Hungry Ghost Festival: A Foreigners Perspective
“I’ll see it eventually”. These words have haunted me countless times during my travels. Having lived in Asia for close to 5 years, I repeatedly miss out on things I assumed I would have seen at some point. Whether it was camping on the Great Wall or crossing the border into North Korea, too many opportunities were missed.
That regret also extended to local festivals, something that I had never really taken part in. But that was about to change. As I’m likely leaving Taiwan in the near future, this was my last chance, so I had to take full advantage of it.
Right now, Taiwan is in the heart of Ghost Month, a national celebration with events throughout the country. So, what better time to see what it’s all about?
Why Did I Miss So Many Festivals?
Missing these festivals in the past wasn’t from a lack of trying. The problem with the 2 years I lived in Beijing was that the city is almost completely empty during the holidays! Chinese festivals are all about spending time with family, so cities like Beijing almost become ghost towns, leaving very little in the form of festivals or celebrations.
My excuse for the last 3 years in Taiwan has mostly been ignorance and the same old attitude of “I’ll see it eventually.” Now that I have a ticking clock, I didn’t have any more time to waste. This truly was my last chance to experience these events! I had already missed the Dragon Boat festival and might never get that chance again. So, this time, I was determined.
What is Ghost Month?
On the 7th month of the lunar calendar, Taiwan celebrates Ghost Month. It’s a time when Taoists and Buddhists believe that the gates of hell are opened for “hungry ghosts” to roam the world. These lost souls are believed to have been sent to the underworld to suffer an eternal state of hunger for their misdeeds or for not having a proper burial.
As such, they have one whole month each year to satisfy their hunger and to search the world for money and entertainment. Best of all, if they find a soul, they might not have to go back to hell at all!
During these celebrations, spirits are offered a multitude of food, including various types of meat, dumplings, fruits and vegetables. Later in the evening after the ghosts had their fill, the living will eat the offerings for dinner.
Where Is the Hungry Ghost Festival Celebrated?
During this time, the streets of Taiwan are lined with a number of tables full of treats and smoking incense. These personal little altars are offerings to the hungry spirits and are believed to appease them to ensure that they don’t take their wrath out on you, your home or your place of business.
Though miniature altars like this are common throughout the country, the most significant celebrations occur in a select few temples during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Conveniently for us, there was one in the nearby city of Keelung. Even more conveniently, I had never visited the city before, so it had the making of the perfect day trip.
Everything you need to know about each temple in Taiwan!
Learn about everything from the detailed symbolism to how to pray like a local.
Leading to the Temple
Jess and I headed on the train to Keelung and made our way straight towards the Zhupu Altar for the first event of the evening. Though the shrine already had a brightly coloured design, the addition of endless strips of fairy lights turned it into a beacon visible from across the city. But before we even got to it, we had a little helping hand guiding us there.
The altar was placed on top of a hill that overlooked the city. The entire road which led to it was lit up with an endless row of lanterns on each side. Though they might be a common scene around the country during the rest of the year, lanterns are usually taken down during Ghost Month. They’re only used on the 15th day of the Lunar Calendar. They’re used to mark a clear pathway towards a temple. This is to help wandering spirits find their way towards the temple where their offerings will be waiting for them.
A Cultural Shock
The reason I wanted to attend festivals so much was to experience something different, something intense. I wanted to see things I didn’t understand or things that would invoke a deep emotional feeling within me, positive or otherwise. My wishes were answered.
We followed the lanterns toward the altar and immediately arrived at a sensory overload. At this point, we didn’t need the lanterns to guide us, we could hear which way we needed to go.
Immediately we were bombarded by thundering firecrackers popping off and a symphony of whining suona (a traditional Chinese instrument with a very reedy sound) blaring in the night air. The sound was reminiscent of a Muay Thai fight or snake charmers in India. For me, it was a soundtrack of imminent disaster.
The very first image we arrive upon were two enormous pigs and a goat splayed out before the tables of offerings. I marvelled at the accurate detail of these figures and their sheer size of them. It was only when I noticed the large bags of ice placed upon them and the blood dripping from their mouths that I realised they were real.
What Is It All About?
The Hungry Ghost Festival culminates on the 15th day of the Lunar calendar. After 2 weeks of roaming the Earth, the spirits are allowed to feast. In preparation, worshippers and locals bring plates and boxes full of food and lay them all out before the temple’s altar for the spirits.
Six rows of tables were laid out with all manner of food and goodies for the spirits to feast upon. Whole chickens, candy, bottles of wine and a myriad of Taiwanese classics were laid out next to each other. Volunteers at the festival would go around each plate and place a stick of burning incense against it.
Though we might not be able to see it, the belief was that these hungry spirits were busy feasting on the spread provided for them as we walked amongst them.
There are MANY things that you shouldn’t do during Ghost Month!
So let’s learn what they are!
While walking around the narrow corridors with my senses being blasted from every which way, it was easy to forget what the Hungry Ghost Festival represented. That was until we came across a little shrine hidden off to the side.
Rather than food being placed before this altar, they were toys. Barbie dolls, plastic guns, toy trucks, and even baby formula. These gifts were tragically left for the unfortunate children who sadly passed too soon, and the gifts would be waiting for them when they return to the altar. The sombre reality of the festival really hit home at that point.
Becoming a Cultural Fascination
Needless to say, there weren’t that many foreigners at the festival. Apart from a few that silently and discretely shuffled their way between each table, I was the only one. Being 6ft 4, pale as the ghosts that supposedly surrounded us and with an arm decorated in brightly coloured tattoos, it’s safe to say that it was hard to blend in.
My years in China were spent being stared at everywhere I went. Whether I was on the subway or checking out some local sites, I’d invariable have photos snapped of me (whether I wanted to or not) and a barrage of not-so-subtle stares. As Taiwan is a country much more familiar with foreigners, I don’t get the same sort of attention (how heart-breaking). That wasn’t really the case this time.
Every amateur filmmaker in Keelung had descended on the altar, and for some reason, I became a central part of their shots. People would blatantly stand before me filming me with shoulder-mounted cameras as I minded my own business. They blocked entire walkways and stretched over tables trying to capture my thoughtful gazes. I guess they didn’t consider I might want to pay my own respects too…
Sadly, for the spirits, they can only feast for so long. Once the ceremony has finished, offerings are taken back home for their families to eat. During larger ceremonies, the food might be donated to the people in need. That was our cue to leave, but that wouldn’t be the end of the celebrations.
We had headed back to our hotel only to head back to the altar later that night for one last ceremony. By now all the offerings had been taken away, leaving behind the lifeless decay and devastation that you’d see at the end of a music festival. Bare scaffolding, stray paper strewn across the floor, nothing like the beautiful spread we had first arrived to.
There was far less of a crowd by now. The select few that were there had already gathered around a small tent where the closing ceremonies would take place. I wish I understood everything that was going on, though sadly I couldn’t find much info on it.
From what I can make out, it was a Taoist monk that had dressed up like one of the many deities, who began dancing and chanting. His intention was to drive away any lingering ghosts from the altar and to let them know it was time to leave. Fascinating festivities to witness first hand, and hopefully first of many to come.
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These festivals are certainly full of noise and colour though as you rightly say, they can often be family affairs so joining in is sometimes difficult. The only festival I have participated in regularly is the Dragon Boat Festival, I was press-ganged into this by work colleagues as the company I worked for ran a few teams. I felt a little conspicuous at first being the only caucasian participant, not only in our team but often in the whole event itself. This was remedied a week later when the International Races took centre stage and many teams arrived from overseas. It was great fun though and helped improve my Cantonese considerably, I did it for nine years until my first Hong Kong life ended with a return to UK.
Absolutely, it’s definitely a sensory overload to the highest degree! I’m incredibly jealous that you got to part take in the dragon boat event, I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a real dragon boat race for myself, despite living in Taiwan and China! Hopefully some day!
Absolutely, it’s definitely a sensory overload to the highest degree! I’m incredibly jealous that you got to part take in the dragon boat event, I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a real dragon boat race for myself, despite living in Taiwan and China! Hopefully some day! Thank you so much for your continued support!