In Malaysia, the ghosts may be hungry, but thanks to the proliferation of freshly made mooncakes, chances are you won’t be. Chad Merchant peers more closely at the Hungry Ghost and Mind-Autumn Festivals, two unrelated but important commemorations marked by Chinese Malaysians nationwide.
I had been living in Malaysia for less than a year, and on one sultry night, I peered out my condo’s window down to the street below and noticed a rather large gathering of people. They were very quiet, the mood was more somber than celebratory, and they were burning something.
Shortly after midnight, the crowd dispersed into the night. I wondered why our security guards had allowed this, since it was quite literally right under the windows of the condo building. So I seized my camera and went downstairs, thinking I’d snap some photos, then talk to the management the next day and show them the pictures of the pandemonium that their guards had allowed to go unchecked.
Upon reaching the street, I saw a sizeable pile of still-smoldering debris. I took a couple of photos, then noticed the food on the curb: full takeaway containers of rice and noodles, complete with chopsticks and forks, the lids slightly opened.
Perched next to the uneaten food were bottles and cans of beer and soft drinks, also opened, but full. Planted in the ground nearby were little flags and what looked like incense sticks, also smoldering like the pile of apparent trash in the middle of the street. More pictures. More confusion. What sort of bizarre country have I moved to?
For whatever reason, I felt compelled to not disturb the scene, so I retreated back upstairs with my camera, thoroughly baffled. The next day, I spoke to my colleagues, and only then was I made aware of the special nature of what I had witnessed the night before. It was the Yu Lan, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. Observed on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month each year, Chinese tradition holds that during this time, the realms of Heaven and Hell are opened, and ghosts freely visit the realm of the living.
The food and drink set out was done so reverently, so that deceased ancestors may be honoured in their time in the living realm, and also so they can have something to eat and drink! The burning of joss paper was what i saw in the street, the ceremonial burning of papier-mâché forms of material items (including joss money) that ghosts surely need in the afterlife. Perhaps it was these hungry ghosts who inspired me not to disturb their curbside feast that night!
In Malaysia, the Hungry Ghost Festival is observed widely. Some shops will close (in order to leave the streets more open for the ghosts), and concert-like performances called Koh-tai are held in which the first few rows of seats are always left empty, so that the ghosts may have the seats of honour. Usually, these performances are held in neighbourhoods and residential districts. During the ghost night, you can see burning joss sticks with nearly every glance as you wander through Chinese areas, and the air will be redolent with the sweet pungency of burning incense.
As the ghost month fades with the lunar cycle, it gives rise to another observance popular throughout Malaysia in the eighth lunar month, the Mid-Autumn Festival. More commonly known as the Mooncake Festival, this celebratory period is eagerly anticipated by those keen to try the latest mooncake creations offered each year at this time. The festival took hold and became popular during the early Tang Dynasty in China, some 1,500 years ago.
Associated with a time of harvest and preparation for colder months, the Mid-Autumn Festival is also strongly linked to the legend of Houyi, a mythical young archer, and Chang’e, a beautiful young girl and the moon goddess of immortality. There are many different versions of the tale, but most involve the myth of the Ten Suns and the legend that once a year, on the night of the Mid-Autumn festival, Houyi visits his beloved Chang’e on the moon, which is why the moon is so bright and beautiful on this night.
Back here on Earth, the full moon is represented by the salted egg yolk found in the centre of many mooncakes, which have become an indispensible component of the annual festival, so much so that it’s more commonly known (in Malaysia, at least) as the Mooncake Festival. Typical mooncakes will either have a flaky baked crust or a tender white unbaked crust (“snow skin” – made from glutinous rice) and the fillings vary dramatically. Mooncake bakers introduce new varieties each year to complement the standards, and for locals, it’s a great treat to try these once-a-year delicacies.
As the festival takes hold each year, food blogs in Malaysia erupt with reports of which new varieties are failing to find favour, and which are the must-tries for the season. Among the more common fillings, perennially popular, are lotus seed paste and sweet red bean paste, in versions with either one or two egg yolks, or none at all. Some of the recent varieties introduced include charcoal-infused mocha milk tea, jade custard, snow skin raspberry, snow skin yam paste, and even savoury selections with chicken bits or shrimp sambal.
Mooncakes are typically fairly pricey by local standards, ranging from RM10 to RM16 for a single mooncake. Elaborately designed, colourful boxes are always part of gifting several mooncakes at a time, and many people give them during the festive season to friends or business associates. Incredibly dense and flavourful, mooncakes can be sliced thinly and enjoyed with a spot of Chinese tea for a real treat.
Though neither the Hungry Ghost Festival nor the Mooncake Festival are marked officially with public holidays, they are nevertheless always observed and celebrated. In 2012, however, Ghost Night falls on 31 August, which is also Malaysia’s National Day, so by happy coincidence, even the ghosts will get the day off! The Ghost Month in 2016 runs from 3rd August to 31st August. The Mid-Autumn Festival is much easier to notice because mooncake stands will spring up in supermarkets and certain Chinese restaurants throughout the country. The Mid-Autumn Festival in 2016 will fall on 15th September.
Source: Senses of Malaysia July-Augt 2012
This article was updated in 2016 (August)
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