In Singapore, Ghosts Are Real, Scary, and Hungry

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.

ben kway ie pink rice cakes_sized.jpg 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.

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based food and fashion writer. She is the author of the recently released A Tiger In The Kitchen, a food memoir about learning about her family in Singapore by cooking with them.

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