Wednesday, August 23, 2017

7th Month

While the 7th (Lunar) Month as spoken in Chinese is well understood by the Chinese speaking people, for the non-Chinese speaking people, probably Hungry Ghost Festival seems to give a better picture, although inaccurate.

This year, 2017, 7th Month is from 22Aug17 (7M01) to 19Sep17 (7M29)

To many people, 7th Month is a month of community events where the community - be it residential or commercial or industrial - come together to give offerings to the wandering souls (also known as "orphaned souls" meaning souls without descendants or whose descendants no longer remember them or even souls who died under circumstances such as accidents and were left wondering because their descendants did not "invite" them back to the usual journey). The locals (or probably the Chinese anywhere) also call them the "Good Brothers".

7th Month at Chinatown Complex Food Centre

It is believed these wandering souls have nowhere to go and have no one to offer them food. While Chinese belief and practices do try to gather them to send them off every now and then, there is also a belief that they are still around. And hence, commercial and industrial communities would make offerings, at least once a year during the 7th Month to appease them.

"Hungry Ghosts" as also mentioned in the translation probably come from the belief that these ghosts could not eat. Each time they try to eat, the food turns into fire and ashes. But in Chinese beliefs, rituals have to be conducted to take them out of this state for them to continue their journey.

Hungry Ghost (ack: Shen Hua)

In the traditional Chinese belief, it is also believed that offerings (money, materials, food and others) when  brought to the nether world would meet with riots and chaos, with everyone rushing for them. Even if some were designated for specific people, such as the ancestors of the offering descendants. And so, the help of Guan Yin is sought to lead and maintain order through her manifestation into Da Shi Ye 大士爷 . Da Shi Ye is often translated as the Ghost King. But if you look at the top of Da Shi Ye, you will see a small figurine of Guan Yin. Da Shi Ye is often created looking very fierce.

Da Shi Ye (ack: Shen Hua)

And so, like everywhere else, in Singapore's Niu Che Sui 牛车水, known to non-Chinese speakers as Chinatown, small communities conduct their own 7th Month prayers. You can find such groups, which are usually within a common group of say businesses or locations. There are many groups when we include the residential communities as well.

Through the prayers, often accompanied by rituals by Taoist Priests or Buddhist Monks, we see the tradition of the Chinese. Over time we see evolution with modernisation and commercialisation. In the good old days when entertainment was rare, often there were operas accompanying the prayers for the Good Brothers, and of course, for the residents. And then, Getai 歌台 (loosely translated as Variety Shows, more of singing and perhaps a comedy or two) took over. It has also won the old folks over. Getai is entertaining, relaxing to the audience and fun, compared to the more serious, often sobbing, operas. One is probably more passive than the other though.

7th Month is now considered a month-long "festival" with a mix of the three Chinese beliefs - Taoism, Buddhism and Folk Beliefs. It is often difficult to differentiate them as the Chinese have adapted and adopted over time. It is more of "from the heart" than the head for some. For others, it could be the impact of commerce. And so, over time, it is common that most (Hokkiens and others?) would "welcome" the souls on the first day of the 7th Month. It is believed that on this day, the Gates of Hades(?) are open. These days, many would wait and start their welcome offerings from 11pm on the eve of the first day. In Chinese calculation of time and day, 11pm of the night is the beginning of the first day. Rows of candles and burning joss sticks will be lined to guide the visitors to the main offerings of food and joss papers (often including lookalike currency notes). Likewise, a sendoff will be made on the last evening of the 7th Month. The Cantonese will make their offerings on the 14th night of the 7th Month.

On 15th of the 7th Month, the Taoists pay respect to Di Guan, known as Official responsible for Earth. There are three officials known as San Guan Da Di 三官大帝, namely Tian Guan 天官 - Heaven Official whose feast day is 15th of 1st Month, Di Guan 地官  - Earth Official whose feast day is 15th of 7th Month, and Sui Guan 水官 - Water Official  whose feast day is 15th of 10th Month. And so Zhong Yuan Jie is dedicated to Di Guan. It is also the time to seek to clear our sins (bad things that we have done) and to remember of ancestors. Many families would pay respects and offerings to their ancestors during this month. Those with ancestral tablets would do it at home while many would go to temples where they have placed their ancestral tablets to offer their prayers. In some communities or temples (including sintua or Shen Tan), they offering communal prayers to the ancestors. Often, they also make offerings to the wandering souls, including a special corner for the children.

For the Buddhist, it is Ulambama (Ullambana) which is also on the 15th of 7th Month.

In Chinatown, as in past years, there will be 7th Month prayers organised by members of the Chinatown Complex (Food Centre and Wet Market) and the shops along the streets. In the past years, the rituals conducted in the Chinatown Complex have been traditional Cantonese with Cantonese Taoist Priests. We can expect the same this year.

7th Month Prayers at Chinatown Complex Wet Market

In what that could be seen as a noisy, smoky and littering month, it is indeed a mix of spiritual and community events. It is one of the number of community related events that bring almost everyone together, be it neighbours, colleagues, business neighbours and even customers. Some would make offerings with a wish for peace and understanding and better business. Customers are seen lighting a joss stick or two at some of the joss urns placed publicly. There are also dinners where all come together to have a nice evening. For those who could spare, they might offer to bid for an item or two, often to help the organisers meet the cost of the event.

A procession with offerings (ack: Shen Hua)

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