Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hazey Hungry Ghost Festival.

It's the time again. The time when an eerie (and filthy) coat of dull grey enshroudes the entire city, turning the once sunny tropical island into a place filled with coughing pedestrians and blurry visions, almost competely blocking the sun. The time when the sunshine turns into nothing but a dim glow above the cloudless, grey sky and birds retreat into their nests due to the deterioration of vision lengths, almost reducing it to a mere 2km. No, it's not due to the many invisible hungry ghosts lingering around the city, scavenging for food and haunting people.
The much loathed haze has made its come back since the past two weeks.

I don't know how has it been affecting your lives but I know my life's been a living hell. Being asthmatic, for one, I experience difficulties in respiration. It's impossible to shake off that irritable tinge of charred trees in the air. It's horrible cause it makes my over-sensitive nose itch instinctively most of the time, which, by the time I lay my fingers off my glowing red nose, will send me into another sneezing fit. Sneezing my head off uncontrollably in public isn't really a nice thing for others to bear, as the time interval between each sneeze is not even enough for me to utter the words 'excuse me'. People often give me disparaging looks when I launch into one of these sneezing fit. Even if I politely cover my mouth and nose with my handkerchief and sneeze into it, onlookers will start to shift uncomfortably on their seats at the sight of me.

Really makes me feel like yelling at them, telling them off that it's just only my allergy towards dust and soot that I'm only sneezing! Otherwise, do they actually think I'd go parading around if I've come down with Avian a contagious flu? Seriously? Do I look that sick? The only way to stop my hysteric sneezing is to have another shot of Nasonex right into my nostrils. Surely, the smell and taste of a field fresh sunflowers at the back of my throat does ease the pain and irritation, leaving me with a swollen, red nose. Quite unpleasant, if you ask me.

The haze is surely staying, as the Hungry Ghost Festival (Phor Thor) just kicked off yesterday with mom and dad taking off on the motorbike to the nearest ko tai (a karaoke singing performance on a set up stage as a form of entertainment to the spirits and public as well) to enjoy si ko t'ng (a bowl of ice syrup filled with jellies, beans and assorted nuts) Great, more burning of joss sticks, prayer paraphernalia and gigantic paper effigies to appease the hungry ghosts and more soot to boot the thickness of the haze shrouding Penang! No pun intended towards Buddhism and the worship of Tai Su Yah (King Of Hades) since there are certain worshippers who are aware of the critical condition of the air quality. Still, the burning of hell money, paper BMWs and luxurious paper houses doesn't really add up to improve the air quality, does it?

Amah (dad's mother), being a Taoist all her life, will usually hold numerous prayer sessions, filled with numerous home-cooked offerings for the deceased, ranging from her curry chicken to her soya sauce pork leg and minced vegetables mixed with slices of pork. I only know the names of these food in hokkien. Despite being a devout Catholic, I have been helping amah out with all the preparations needed during the Hungry Ghost Festival from young, like setting up the altar for the offerings, folding joss paper into shapes of cups and even taking care of the arrangement of cutleries on the table of offerings, prepared for the spirits. In this case, when the set up
and the praying with joss sticks is being done at home, it is to fulill filial piety. We Catholics are allowed to honour our ancestors, even if it means, honouring them with joss sticks. So over the years, it has been some sort of a customary for the family members to gather at amah's house to carry out our duties as great-grandchildren.

Another kind of praying is to the numerous figures of Taoist Gods and Goddesses, which we Catholics don't usually deal with. Though, we still help amah out with her extensive preparations for prayers, seeing that she has always liked the idea of doing everything grandly and ceremoniously. Considering her age now, she could barely manage anything at all, not even cooking. Yet, she still protests on having every altar set up like it was used to 20 years ago. When it comes to praying to the numerous Gods and Goddesses, amah doesn't set up her own altar. Instead, she goes to the huge altar set up by the neighbourhood committee to pray and give her offerings, at the feet of Tai Su Yah.

Growing up as a Catholic under the influence of Taoism at home, I've developed a weird interest towards mystical stories of The Monkey God or Kuan Yin or other petrifying looking figurines that decked the altar at amah's old house. I've also shown an unhealthy enthusiasm towards matters like re-incarnation, The 9 Levels of Hells and breathtaking ghost stories that roamed the Buddhist version of hell. Don't misjudged me. I've drawn a line to myself into believing such matters as true and only take an interest in them as a matter of fascination. No more than that. No doubt, I've always enjoyed amah's gratifying ghost stories of the weird, unexplainable incidents that occur during the Hungry Ghost Festival, no more less than the stories I read in True Singapore Ghost Stories.

However, I still coudn't answer one of my classmates when he shot at me, "Do you believe in these stuff during the Hungry Ghost Festival?". I can't possibly give a definite answer as the underworld still remains as an intangible subject. Honestly, I have no idea what to believe. It's really mind boggling to even come to think of it. It all boils back to the same question : Do you believe or not?
I prefer the idea of snucking in my bed and finishing another book of True Singapore Ghost Stories, getting myself mystified with stories that are not proven true or not on a hazey day as devotees all around Penang, pile up on their joss paper, getting them ready to be burnt, making the air quality even worse.

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