Of Gods and Spirits

Phuket Vegetarian Festival

From 16 – 25 October 2020, Phuket is set to host the annual Vegetarian Festival (also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival) to celebrate the Chinese community’s belief that abstinence from meat and various stimulants during the ninth lunar month will help them obtain good health and peace of mind.

The purpose of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival differs from the Chinese celebrations which occur in several countries of Southeast Asia. Here, the worshipers will follow ten principles to cleanse their spirit while devotees walk in a procession, self-inflicting all kinds of tortures to shift other worshipers’ evil onto themselves and bring good luck to the community.

Firewalking, body piercing and other acts of self-mortification undertaken by participants acting as mediums of the gods have become more spectacular and daring as each year goes by. Men and women puncture their cheeks with various items including knives, skewers and other household items as it is believed that the Chinese gods will protect them from harm, with little blood or scarring resulting from such mutilation acts.

Apart from the visual spectacle of this festival, visitors can taste specially prepared vegetarian cuisine available at street stalls and markets. Streets leading to shrines in Phuket’s Old Town are filled with food stands displaying vegetarian dishes in all shapes and sizes.

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Nine Emperor Gods Festival Celebration in Malaysia

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is an annual Taoist celebration held from the first day to the ninth day of the ninth lunar month – which falls on 16 – 25 October in 2020. Celebrated mainly in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, the festival ushers the nine sons of Tou Mu, the Goddess of the North Star who is believed to control the books of life and death.

For nine days devotees will observe a strict vegetarian diet to cleanse their body and soul. A variety of vegetarian stalls are set up along the roads and lanes around Penang, with many donning yellow cloths or signage indicating that they serve vegetarian food. A variety of events and ceremonies will also be performed, including the spear skewing ceremony, playing with hot oil, and the fire walking ceremony.

The Tow Boo Kong Butterworth Temple is one of the biggest temples in Penang devoted to the Nine Emperor Gods. Every year, the temple will celebrate the Nine Emperor Gods Festival for nine consecutive days with staged opera shows in Teochew and Hokkien dialects.

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Hungry Ghost Festival in Malaysia

Falling on 15 August in 2020, the Hungry Ghost Festival, also known as Yu Lan, is one of several traditional festivals held amongst Chinese communities to worship ancestors. In Chinese tradition, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is regarded as Ghost Month while the fifteenth day of the seventh month is known as Ghost Day, during in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm to visit the living.

It is believed that the gates of Hell are opened once a year during the Hungry Ghost Month and all the lost and hungry ghosts are free to roam the living world. To appease those lost souls and to prevent them from causing the living harm, elaborate ceremonies and rituals are performed such as putting the family’s ancestral tablets on a table, burning incense and preparing food three times a day to feed the hungry ghosts.

Activities such as swimming and travelling are avoided as it is considered dangerous in case a wayward ghost were to cause an accident. Likewise, getting married or moving to a new house is avoided during this period as it is considered bad luck.

In Malaysia, the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated with a modern twist; live performances and concerts are scattered around the countries’ major cities. These live shows are locally known as ‘Koh-tai’ by the Hokkien-speaking people and are performed by groups of singers and dancers on a temporary stage set up within a residential district. Various prayers, religious activities, opera performances, and puppet theatres are conducted throughout the month at various venues.

Some of the highlights include the Hokkien and Teochew puppet shows. The Teochew puppet shows in particular are rare and considered a dying art in many parts of the world, including Malaysia.

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