Chinatown's 7th Month Fest: Pink lanterns, good buddies and traditions 🏮👻
“It’s the 7th Month, better come home early!” said many worried mothers in Singapore when it’s that time of the year. Yes, that’s now. But what exactly is the 7th Month all about?
Officially, it is known as the Zhongyuan Festival 中元节 in Taoism and Folk Belief, and Ullambana 盂兰盆 in Buddhism. In Singapore, we often refer to it as the Hungry Ghost Festival (or simply 7th Month).
Cultural Significance of 7th Month Festival
The 7th Month Festival is an integral part of the several Chinese festivals celebrated in Singapore for many generations. Kelvin Wee shared that according to Taoist traditions, it is believed that all spirits are granted permission to emerge from the netherworld during each lunar 7th month to receive offerings from the living.
“But I thought you can pray and make offerings to your ancestors during other festivals?” might be a question in your head right now. You are not wrong. The keyword is ALL spirits. Here’s the difference: Unfortunately, some souls in the netherworld may not receive any offerings or essentials if they pass on with no close relatives or friends. Hence, as an act of compassion, these solitary souls, and those who are punished for their sinful deeds, are only allowed to enter the living world during each lunar 7th month to accept offerings from the living. This includes the deceased of all generations and extends to all, not just the family ancestors.
Kelvin Wee also kindly explained "The livings, beside doing prayers and offerings in the lunar 7th month, many will also perform rituals to chao du (salvage) those lonely, pitiful or sinful souls. This is done hopefully to lighten their sins and sufferings, sending them for reincarnation which is a way to stop their everlasting sufferings. Buddhism has the similar concept for lunar 7th month as a month to perform salvage for those sinful or wandering souls. Buddhists do this by chanting sutra for them and hoping to relieve them from eternal sufferings in hell.”
7th Month Festival in Chinatown
So what are some happenings in Chinatown during this period? Typically, business owners come together during the 7th Month Festival to perform rituals and make offerings to the ‘Good Buddies’ 好兄弟 (a commonly used, friendlier and less crude term than ‘ghosts’) to make peace with them.
The organisers will gather their own members, and arrange their altar tables, prayers and rituals. One such altar table spotted around Chinatown this year was at Kreta Ayer Square, 5 Banda Street.
“Chanced on this big 7th Month "Party" at Kreta Ayer Square.” chimed Victor Yue. And he wasn’t kidding, it was a pretty huge set-up!
Sunny Lim happened to be there earlier and also shared what she saw there. This particular table of offerings, as you may have noticed, is short and seems to consist of items meant for children. And that is because it is meant for the souls of children who passed on early in life. During the 7th Month, the living would usually prepare a different section of offerings for these young souls and are deliberately placed closer to the ground out of consideration.
Several other set-ups were also spotted just nearby at Chinatown Complex by the eagle-eyed Victor Yue.
“Mr Ngo sharing about his shrine, supported by My Community co-founder and executive director Kwek Li Yong.” captioned Eisen Teo in his post. Eisen attended the My Community's My Chinatown Complex Tour: Gods and Deities of Chinatown Complex on 19 August where hawker Mr Ngo introduced to attendees the three shrines of Chinatown Complex.
Not forgetting the big dinners and Getais held across Singapore! Highlighted by Victor Yue, the Chinatown Business Association held their 7th Month Dinner on 23 August 2023 along Smith Street.
Separately, according to @mjoycel, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum is undergoing a full-on festival transformation — complete with pink lanterns, offering-laden tables, and leaves decors all around the temple.
@karen's got the inside scoop on that captivating pink glow. It's all about 地藏尊, aka the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who is primarily known as the bodhisattva of the hell realm. The significance of the Longevity Lantern offered by the temple during the 7th Month is to transmit to all beings the light of the powerful vows made by Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. Based on what @karen recalls, “His birthday is 30th day of Chinese 7th month so people visit temples to pray for the blessings, peace and protection”. The more you know!
Losing Traditions Across Generations
While the 7th Month Festival proudly holds onto its ancient roots, it also embraces the winds of change that sweep through the modern world. As Singapore evolves, so too does the festival. While some find a delicate balance between tradition and contemporary sensibilities, some simply let go of traditions.
If you ever need to buy offerings in Chinatown, do note this shop that @karen shared because “Cannot find on Google maps, this shop 玉兰亭香莊 on 5 Banda Street”. While the stall owners may not be tech-savvy, @gerlehdees noticed that their products are! Like many other Chinese Religious product shops, they carry some high-tech products like cars and phones too (made of paper, of course).
And here’s a throwback by Victor Yue “What is so special about People's Park Complex? Well, amongst the view, they come together to observe the 7th Month Festival. What is unique in this place is that every year, they would dismantle the stalls facing the main entrance, clear them away to set up the altar for prayers led by Buddhist monks.”. However, Victor Yue observed that this is no longer the case in 2023. “perhaps change in management already” reasoned Caleb Tan.
As the 7th Month Festival continues to weave its intricate fusion of tradition and compassion in Chinatown, it leaves us with a poignant reminder that even amidst modernity, the spirits of the past deserve a moment in the present. With each offering, prayer, and colourful lantern, we honour the bonds that transcend time and embrace the festival's evolution. Explore the depths of Chinatown's soulful celebration and experience the fusion of old and new that defines the essence of the 7th Month Festival.
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