COVID-19 SPECIAL

Hungry Ghost Festival to be quieter this year amid Covid-19 pandemic

Getai shows go online, temples cater to fewer devotees in effort to meet safe distancing rules

Families are still allowed to pray in common areas during the festival, so joss paper shops in the heartland may be less affected than businesses that cater to temples, said Mr Alex Teo of the Singapore Religious Goods Merchants Association. ST PHOTO
A family preparing offerings at Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong temple's ancestral tablet hall earlier this week. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN
A family preparing offerings at Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong temple's ancestral tablet hall earlier this week. Safe distancing rules mean that the temple can serve only about 400 devotees a day during the Hungry Ghost Festival this year, less than ha
Families are still allowed to pray in common areas during the festival, so joss paper shops in the heartland may be less affected than businesses that cater to temples, said Mr Alex Teo of the Singapore Religious Goods Merchants Association. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended lives in the physical world, but even the spiritual realm has not been spared.

The Hungry Ghost Festival that begins today has been transformed, with mainstays like live auctions and flashy getai performances - traditionally held during the seventh lunar month - noticeably absent this year.

Mass prayers, accompanied by the buzz and clang of religious music, have also been significantly scaled down to meet government guidelines amid the pandemic.

At Toa Payoh Seu Teck Sean Tong temple, it is customary at this time of the year to see the open-air carpark transformed, with neat rows of tables bearing some 2,700 ancestral tablets for family members to offer prayers and offerings. But the tablet set-up will be absent this year.

In addition, safe distancing rules mean the temple can serve only about 400 devotees a day, less than half the usual seventh month crowd, said Mr Chia Kok Peng, vice-chairman of the temple's board.

The 10,000 devotees who usually take part in the temple's annual seventh month prayers will also miss the occasion on Sept 6 - the prayers will be conducted behind closed doors by a handful of volunteers.

Prayer rituals at Chia Leng Kong Heng Kang Tian Temple in Silat Road will likewise be truncated, said temple committee member Kiong Han Wei.

Boisterous open-air banquets, usually held on the 15th day of the lunar month, will also be noticeably absent.

The dinner hosted by Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple that draws up to 4,000 attendees each year has been cancelled, while the live auction will be conducted silently. Getai performances sponsored by the temple will be streamed online, from Aug 30 to Sept 1.

Businesses that usually do well during the seventh month have also been hit. Large religious-goods wholesalers that cater to temples and companies have it worse, given that prayers have been scaled down, said Mr Alex Teo, assistant secretary of the Singapore Religious Goods Merchants Association.

"The guidelines for seventh month prayers came in less than two weeks before the start of the month, so many of our regular clients were hesitant to place their orders for prayer items," said Mr Teo, the third-generation owner of wholesaler Ban Kah Hiang Trading.

 
 
 

He expects this year's seventh month sales to be at least 30 per cent less than last year's. He added that joss paper shops in the heartland are likely to be less affected, as families are still allowed to pray in common areas.

Live shows have also had to adapt to the new rules, to varying degrees of success.

Getai organiser Aaron Tan said his usual slate of 50 live shows during the seventh month has dropped to 29 as of yesterday - one on each day of the seventh month - and all of them will take place virtually.

Groups like the 156-year-old Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe are struggling to cope with the changes.

"The seventh month is our busiest month, but with this year's restrictions, our usual 20 or more performances have all been cancelled," said the troupe's leader Nick Shen.

But the industry is innovating.

The troupe's first online show will be live-streamed on Facebook page Tok Tok Chiang and zhongyuanfestival.sg early next month.

The website, put together by a group of creatives, will be launched today, and will hopefully draw a new generation to understand and enjoy seventh month celebrations, said project leader Ivan Yak.

 
 

Other efforts to digitalise this year's seventh month festivities include a special getai edition of the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre's TGIF Music Station series.

To be live-streamed on the centre's Facebook page on Sept 4, the show will feature getai veterans and next-generation stars like Lee Pei Fen, Hao Hao and Desmond Ng.

"In these challenging times when getai performances are not able to proceed physically, artists and organisers can still come together creatively to ensure that our traditions are preserved and continued for future generations," said the centre's programme director, Mr Lee Ee Wurn.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2020, with the headline 'Hungry Ghost Festival to be quieter this year amid pandemic'. Print Edition | Subscribe