A team from a local company burns paper offerings on a back alley in Singapore's China Town during the Hungry Ghost Festival. They consider their paper offering as being the biggest in the neighborhood, with a value of more than 1000 SGD. Companies often make paper offerings during the festival to seek prosperity and luck in the future. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

Hungry Ghost Month animates the streets of Singapore

SINGAPORE (RNS) — This time of year, the streets of Singapore come alive with celebrations of Hungry Ghost Month.

Buddhists and Taoists throughout Asia believe the gates of  hell open during the seventh month on the lunar calendar. The ghosts of the departed come back to visit the living, who have a special opportunity to pray for their departed ancestors, leave them food offerings and perform other rituals to alleviate their sufferings.

The 15th day of Hungry Ghost Month — Sept. 5 in 2017 — is marked by Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival.

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“In Singapore the Hungry Ghost Festival traditions represent a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese folklore,” said Terence Heng, a sociologist at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

Public walkways and green spaces become temporary religious spaces during this time of the year. Believers make roadside offerings and create makeshift altars for spirits that resemble temples.

The roots of the festival date back more than 2,000 years ago, when Mulian (or Maudgalyayana), a disciple of the Buddha, had a vision that his mother was suffering in hell. Taking the Buddha's advice, Mulian organized on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month a ceremony to redeem her soul by giving offerings and chanting sutras — texts of Buddhist scripture.

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Over the millennia, a tradition of offering paper objects developed — paper representations of things departed relatives might need or like that are burned alongside altars with food offerings. In Singapore the objects range from paper money to paper clothing, cars, houses, mobile phones or credit cards.

Individuals and families give offerings, but companies also organize ritual burning in hopes of ensuring prosperity.

For Buddhists and Taoists during Hungry Ghost Month, the line between the realms of the living and dead blurs. It is believed that the short time spent among humans will serve as an incentive for the ghosts to atone and lead better lives in future reincarnations. For the living, it is an opportunity to honor their ancestors.


  1. You are in error. You are being corrected right now. One’s mileage may vary on how and when such things are appropriate.

    In most cases it is obnoxious prattling done in a tone deaf manner. You seek to supercede and denigrate the beliefs of another faith to praise your own. Your goal was to disrespect Taoist and Buddhist belief.

  2. As a group Jim, they generally don’t. But as **individuals** — that’s where Heb. 4:12 comes in. 2 Sam. 12:23 might just be the Scripture that an online Buddhist surfer might need to hear, during this Hungry Ghost mess.

    (And yes Spuddie, it IS a mess. Essentially it’s what missionary George Otis referred to as “Pact-Making.” There’s good intelligent people, even entire business companies, making ritual pacts with what they think are reasonable spirits or ghosts or their own departed ones. (But in reality they’re cutting deals with deceptive, malevolent, malicious You-Know-What’s-That-Start-With-The-Letter-“D”).

    So yes, there’s some good reason not only to present texts lke 2 Sam 12:23 to Buddhist readers, but also equally present the text to Christians and non-Christians who may be saying, “Oh this is just another cute little harmless cultural quirk.”

  3. Thank you for proving my point. Christian folk like yourself do not respect beliefs besides their own and do not play well with others. It always has to be about your beliefs. No inkling to the sensible notion that nobody is compelled to take your version of an invisible sky daddy any more seriously then another person’s.

    “Oh this is just another cute little harmless cultural quirk.”

    I wish it were the case with monotheistic fundamentalists. But they are hardly quirks and tend to be legitimate threats of mayhem.

    But no, Taoism and Buddhism aren’t cultural.quirks. They are religions and belief systems. Just like yours. You don’t like ancestor veneration inherent to that belief, don’t be one. Unlike Christianity, nobody forces you to join.

  4. The Catholics and Mormons that I’ve come to know through my discussions with them of the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected, have their versions of “honor[ing] their ancestors” in like manner. They, too, “pray for their departed ancestors”, among other things. “Mulian”, then, “or Maudgalyayana”, wasn’t the only one who started this tradition, having “had a vision that” somebody or other “was suffering in hell” and that there must be a way from this side if “hell … to redeem her soul” or his. But the Early Church Wolves I mean Fathers and Joseph Smith, too, were pioneers of sorts in this area. So it’s not just “for Buddhists and Taoists”, then, that “the line between the realms of the living and dead blurs.” But for the forebears of us all here as well. Not me, though. And if there’s one takeaway for my atheist friends here, it’s, Attention, attention, death isn’t permanent nor the end. Only The Second Death is the end, and that, too, is eternal, as in eternally good or eternally bad. The latter sentence is all my ad lib-bing here, of course. Anyway, thanks much, Alexandra Radu, for this wonderfully presented writing, with photos full of amazing stories of their own. Which you took yourself – wow! They bring fond memories of my life’s travels through Southeast Asia.

  5. It’s always good to show respect to people of all belief systems (helps facilitate lots of friendly interfaith communication).

    But if you see somebody trying to stick a screwdriver into a live electrical socket, you better just ditch all that sugar-coated ecumenism, and just speak the emergency truth already.

    These pact-making Hungry Ghosts (and the phrase is an apt one), simply don’t play, bay-bay !!

  6. “Only The Second Death is the end, and that, too, is eternal, as in eternally good or eternally bad.”

    Unless you are Buddhist, since the religion has no eternal afterlife. 🙂

  7. Like I said, an ad lib on my part, that. But yeah that’s a toughie, this endless cyclism, whatever. Even for Buddhists, so they tell me. What can they do to break the cycle and be better off in the next round. Well, that’s why they practise their religion. My common ground or starting point of open discussion with them, then, is human suffering. I really think they have a better grasp of (though not handle on) suffering than Bible Christians.

    What’s your experience like with Buddhists anyway, if you don’t mind me asking, Spuddie?

  8. “What’s your experience like with Buddhists anyway, if you don’t mind me asking, Spuddie?”

    My wife is from Japan. She was raised Buddhist and attended a Buddhist religious school in her youth. One of her aunts is a monk. So mostly through her and my in-laws. Plus her parents live in a major ancient cultural hot-spot. Tons of shrines/temples a short distance from them.

  9. REALLY? Wow, man! That’s it, that’s Spuddie! Yes! Times like this I wish I can meet you in person. Oops, that’s breaking protocol at RNS. Sorry.

    But you know what I mean. I’m delighted as much as I’m impressed by this beautiful detail in your life. Good on you! So, so good.

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