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About a week and a half ago, I wrote a post on social media about why it is time for us to reclaim the narrative of the Chinese Seventh Month in Singapore, and revitalize it for our future. Growing up as a millennial, the discourse around the Chinese Seventh Month I was used to hearing was generally negative (and I am saying this as an ethnic Chinese person in majority-Chinese Singapore). Colloquially branded as the Hungry Ghost Festival, I had come to know of the Seventh Month as a season when older, less-educated Singaporeans engage in meaningless rituals to appease unseen beings, hoping that wealth, health, and luck will befall them.
In other words, the Seventh Month was seen as an entire month where personal superstition was played out in ritual practices. Other younger Singaporeans lament the fact that they were forced by their elders to participate in the festivities which did not mean anything to them. Further, when they questioned the festival’s significance, they were not given answers. Instead, many were told not to question so much and to do what they were told so that ill-luck would not befall their families.
In addition to this, younger people are aware of the potential environmental and health impacts from rituals such as the burning of joss paper. Inconveniences are also caused by the placing of candles and joss sticks on the ground in public spaces and the scattering of joss paper. What seems to annoy Singaporeans the most, however, is the failure of worshippers to clear up after prayer. This has led to a yearly barrage of complaints in online spaces. Netizens have called for a harsher restriction of these Seventh Month practices. Others have gleefully noted that with less younger Singaporeans being interested in the festival, it should just be left to disappear quietly into the night as its practitioners get older.
While I understand why many of my millennial counterparts feel that way, I believe that there can be a better way around all these issues without severe restrictions or letting the festival die out. I believe that this lies in the need for us as younger Singaporeans to reclaim and revitalize the festival for the future.
Firstly, I do not deny that the Chinese Seventh Month is religious. However, it is important for us to see that underlying its religiosity, it is inherently cultural and communal. Take for example the ‘hungry ghosts’ which are commonly seen as the main target audience of the festival. Buddhists and Taoists might disagree on who these ghosts are and which part of the afterlife they came from. However, without going into the nuances of what they believe in, practitioners generally agree that these ghosts in one way or another represent all our departed ancestors.
The worshipping of these wandering spirits then, represents a veneration of all our ancestors-all those who lived and came before us. The underlying essence of the Seventh Month is bigger and deeper than religion. It is actually about the commemoration of our shared past; the expression of our gratitude for all those who came before, and the establishment of a communal identity. These are secular values which we all hold as important and meaningful as individuals living in community. Moreover, one must also understand ritual from a more anthropological lens. Rituals are performed not just for the dead or divine, but are a vehicle for the living to express their feelings and thoughts through action.
One can see the celebration of community at the heart of the festival when more attention is paid to it. Rituals and Getai concerts are conducted in public places. Makeshift altars are built under HDB blocks, at car parks, and beside hawker centres. The festival is meant for everyone to participate in. If you notice carefully, Seventh Month altars have free joss sticks available for anyone to come by to use. Some altars have little boxes for donations that ensure food offerings and joss sticks are replenished. These point to the underlying notion that the …