle. i have no idea who donates these things, or where the money usually goes to. sometimes all money goes to some temple as donations.
the last time i attended something like that was a child. i can never forget the raucous that came with it. 7th month auctions are very different from those held at Christies. it’s loud, noisy and messy. a guy stands on stage and starts shouting in Hokkien the price of the item, everyone is eating and talking at the same time. people are stationed throughout the hall to ensure that any increase in bid is not missed with a blow of a whistle. i just sat amidst all that ignoring everything.
i went for one last week with my colleagues. midway through dinner. a performer from Taiwan (see picture) started singing traditional hokkien songs, much to the delight of all the middle aged people around us. my jaw dropped open as i stared at her glittery white dress with plunging neckline. i guess it helped that she had big boobs. i couldn’t stop staring. after a few songs, she burst into a dialogue with the emcee which i understood naught of since it was completely in Hokkien. but my guess was that it was dirty and vulgar and made a lot of references to the penis. These singers get paid a lot during 7th month.
it makes me wonder though if such traditions will die out with the next generation. even at mine, i don’t follow the practices and only watch the going-ons with amusement. if i ever had children, i’m sure they probably will never experience something like that unless i make it a school excursion or something. in future, these things will become a augmented reality museum exhibit.