"Don't go out after dark!"
They will always tell you this whenever this time of the year looms around the corner; the famous 7th Month of the Lunar Calendar - also familiarly known as the "Ghost Month" among the Chinese folks.
Why is this month such an eerie and mysterious month?
It is believed that on the 1st day of the 7th month of the Lunar Calendar (calculations based on the sun and moon), the Gates of Hell will be open and the spirits will be released for a full month to wander among the living on Earth. It is during this time which was believed to be dangerous as some of the restless or evil spirits will seek for revenge and also for someone to substitute their place. At the same time, some are out on the intent to stir trouble and cause havoc as part of their enjoyment.
Thus, this brings the meaning to the saying "All hell breaks loose"
The origins of this festival dates back to the story of a filial piety, Mu Lian who went to the depths of the levels of hell to see his mother who was being severely punished for her deeds during her lifetime. He was torn to see his mother suffering in pain as everything that was fed into her mouth turned to charcoal and she was burnt and whipped each day.
Mu Lian went back to Earth and started chanting prayers for his mother; offering her peace and hoping the prayers could ease her pain from the fire and also at the same time, to rescue his poor mother from the realm of the hungry ghosts.
On the 1st day of the month as in every month, you can see people paying visits to temples and also sticking joss sticks to offer prayers to the deities in the temple and also at the altars along the roads.
Besides the deities, the 7th month is different from the other months in the sense that people also offer prayers and food to the wandering spirits whom they believe are roaming Earth upon their release from the netherworld.
The living people would offer joss sticks, paper money, fruits and food to the spirits, with the belief that this could bring them luck and peace during the month.
At the same time, there were also offerings to the deity Tai Su Yah whom they believe guards and can appease the wandering spirits intent to cause trouble.
As such, you will often see flags everywhere you go during this particular time of the year which will mark the locations of the area which will set up the altar for the deity.
Also, there will be stage shows with live performances such as opera, puppet show and also singing for the spirits.
All these performances and offerings will take place within a course of 3 days at minimum and will travel from one district or area in that month. Each area will specifically pool together their resources to invite the performance troupe and also to set up the worship altar to offer prayers to both the deities and the spirits to ensure no undesired "situations" occurring in that area.
The 14th and 15th of the month mark the climax of the month; or also known as the most dangerous time of the month where they believe the spirits will be at their optimum capability to cause havoc to the living and also the mean spirits will be feasting.
There were 2 versions of the Hungry Ghost Festival; one known as Zhongyuan which marks the day of the forgiveness/pardoning of the spirits while the Yu Lan commemorates the act of filial piety demonstrated by Mu Lian and thus the prayers and offerings to their dead ancestors as well.
During this month as well, you will particularly see more of the colored paper items and also hell money in most of these shops; what you term them in Cantonese as "Chi Chap Pou" (direct translation as Paper Assortment Shop) which basically sells anything you need for the Taoist worship for the deities and also the dead.
At the same time, you will also tend to see stalls by the roadside selling all sorts of cakes and kueh for the offerings.
The colourful cakes will be used for the prayer offerings to the deities and the spirits
Anyway, yesterday marked the last day of the Hungry Ghost Month and typically, according to my grandmother, it will rain on this last day as it symbolises the tears of the spirits as they once again depart from their loved ones and also their freedom (sort of vacation) for the whole one month.