Hungry Ghost Festival is one of the must celebrate festival among Chinese traditional culture especiallyin Penang. During the Chinese calendar 7th month, regarded as the Ghost Month, in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm.
In many religious traditions, hell is a place of suffering and punishment in the afterlife. So, when the gates of hell are opened to free the hungry ghosts who then wander to seek food on Earth. Some even think that the ghosts would seek revenge on those who had wronged them in their lives. The reason why the Chinese celebrate this festival is to remember their dead family members and pay tribute to them. They also feel that offering food to the deceased appeases them and wards off bad luck.
Some interesting superstition about the festival are it is bad to go swimming during the 7th month as they think that an evil ghost might cause you to drown in the swimming pool and children are also advised to return home early and not to wander around alone at night which believed that the wandering ghosts might possess children. There is why we have King of Hades to ensure the ghost released won't misbehave during the time they on the earth.
There is a giant effigy King of Hades (Phor Thor Kong, Da Shi Ye, Tai Su Ya) was located at Jalan Pasar, Bukit Mertajam. This giant effigy with height 7.9m is also the tallest King of Hades in Malaysia which the height can be increased every year and cannot be reduced.
The Hungry Ghost Festival celebration here held from the 3rd until 17th of Chinese lunar 7th month. The King of Hell will be placed majestically in front the main table. There are activities from morning till late night, include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mache form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors.
There is an old Tua Pek Kong Temple just beside where the King of Hades located. Normally, people will pray for Tua Pek Kong first followed by the King of Hades.
They also organize free stage performances - traditional opera to appease and entertain the souls. Exclude the modern ko tai (singing and dancing) performances as others area due to the crowded people causing the traffic jammed. Everyone is invited but please refrain from sitting on the bright red benches (usually placed right in front of the stage) as these are purposely left empty for the “special guests”!
During the last day 17th, many preparation of sending King of Hades back to hell were arranged. Starting from noon, moving out the big incense, placed a side the papier-mache form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods, clear out the joss selling stall.
During evening, sand as a base to protect the surface of the road was loaded at the Jalan Pasar junction. Followed by placing on the papier-mache form of material items from bottom - ‘money’ until top - cloths. These moving jobs using human one by one to place the papier-mache and money until it was cleared at about 9pm.
Meanwhile, a last opera performance was held in front of the king before sending him back.
At about 10pm, after everything ready, they slowly pulled out the King of Hades and placed him on top of the sand. Then, execration job from Taoist Priest was performance for sending the king back to hell.
After the priest done the execration, burning (in Chinese call Sending) started from the giant effigy King of Hades slowly until the bottom papier-mache. The direction in which the effigy falls would indicate whether the coming year would be a prosperous one. They will leave it for 3 days to burn all the papier-mache before clear it.
There is a story get related with this colourful Hungry Ghost Festival, which is about "Bok Lean Kwee Boo" or Mu Lian saves his mother. This tale has been told over and over again when I was young. The moral as always is be filial and respectful of one's parents. In this story Bok Lean or Mu Lian goes all out to save his mother.