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Hungry Ghost Festival: 12 TABOOS and Things To Avoid Doing

Better be safe than sorry!

The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place in August, the 7th month in the lunar calendar. Some Chinese believe this is the time when spirits leave the afterlife, to roam Earth.

Think of the Hungry Ghost Festival as a Chinese Halloween, if you will. And if it makes you feel any better, the festival is not meant to spook you. Many believers say this 7th Lunar Month is when the spirits of the dead can visit their living relatives. It’s similar to the Mexican festival Day of the Dead, when family and friends gather to pray for, and remember friends and family who have passed on.

In a similar way, during the Hungry Ghost Festival, Chinese believers in Singapore leave offerings of food and drink for their relatives. In non-pandemic years, they also sponsor getai variety concerts for the public. These variety shows are not spooky. Far from it! They’re jolly parties to entertain the living, and the dead.

All this being said, there are some taboos aroound the 7th Lunar Month. If you feel the need to protect yourself, here are some common Singapore taboos and superstitions during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

1. Don’t cry at night during Hungry Ghost Festival

hungry ghost festival, don't cry after dark
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If you are superstitious, the HUngry Ghost Festival is not a month to watch tear-jerker movies on TV. Hold back those tears – getting emotional in the middle of the night is said to attract spirits and give them opportunities to possess you. You may want to leave the crying until the sun’s up.

2. Leave insects alone

hungry ghost festival, leave moths and butterfies alone
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If you find insects like moths, butterflies and grasshoppers paying you surprise visits, it’s best not to kill them. Some Chinese believe these bugs are manifestations of spirits – ancestors in particular – who’ve come to visit your home, or watch over the living.

3. Avoid swimming during Hungry Ghost Festival

hungry ghost festival, don't swim
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If you notice swimming pools are more empty at this time of year, it may be because some Singaporeans avoid swimming during the 7th Lunar Month. Water is considered very Yin in Chinese Feng Shui – so spirits are naturally drawn to water. Some people also believe that spirits who drowned may attack living people out of spite, or to hasten their reincarnation.

4. Don’t ask for ghostly help to win the lottery

hungry ghost festival, playing the lottery
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While most people prefer to avoid getting involved with spirits, at this time of year some traditional “mediums” do brisk business predicting lottery numbers. Believers say trained mediums can invite ghosts into their body, then ask the spirits to reveal opcoming lottery numbers. However, it’s considered a risky and inauspicious trick. Because money that comes the wrong way brings trouble along with it.

5. Don’t look back, over your shoulder

hungry ghost festival, look back over shoulder
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Some Chinese believe there are two torches of Chi fire on your shoulders, protecting your energy and life force. During the 7th Lunar Month, some people think that turning your head over your shoulder can dim these torches, or put them out. This causes imbalanced energy, which makes you more vulnerable to bad spirits. So if someone calls out to you from behind (is it really someone to begin with?), turn your whole body around, instead of just your head.

If you’re a fan of mahjong, note that keen players also follow this belief before a gaming session. With mahjong, you need your spirit to be strong, right?

6. Don’t sit in the front row at a getai concert

hungry ghost festival getai performance
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During the Hungry Ghost Festival free getai variety shows are common in Singapore – at least, they were before the pandemic. Getai means “stage performance” in Mandarin. Believers erect open-air stages and sponsor variety shows featuring vibrant performances from comedians, dancers, singers and Chinese Opera troups. Anyone can pop by and watch the show – it’s free and it’s fun.

Sponsors also carefully arrange rows of seats in front of the stage, with gifts of sweets and drinks for guests. But note that the front row of seats always stay empty. Why? Because the front row at a getai performance is “reserved” for the VIP guests, the honoured ghosts. This is a VIP list you’re not on (phew).

7. Don’t step on streetside offerings to the dead

hungry ghost festival, offering by the road
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During August, it’s common to see red metal bins all around housing estates. They’re also parked on street corners, often under big trees. These red bins are temporary altars where believers can burn offerings to the dead. These might be paper clohes, paper cars, specially-printed Hell Money, or joss paper folded into golden ingots.

You’ll probably also see stacks of food carefully arranged on the sides of the road. The burnt offerings and the food offerings are believed to reach the spirits, giving them an afterlife of abundance and riches.

As such, avoid stepping on the burnt ashes or food offerings. Think about it this way: No one likes it if you step on their stuff. If you trip and accidently step on an offering, simply apologise so as to avoid offending spirits – or believers. It’s also common sense to avoid making jokes about the offerings, or photographing them.

8. Hold back on house moves or renovation

hungry ghost festival, keys to a new home
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Many Chinese believe the 7th Lunar Month is an inauspicious month to buy a home, move home or do renovations. Some people believe it upsets spirits who are visiting their old homes. Others say renovations during the 7th Lunar Month encourage spirits to move in.

But, if you aren’t superstitious, this can be a great time to purchase new property. There’s less buyer competition and prices tend to be lower. Check out what’s cheaper in Singapore this month.

9. Take down windchimes during Hungry Ghost Festival

hungry ghost festival and windchimes
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Windchimes look pretty and sound relaxing, but many believers believe spirits are attracted to the icy sound of clanking metal. During the 7th Lunar Month, thit’s believed that this sound may signal to spirits that your house is open to visitors.

10. Don’t go home after dark during the Hungry Ghost Festival

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If you are superstitious, get home before sunset during the 7th Lunar Month. After dark is when spirits are the strongest. Don’t forget to wash your feet right after you arrive home. Apparently ghosts, like hunting dogs, can follow the scent of your feet.

11. Don’t leave your chopsticks standing upright in your bowl of food

hungry ghost festival, rice and chopsticks
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It’s a cultural faux pas putting your chopsticks upright in food, at any time — because it looks like you are arranging joss sticks in an offering for the dead. Sticking your chopsticks upright during the 7th Lunar Month is even worse. Believers say hungry ghosts may mistake the foods as an offering, and may accidently posses you to consume the offering.

12. Don’t leave your front door open too long

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Leaving your door ajar for hours on end during the Hungry Ghost Festival may invite ghosts into your sanctuary. Keep the negative energy out by keeping your front door closed.

By Pinky Chng, August 2017 / Last updated by Jasia Shamdasani

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