My younger cousins and I used to play a game to keep ourselves occupied during long family dinners. The three of them would sneak round the table until they got behind my chair, then shout “Boo” loudly in my ear. I would act surprised, spinning about this way and that as they ducked and giggled and dodged out of my sight. After looking around a few times, I would pretend to give up, throwing up my hands in mock exasperation and exclaiming that there must be a ghost in the room. This would be the cue for my cousins to harass me even further, drawing cries that grew more and more plaintive each time. Finally, when I grew tired of playing with them, I would end the game by placating the “evil spirits” with an offering of sweets.
As they grew older, my cousins learned that rejecting my initial offer and continuing to harass me would lead to an even larger offering of sweets. Needless to say, we soon stopped playing this game.
I don’t believe in ghosts. Or at least, I don’t think I do. But every July, my parents and I would fly up to Malaysia – where the rest of our family lived – to take part in the annual rites of the Hungry Ghost Festival.
In college, I once tried explaining what the Hungry Ghost Festival was to some of my American friends, but I do not think they understood. And how could they? America teaches them to look ahead, to forget the sins of their fathers and build a brighter world than that which came before.
Back home, I was taught to look both ways. My high school in Singapore modelled its school crest on the coat of arms of our founder, a British trader who had earned his knighthood by buying up colonies for the Crown. Of all the various devices on his sigil, the school chose a single image for its students to wear upon their breast: a double-headed eagle – one head looking forward into the future, the other looking back at the past. At the time, I thought it trite, but since coming to America I have come to understand the difference between her eagle and mine.
I sometimes find myself wondering what my college friends would say, if they could see me at the temple, bowing, a bundle of lit joss-sticks in my hand. Or if they could do more than see: if they could smell the incense – that arid, pungent scent that sticks to your shirt and takes days of washing to remove – or feel my eyes burn as the changing wind blows smoke back into my face. I have no doubt that they would be respectful, curious, polite, but their attention would be drawn by different things. I imagine them asking about the afterlife, gently quizzing my aunts on where they believe people go after they die. I see their eyes drawn to the marble tablets, the names and faces of the dead, the red pieces of cloth that mark spaces reserved for those yet to die – brother next to brother, husband next to wife. What happens next? Where do we go from here? These are the questions that obsess the American mind.
Would they notice, though, that it is only the older folk who know how to hold their joss-sticks away from their faces? Would they ask why our ghosts are hungry when the temple makes offerings of food every day? I do not think they would. And will still I notice these things, ask these questions, when college is done and it is time to come home for good? The answer eludes me, and that bothers me more than it should.
Maybe, just maybe, they would have understood if they had there been with me last July, when I brought my young cousins to the temple for the first time. My aunt had hesitated to bring them, but after some consideration she had decided that they were now old enough to be trusted around fire and the reality of death. Just as my older relatives had done for me many years ago, I showed my cousins how to navigate the temple’s various rites: how to light their joss-sticks; how to arrange them so they will not fall down when you place them in the ritual urns; how to fold the bundles of hell-paper into a mandala-like shape.
My cousins learned quickly, far quicker than I had. They soon overcame their initial apprehension of the burning joss-sticks (though the littlest one still flinched every time a glowing ember fell from the joss-sticks in her outstretched hand) and proved naturally adept at making the complicated folds. Our preparations complete, I took them to place our offerings underneath those marble tablets that were etched with our ancestors’ names.
There is a strict sequence in which I was taught to do this – each ancestor ordered in precedence and preference by some strange formula whose workings I could never quite grasp. First, twelve lit sticks to the temple spirits, placing them in groups of three at the temple’s four cardinal points. Next, one bundle of hell-paper and one stick for each great-grandfather and great-grandmother: on the paternal side only, of course. Then, three bundles and three sticks for our grand-aunts and grand-uncles, and the same for god-grandfather, a good friend of the family who took my mother in when she was young and sick and needed to change fathers for a time to confuse the jealous gods. (Another grand-uncle has a tablet in this temple, but we never offer him paper or joss – he gambled away his parents’ fortune, and our family’s formula has a memory that extends past the grave.) Finally, we gather all that remain, and offer them to grandfather and grandmother, the latest names to be added to our family’s long list of dead.
As we were placing our last offerings underneath our grandparents’ tablet, the eldest of my three cousins tapped me on the shoulder.
“Is ah ma the woman next to ah gong?” he asked. “I don’t know what she looks like.”
I paused, a joss-stick slowly expiring in my hand. Of course my cousins wouldn’t remember our grandmother. She had passed away long before they were born, when I was still their age. To be honest, I didn’t remember her that well myself. All that remained of her were fragmentary impressions – a sharp, biting voice; a pair of hands that brought me toys each Christmas and New Year; perfume that smelled faintly of mothballs and old clothes. But I still remembered her as something more than a face on white marble. I remembered kowtowing at her funeral and watching my uncle’s tears, finding a box of her old clothes in a corner of the house and helping my aunt give them away, small moments that marked the void her presence had filled.
My cousins had no such memories – like every family, we had learned to move on from our loss. When we talked of grandmother now we talked of her in the abstract: as someone who was dead, not someone who had been alive. To them, she was no different from the various grand-uncles and aunts who we had just paid our respects to, and to their children and grandchildren she would just be another one of those distant ancestors that lined the temple walls. Time is a cruel thing: it draws us inexorably into the uncharted waters of the future, leaving lives and memories eddying in our wake, receding ever further into the distance with the passing of the years.
This is why the Hungry Ghost Festival exists. Though my cousins and I have paid our respects to the dead we remember, when we burn our offerings later we will burn them in the name of the dead we do not – the dead who wander the afterlife without kith or kin, starved of prayer and love for eleven long months of the year. The hungry ghosts: a presentiment of our future, the relics of our past.
There was one more ritual to complete before the day was over. When we got back to the house, clothes still reeking of temple smoke, our elders were busy arranging a neat semi-circle of joss around our front gate. My aunt handed me a string of small, marble-sized fruit, instructing me me to distribute them among my cousins. Lining up inside the semi-circle, we took turns throwing the fruit to the other side of the road. When I was young, my aunt told me that by doing this we would encourage good spirits to come live in our house, but her explanation has always seemed a little strange to me – if we want the ghosts to come live in our house, shouldn’t we be placing the fruit inside? But I know that it is faith, not logic, that gives ritual its familiar comfort. So when my cousins asked me why we did this, I told them the same thing my aunt told me: that the good ghosts are coming to scare bad luck away.
As the adults placed the last few joss-sticks in the semi-circle, my cousins and I amused ourselves by trying to throw our fruit into the courtyard of the house across the street. The courtyard was surrounded by a wall of decent height, and I was the only one who was consistently able to get fruit over it and into the courtyard within. Soon, my cousins had handed me their store of fruit to throw, cheering every time one of their pieces arced over the wall. The noise they made soon attracted the attention of my aunt, who put an end to our shenanigans with a stern look and a few choice words. Presently, the last joss-stick was in place and the adults decided to head back in, pronouncing the ritual complete.
I still had one last piece of fruit. Checking to make sure my aunt’s back was turned, I gave my cousins a conspiratorial wink and then sent that last piece of fruit flying through the air with a good, final throw. But before it could clear the neighbour’s wall, a large bird swooped down from a nearby tree and snatched the fruit into its jaws. My cousins clapped their hands in glee and demanded that I tell them what this development meant.
I told them that it was a good omen, and may even have believed it myself.