"Hungry Ghost" Chinese Opera


Everyone living near any traditional Chinese community knows that this is now the 7th Chinese month—that remarkable time of year known to many as the Hungry Ghost Festival. My closest local Chinese friend—a traditional religionist—insists that we stop calling it the Hungry Ghost Festival & more properly call it the “Festival of the Spirits of the 7th Month.”

I want to respect his wishes, but sounds like a mouthful! And in the meantime, everyone else seems to call it the Hungry Ghost Festival.

The basic idea is that all the human spirits in hell or purgatory get released on one-month’s leave. Now they’re down there for some reason, so their presence in our neighborhood is cause for concern. So, there’s two major strategies—first, keep them well entertained while they’re here so that it never occurs to them to get into much mischief, & then give them lots of incentives to emigrate back to their port of origin at the end of the month.

To entertain the spirits, communities sponsor traditional Chinese opera performances around Malaysia. Most of the Malaysian Chinese who performed opera have already passed away, so a huge number of troupes converge annually from Bangkok to perform in Malaysia.  Penang-with its large Chinese population-attracts many of them..

The front row of seats is always left open for the spirits to be assured a spot. But sometimes you go by a loud performance with no one apparently in the audience.  That’s perfectly OK because the Chinese opera is intended to occupy the spirits, not currently living humans—many of whom can no longer comprehend the high-archaic Mandarin.

As the sun starts to go down local boys are playing on the opera stage.

An actress shoos them off. 

As soon as darkness falls the opera begins, accompanied by musicians barely out of view to the right side of the stage.

An actor not yet in view performs a solo accompanying the drama on stage.

The night’s prima donna makes her entry.

Her ladies-in-waiting anxiously wait to see what drama she’ll bring to them tonight.

Kings & ministers get into the act.

Ninjas & assassins enter.

The excitement on the opera stage is enough that even Chinese teens roll up deciding to make this tonight’s hangout.

Intrigue in the royal court erupts.

Eventually key figures look back to see . . .

a wise old sage making his entry to resolve the conflict.

Finally the Chinese opera wraps up before a lively crowd who enjoy the spectacle—even  if they don’t catch all the high stage language.

Follow me over the next weeks as I show you more of previous years’ Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations & then offer some of the developing events from this year.