Posts Tagged ‘Hungry Ghost Festival at Hume Street’


My entire childhood and that of my siblings as well as my cousins staying at 188 Hugh Low Street were spent listening to wakes and watching funerals and also observing the Hungry Ghost Festivals. This is hardly surprising considering our house is just across from Hume Street which is known to the locals as “Coffin Street.” Not a day passed without hearing the noises created on this street feared and avoided by most Ipoh residents.

At these funeral parlors, elaborate ceremonies are conducted for a few nights to commemorate the dead each year during the Ghost Month. Prayer sessions called Pu Tu in Cantonese are held. Pu Tu means universal deliverance or universal liberation from sufferings. It is believed hungry ghosts, like Mu Lian’s mother, need salvation through prayers.

As a child, I remember seeing rows and rows of long altars being set up outside these funeral parlors. All kinds of cakes, fruits and drinks were lavishly laid out. Heaps and heaps of paper offerings were scattered on the ground to be burned later as offerings to the wandering spirits who happened to pass by this eerie street.

A large paper effigy of the King of Hell about 20 feet high with two protruding fiery eyes was erected in the middle of Hume Street. Beside him stood the Cow Head and Horse Face who were the King’s generals. They looked equally tall and fearsome. A large paper ship was also constructed to carry the dead spirits to and fro to take part in the ceremony.

With my siblings and cousins, we watched from our windows in awe as Taoists priests in black ceremonial robes (with a large yin yang symbol on their backs) spat out some alcohol mixed with tea into a large fire pit fixed on the ground outside the funeral parlor. Chanting Taoists verses and holding a sword in one hand and a tablet bearing the names of the dead in another, they would jump over it and the fire would burst out into a big flame.

This act, called thew for, or jump over the fire, is an imitation of how Mu Lian descended to the deepest level of Hell (believed to be Level 18) to save his mother from suffering and helped her gain rebirth. The priests would repeat this many times throughout the night, each time to represent a dead person. These acts were carried out in the hope that they too, would gain salvation for the dead just like what Mu Lian did for his mother.

On the 14th night of the seventh month, after all the chanting of prayers and thew for were done, all paper items were burnt in a huge bonfire in the middle of the street. When everything was over and the crowd had dispersed, silence descended over Hume Street again. Stray dogs were seen foraging for food which the fire had not consumed.

The Hungry Ghost Festival comes to an end on the 30th night of the seventh month when the gate of Hell is closed again at the stroke of midnight. It coincides with the birthday of Earth Store Bodhisattva who is also known as Ti Tsang Wang Pusa in Chinese or Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit, the patron saint of all the dead. He is believed to have made a great vow to stay in Hell to guard the dead until it becomes empty one day.

It was during one of these Hungry Ghost Festivals that my story begins……

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I am sure those of you from Ipoh could instantly recognize this street. This is Hume Street. Some locals refer it as “Coffin Street.” There are a few funeral parlors and casket shops along this street on the left side of this picture.

My childhood home was nearby, less than a minute of walking. From my window I got to see how Hungry Ghost Festival was celebrated in these funeral parlors with much pomp and gaiety each year. For a few nights in a row, prayers were chanted to lessen the sufferings of departed souls. Hell bank notes, paper clothes and accessories were burnt for them. Vegetarian foods were offered too.

A large paper effigy of the scary and fierce-looking Yama or the Lord of Hell and a ship to carry these departed souls were placed in the middle of the street, right in front of these funeral parlors. The climax of the month-long festival was the burning of the paper items and the sending off of the departed souls back to their world. It was like a big bonfire in the middle of Hume Street, illuminating the areas around it.

Have you watched a ceremony called “Thiu For” or jumping over the fire before? It was an interesting rite carried out by Taoist priests called “Nam Moh Lou.” They consumed a mouthful of whisky and spit this into a pile of burning fire before leaping over it. In their hands, were lists of names of deceased people to be liberated from their sufferings. This act symbolized the priests descending into the deepest level of hell (Level 18) to save the dead, just like what Mu Lian had done for his wicked mother in the classical Buddhist story “Mu Lian saved his mother.”

I think this ceremony is getting very rare these days. I wonder if they are still conducting them at Hume Street. Anyone knows or has seen them too?

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