Hungry Ghost Festival in Malaysia

by Daniel Francis
The Hungry Ghost Festival has its origins in Buddhism and traditional Chinese culture.

The Hungry Ghost Festival has its origins in Buddhism and traditional Chinese culture.

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The Hungry Ghost Festival in Malaysia is a modern festival of music and dance. It is based on a traditional religious and cultural celebration. The hungry ghost is a concept blended from Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist and traditional Chinese religious teachings. The festival of the hungry ghost is celebrated typically on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar.


In Chinese tradition, the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is the day when ghosts and spirits come from the spirit world. On Ghost Day, the spirits are considered to be living. A hungry ghost can have unfinished business with the living, or can be seen as a person whose family did not do enough to honor the individual's passing. Hungry ghosts are seen to have human needs like food, water and shelter.

Gates of Hell

In order to appease the hungry ghosts, offerings are made to the King of Hades to open the gates of hell for them to pass. Leading up to the festival, public areas in towns are transformed in to temporary temples to the traditional gods of the underworld. Festival-goers bring offerings to the hungry ghosts, including food, clothing and in some cases, beer and cigarettes. The traditional belief is that the hungry ghosts will come to take what they need.

Traditional Celebrations

Traditional Hungry Ghost festivals still take place throughout Asia outside of China, depending on the size of the local Chinese population. Effigies of ghosts are burned to help the hungry ghosts move forward on their spiritual journey. Traditional operas and musical performances are held. Open seats are reserved for the ghosts to attend along with the living. The entire celebration can last days, depending on the local customs. The final celebration centers on a large feast, usually with a stuffed pig as the main course.

Contemporary Malaysian Festival

In some areas of Malaysia with Chinese communities, variations of the traditional Hungry Ghost Festival live on. For the most part, modern Malaysian ghost festivals are musical celebrations held in local town squares. Musicians known as "getai" singers perform songs to the ghosts in contemporary revamps of the traditional ghost festival. To younger people, these festivals can be seen as old-school, camp, or kitsch. Older men are known to attend the performances to see the younger "getai" women perform, giving some people cause to think of the newer festivals as sleazy.

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