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September 30, 2009

Hungry Ghosts

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysia – “Where did the restaurant go?” I asked. The open air facility seated about 100 people and lined along the sides, small carts sold a large variety of foods. One peddled fried rice with many manifestations: fried rice with vegetables, pork, beef or seafood or a combo of one or all.


A different cart sold mee, a boiled spaghetti with the same additions as the fried rice. A smaller one sold mee soup again with any combo while a green cart peddled laksa, a potent bowl of fire, to me anyway.


In place of the eatery, a large high altar had been built at the back with a gold Buddha calmly surveying the scene. In front, offerings of food flowed forward to the street. Grouped in piles or held in round plastic containers, smoking incense sticks were thrust among them.


A stack of 25 ten kilo bags of rice made up one offering. There were open tubs of rice. A small container held yams. A grouping of packaged noodles, similar to Ramon was prominent. Organized in rows, pink and white flags were interspersed within the offerings. Each pile had a large number.


“The what?” “The hungry ghost festival,” he replied. This was a new one. “Come back at 6:30 when things start,” the young Chinese man invited. I wasn’t going to miss this one.


The sun was beginning to set as I wandered back. Small fires blazing on the sidewalks in front of various Chinese businesses illuminated the way. Groups of three or more people began to make their way to scene. Western tourists scurried hurriedly away, fearful of what may happen next.


A large square container on the street held a fire in front of the café turned ghost temple. Yellow offering papers with red Chinese characters on the border and sailor hats at the bottom corners fueled a licking fire. The papers also had pineapples that occupied the top two corners. In the center on gold paint was what can only be described as the oriental version of three wise men. Chinese ladies were folding stacks and stacks into cone shapes so they would burn readily. Music blared from two speakers.


When the gong sounded, the choir, some wearing black robes assembled on a platform in front of the Buddha. They began to sing and chant and continued for over an hour, repeating, to me, the same words.


I asked several people to explain the meaning of the hungry ghost and all replied it was to honor the hungry ghost. Did this have anything to do with agriculture? They didn’t know. How about starvation? They didn’t know. Apparently, the ritual had been going on for thousands of years but the deeper meaning had been lost to the participants I asked. But maybe there wasn’t any deeper meaning, just a hungry ghost.


I was introduced to the secretary of the association that was putting on this show. She said the religion was a mix between Taoism and Buddhism and was like the Catholic’s All Saints Day. The flags told the ghost that offerings would be made at this location, as they have been for hundreds of years. She likened the singing/chanting to the recitation of the rosary. The burning papers sent food to the ghost. The sailor hats on the paper were bowls of rice, I was corrected.


Raised catholic, I was having a hard time making the connections between the hungry ghost and Saint Patrick, my patron. I guess it is just as far fetched to believe a guy drove the snakes out of Ireland as it is to believe a hungry spirit wandering around.


In the past, at the end of the service, onlookers could rush up, like a hungry ghost, and take the food. However, in some places this ended in a riot. Now, numbers coinciding with the offerings are tossed out and people walk up and claim the food.


Tomorrow, the tables, chairs, employees and the buggies laden with food will return. Customers will eat satisfied the hungry ghost has been appeased and all will be well.


I could look up on the Internet and find out what the experts say about this celebration. However, I prefer to understand the way the local Chinese here in Kuching perceive the celebration and the way they related it to me.


…life is good…


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