We Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts, say more and more young Chinese

Devotees carry deities before the start of Hungry Ghost celebrations in Bangsar.

KUALA LUMPUR: Soon, mischievous spirits will no longer roam the land – for this year, at least.

Nationwide, the last Hungry Ghost ceremonies are taking place as the festival month ends on Aug 29, by which time the gods will have been sent back to the underworld with, devotees hope, a good year ensured for the living.

As is the case every year, weeks are spent preparing for one of the country’s biggest Taoist and Buddhist events, with everyone pitching in to help, except for one demographic group: young people.

A Taoist monk leads devotees in prayers during Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations in Bangsar.

Oon Ee Seng of Persatuan Perayaan Yee Lan Bangsar told FMT that Hungry Ghost festival celebrations are still important in the Chinese community, but the younger generation just isn’t as interested.

For the past 39 years, the association has organised grand three-day celebrations during Hungry Ghost month, when the gates of the underworld open and wandering souls and restless spirits are free to roam the world of the living.

“The festival is still very much alive. Nearly everywhere you go you will find festivals organised. Young people do take part but they treat it like a party,” said Oon.

“They don’t care much for the traditional celebrations.”

Most temples, he said, face the same problem as only the older generation is interested in actively maintaining traditions.

For people like 31-year-old Kathlyn Foo, participating in the rituals is not a priority.

“I take precautions according to the taboos, like not going out late at night, but I don’t put out offerings or even go to festivals,” she says, adding that at most she visits her late father’s resting place to offer prayers.

“I think there are many young people like me who just aren’t interested in taking part in the festival. Maybe we take it for granted that the older generation will do it.”

Foo says that in her case, she feels her faith is personal and she believes how she practises it is between her and God.

People join a banquet in conjunction with the Hungry Ghost Festival in Bangsar.

For Oon and his fellow devotees in Bangsar, the start of their yearly festival is always highly ritualised.

This year the yellow-clad devotees were in high spirits, carrying deities and banners, to welcome Tai Su Yeah, the Lord of Hades.

The gods were borne to tables laden with food donated by members of the public and businesses, everyone hoping to appease the spirits.

Tai Su Yeah and his lieutenants and lesser deities were believed to have kept watch over the teeming spirits who came to enjoy the offerings and entertainment.

Over three days, devotees and members of the public of all races came to pray to Tai Su Yeah, to ward off illness and to ensure wealth and prosperity.

“We also had food offerings and religious ceremonies for those whose family members have departed,” said Oon. “Also stage shows too, featuring contemporary songs and dances.”

Persatuan Perayaan Yee Lan Bangsar members sending spirits back to the underworld in a ship, which will be burnt later.

On the final day, the devotees sent Tai Su Yeah, his lieutenants and the spirits back to the underworld in a burning ship.

Oon is concerned about the missing young people.

Asked whether he thinks their dwindling interest means such ceremonies are in danger of dying out, he said although numbers are down, some youngsters are still interested in learning the rituals from their elders and are now being prepared to carry on the traditions.

He is optimistic but also realistic. “The tradition will always survive. The Hungry Ghost festival has a legacy of over a thousand years.

“The only uncertainty now is how big or how small it will be.”