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.