Performances for the Hungry: Getai

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As a kid, read­ing Rus­sell Lee’s True Sin­ga­pore Ghost Sto­ries gave me the chills. Par­tic­u­lar­ly sto­ries about the Hun­gry Ghost Fes­ti­val. Who could put down a book with a pair of eerie almond-shaped eyes on the cov­er? I was clear­ly court­ing trou­ble, when read­ing such sto­ries ren­dered me too fright­ened to make the short walk to answer nature’s call in the mid­dle of the night, a majes­tic dis­tance of no more than 14 metres sep­a­rat­ed my bed­room from the toi­let. I still read (past tense) them any­way. A decade and a half lat­er, I find myself explor­ing one of the ‘rit­u­als’ so close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the sev­enth month — the getai.

The Hun­gry Ghost Fes­ti­val is known as the sev­enth month in the Lunar cal­en­dar. The Chi­nese believe that dur­ing this month, the hell gates of the under­world open and hun­gry spir­its walk amongst us. On top of offer­ing hell notes, food and prayer to these spir­its, they also orga­nize per­for­mances to keep these “broth­ers and sis­ters” well enter­tained dur­ing their month-long stay on earth.

Each getai I vis­it­ed assault­ed me with colour­ful extrav­a­gan­za. Music thumped relent­less­ly as singers belt­ed out old songs in dialects — some­thing which might well be a thing of the past in the future. ‘Dressed to kill’ would be an under­state­ment for some of the per­form­ers at the getai events. Smoke machines pro­vid­ed a dreamy (or smokey) back­drop as dancers twirled in tan­dem with the spot­lights. The light sliced through the smoke and paint­ed the stage ruby and magen­ta and emer­ald and cobalt and amber, and where the light on occa­sion did not man­age to slice through the per­form­ers, mes­mer­iz­ing shad­ows were cast on the large white can­vas tent­ages.

For those cou­ple of hours, ado­les­cents (many younger), adults and the aged stood spell­bound, soak­ing in the car­ni­val-esque atmos­phere of the getai. No longer was it a dis­play sim­ply to keep the spir­its enter­tained, it did a fine job of keep­ing the mor­tals absorbed and removed from their cur­rent world. The curi­ous sought ways to achieve a van­tage point for the getai, peer­ing through pock­ets of HDB con­crete at floor land­ings. It was inter­est­ing to note that few­er getais adhere to the tra­di­tion­al cus­tom of leav­ing the first front row of plas­tic seats for the spir­its.

I fell in love with the getai atmos­phere instant­ly. Sit­u­at­ed in the heart­lands, the getai epit­o­mizes the pre­ten­tious and the gen­uine at the same time. There is some­thing roman­tic about stand­ing on a tiny patch of grass, shared by strangers swat­ting flies lazi­ly in the evening air, and wind­ing down at a getai after a tax­ing day at work bat­tling date­lines, boss­es and a growl­ing stom­ach. There was some­thing mag­net­ic; an almost-inex­plic­a­ble allure in the way the audi­ence paid rapt atten­tion to the onstage acts. The atten­tion was the cur­ren­cy between per­former and spec­ta­tor, and I was but an observ­er of this trans­ac­tion.

P.S. A good friend and aspir­ing doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er, Bang Lin, accom­pa­nied me on the expe­di­tion to observe getais and has also allowed me to share an excel­lent short he did of the sev­enth month fes­tiv­i­ties. Enjoy the sto­ries, and I’ll leave you with a quote from Bang:

This was a per­son­al project to doc­u­ment and pre­serve a small part of our cul­ture. It’s also some­thing I made for my mom and dad, some­thing for them to rem­i­nisce and also for me to remem­ber what it was like grow­ing up with hokkien songs that they always sing at home.” (Ngo Bang Lin, 2011)

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