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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)