Hungry Ghost Festival – A creepy crowd puller

Hungry Ghost Festival – A creepy crowd puller

Words and photos by Phuah Ken Lin

Huge hungry ghost effigies at street corners make George Town a creepy place to visit. Yet it failed to scare off tourists who are attracted by this pervasive cultural festival.

Come September, every other road in the city will have put up worship altars under make-shift canopies and displayed an array of fruits, sweetmeats and prayer items on long row of tables.

Smokes from smouldering large joss-sticks are sure to sting the eyes even if the fierce look and piercing eyes fail to shock and awe.

Unknown to many people, there is a reason behind the various shades of facial colour for The King of Hades effigy; the colours are tell-tale signs of the latter’s ‘mood’.

The most common type red-faced King of Hades effigy and its diciple

Picture this; the different colours of the fierce face of the King of Hades are there to depict the “mean” level of the guardian in the afterworld.

Effigy maker Koh Beng Hock, 60, met at the lead-up to the annual Hungry Ghost Festival, or better known as Phor Thor by the locals, in the seventh lunar month toldWhere2 he made the effigy in accordance with the colour specifications wanted by customers.

The craftsman behind the effigies, Koh Beng Hock is able to make some 40 effigies of various heights

“In the mystical netherworld, The King of Hades, much like human beings, shows emotions on all occasions.

“The colour of faces reflect the theme for the Hungry Ghost Festival for each organiser in line with their respective annual theme on the level of ‘angst’ from the guardian they want to portray.

“Red signifies extreme anger and it is the most popular colour but the blue, green and black are equally common, as non-red is considered a milder expression.

Koh, whose shop is located at the Gat Lebuh Macallum flats, said his customers had requested the effigy to be lifted marginally by about an inch every year to show their devotion to the King of Hades.

He added another popular effigy choice for the Phor Thor organisers is the floral-face design with a white background.

A veteran in the effigy-making business for 35 years, Koh made 38 sets last year and the orders for effigies remain at about 40 this year. The average height of the effigy ranges from two meters to 4.5 meters.

Hungry Ghost Festival, or known as the Phor Thor Festival is observed on the seventh month in the lunar calendar annually. This year, the festival runs between Aug22 and September 19.

Taoist devotees believe the gate of heaven and hell is open for a month and allow the deceased spirits to return to the living world in the month of Hungry Ghost Festival.

They also pay homage to their departed ancestors with joss-sticks, folded papers known as “hell money” and other a variety of household paper items.

To appease the wandering spirits, devotees hold the Chinese Opera and in recent years, modern singing and dance performances are also crowd puller for the local residents.