For the longest time, I have harboured very guarded feelings towards the Chinese seventh month, bordering on fear when I was a child, and dread as an adult. Growing up in a Chinese household, my childhood and teenage years were filled with images and stories that blurred the lines between superstitions and customs, folklores and beliefs. Somehow, there was a notion that if certain rites were not followed, if the spirits were not appeased, bad luck would follow. Besides paper offerings to be burned, food and entertainment have defined the month-long festivities. These have evolved with time – food offerings became feasting and auctions, while street opera became wayang and getai.
I have made two movies based on the Chinese seventh month – ‘The Maid’ and ‘881’. So although I have grown up weary, I have been fascinated by this spiritual month. The ghosts are not just ghosts, they are Hungry Ghosts. The gates are referred to as Hell Gates, the paper money, Hell Money, and the spirits, Wandering Spirits. It is easily the most colourful, the hottest and the noisiest month on the Chinese calendar.
Recently I have faced up to my ‘fears’. It dawned on me that my father passed away during the seventh month. So his passing coincides with the month the Chinese believe the dead return to this dimension. I have began to embrace my fascination with the festivities. And to respect the varied customs practised in the Chinese Seventh Month. I found this poem by Nicholas YB Wong. Almost an ode to all Chinese who observe this tradition. And to all our dearly departed.
This night every year, she honors the homeless spirits
by folding silver and golden papers into ingots.
Her fingers twist and press, giving each sycee a sweet belly.
Making hell money is national art.
It is getting colder. A few serf-looking white shadows
slaver over the food she has prepared: roasted baby pigs,
grilled goose thighs, Chinese white buns and pink cakes.
She wonders if her mother is among them.
Some less hungry ones glare at the fine couture
by the road. They need some new clothes: floral qipao,
formal black hats and monogrammed handbags.
She throws a match into a small rusted tank,
inside which the money and clothes burn in fierce yellow.
Then she bawls – Receive. Receive. Receive. A few
stray dogs awake and howl.
Smoke arises and reaches streetlamps. The road
becomes bleary amber. It reminds her of an old photo
in which her mother seldom smiles.
She watches everything become ash.
Those dogs cautiously near the buffet
on the curb. She knows it is time for the spirits to eat
and collect their tepid parcels. She remembers
not to look back, or else they will be seen
and lose their way home.