During the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, many Singaporeans don't swim (for fear of being drowned). But they sure do cook.
Of all the holidays I've celebrated, the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts remained the trickiest. The Chinese in Singapore believe that August—the seventh month in the Chinese calendar—is when ghosts are released from Hell and allowed to roam the earth. (Who knew the Other World was so generous with vacation time?) Think of it as Halloween—on steroids—celebrated over an entire month. And completely unironically.
This is a month when many Singaporeans avoid swimming in pools—where ghosts can pull you down and drown you—or walking in dark spots—where ghosts can attack and kill you. This isn't just teenage horror-movie speak; people in Singapore talk of ghosts as they would their parents, friends, colleagues, the celebrities they see on TV. That ghosts exist is not something anyone debates; the only question is, who has the better story to tell? In the French convent primary school I attended, even the teachers knew the stories of the girl, many years ago, who fainted and came down with a fever after seeing the ghost of a nun perched on the wall of the school garden, cackling away.
In my own family, ghosts are taken seriously. When I was a baby, my dad was posted to Taiwan and moved us into a posh apartment in a high-rise building in Taipei. The first time Mum walked into the apartment, she immediately declared that she could not live there. "It's dirty," she said. "There's a ghost here. A very unhappy one." Dad pooh-poohed the notion. A few days later, he returned from work, calling out to Mum the moment he took his shoes off. No answer. He walked through the living room and spotted her standing on the balcony. "Tin? Are you okay?" he asked, unease setting in as he walked toward her. Mum was standing on the balcony in a daze, holding me over the railing. If her fingers had relaxed just a little, a death drop would have been certain. Dad grabbed me and shook Mum, whose eyes were rolled back in her head, so the story—which they now often tell with great laughter—goes. The next day, they moved out.
Perhaps because of this, my mother now sees ghosts everywhere. And I mean everywhere. "I saw a ghost right by that tree," she once tossed out while pulling into a parking spot near our old apartment. "She had long hair and was just standing there. I asked her what she wanted, but she didn't say anything. Sad . . ." My sister and I weren't quite sure what to do with the information. But before we could fully process it, Mum was bundling up our school things from the backseat and chastising us for moving slowly. And the moment passed.
Fortunately, there's a very simple way to appease Singaporean ghosts. Unlike their Western counterparts, Singaporean ghosts aren't obsessed with eating humans or general carnage. (Unless their corpses have been turned into zombies by jumping cats, that is.) It's food that they crave. They're hungry the moment they leave Hell, and it's only if they remain hungry that they'll turn on people. So as a very practical matter, you'll see massive feasts of fruit and home-cooked dishes set out along streets at this time. Even families who don't have much food to put on their own tables will shell out for tea and overflowing platters of food in order to get these hungry spirits off their backs.
Getting between a ghost and its food has its consequences—as any kid who's been warned will tell you. My aunties still regularly tell the story about my kuku (uncle), who was walking home from school one day and kicked over a roadside offering of food and incense. "That night, he had a very high fever, and he kept saying that he was this man, a man we did not know," my mum will say, as my aunties quietly nod, remembering. "And he kept saying, 'My mouth is full of dirt, my mouth is full of dirt!' This ghost had been buried, you see . . ." The fever subsided only when my ah-ma called in a monk to pray over Kuku.
I hadn't thought about this festival in years. August certainly is far enough from Halloween that no one is thinking of spirits in America. Landing in Singapore in August, however, I had one hungry grandmother to be thinking about—my paternal grandmother, whom I called Tanglin Ah-Ma because she once lived in the Tanglin neighborhood of the island.
"You can come to the temple on Saturday," said the text from my cousin Jessie. My grandmother would definitely be hungry that first weekend of the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. And if her family wouldn't feed her, who would?
I wasn't sure what to bring for my Tanglin ah-ma. Auntie Khar Imm and Auntie Leng Eng would probably come laden with sweets, tea, noodles, and spring rolls for her. My parents had not gone with the family to visit my grandmother during the Hungry Ghosts month for years, preferring simply to give Auntie Khar Imm money for offerings. This was a big moment. I would be representing my own family at this feast for my grandmother. What could I possibly bring that would be a worthy addition? The answer became obvious after very little thought.
And so that Saturday morning, at the temple in Singapore's Hougang neighborhood where my grandparents' ashes are kept, I arrived teetering under the weight of a massive pineapple, the largest I'd been able to find. Auntie Khar Imm looked amused.
The temple was packed the moment my family arrived. Amid the hum of activity, dozens of people bustled about, setting out food and drink for their dead loved ones with great care. Swirling, slender plumes of smoke from incense filled the air, seeping into our hair. All along the walls were little rectangles of yellow paper, each crammed with Chinese characters—names of those whose ashes were housed in the temple—and serial numbers that were almost like apartment numbers indicating where those ashes could be found. Addresses for urns within a columbarium—it was almost too precious.
We found the spot bearing the serial number of my Tanglin ah-ma's urn and started putting out the feast. We'd brought noodles, spring rolls, a vegetarian tofu stir-fry. There were little sweet cakes, capped with tea served in three thimble-size, delicate cups. And, of course, there was my giant pineapple, which suddenly seemed more than a little out of place. I looked around at the spreads of cookies, cakes, and noodles that everyone else was setting out; no other pineapples were evident. I wondered if I was being gauche. But then I thought, Screw it. The queen of pineapple tarts really deserves to be having a pineapple.
Excerpted from A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN by Cheryl Tan. Copyright © 2011 Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan. Published by Voice. Available wherever books are sold. All Rights Reserved.
Images (top to bottom): avlxyz/flickr, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Voice