In the seventh month of the lunar calendar, usually around August, Chinese Singaporeans (and Chinese in other parts of the world) observe what we call the Hungry Ghost Festival.
It is believed that the gates of Hell open and the ghosts are allowed to wander the earth. To appease these hungry ghosts, offerings are made to them – food, joss sticks, candles, paper money and other items made out of paper like houses and cars. In Singapore, big dinners are held, and guests bid at auctions for auspicious items (one man even paid S$258,888 (about US$207,000) for a gaudy urn that cost S$100!). And entertainment is provided for both human and ghostly guests, traditionally in the form of wayang (Chinese street opera) but these days, getai (literally ‘song stage’) is the popular mode of entertainment, where Mandarin and dialect songs are sung by colorfully dressed singers. But one thing remains the same, the first row of seats remain empty, for the spectral guests.
(Photo via Singapore Tourism Board)
When I was a kid in Singapore, not far from our house, a wayang/getai stage and dinner tables would be set up in a small parking lot of a row of shophouses. And we would hear the loud music late at night from our house, and smell the offerings being burnt. One had to watch where we were walking, to make sure we didn’t tread on ashes or offerings as it would bring bad luck. My parents weren’t the superstitious/religious sort but my grandparents were, and they had altars and joss sticks at their house. I remember helping to fold joss paper money and burn them, although I cannot remember if this was for Hungry Ghost month or for funeral rites. Perhaps both. (In Singapore columbariums, large troughs are provided for the burning of joss paper).
And it is during Hungry Ghost month that the more superstitious avoid doing certain things like swimming, going out late at night, getting married (see more here).
But nothing has been said about reading books that talk of this ghostly world, like Yangsze Choo’s amazing Ghost Bride.
The story is set in late 19th-century Malacca, a sleepy seaside town in southwest Malaysia. Li Lan is about to receive an unusual proposal, to be the bride of a young man recently deceased, the only son of the wealthy and powerful Lim family. It is a very rare practice, and is meant to appease a restless spirit. Of course there is far more to this as we later learn as we delve into the spirit world with Li Lan.
Li Lan’s own family was once wealthy but now its fortunes are in decline, and her opium addict father’s debts are owed to the head of the Lim family. She soon finds her dreams haunted by Lim Tian Ching, the deceased she is meant to marry. She enters a ghostly world in her dreams, where everything is “intensely and unappetizing lay pigmented”, where food is displayed like funeral offerings. But her thoughts are with his cousin, the scholarly and gentle Tian Bai, now the heir to the Lim fortune.
As a Chinese Singaporean, I was drawn to Choo’s story and her skilful rendering of 19th century Malaya. Many of our superstitions and beliefs are similar to those of the Chinese Malaysians, and they continue today, such as the Courts of Hell, the various levels and chambers in which souls are taken to atone for their sins. A visit to Haw Par Villa when I was a kid, brought those chambers – torture methods and all – terrifyingly to life through statues and dioramas. It is not for the faint of heart. Or children really! (More photos of this bizarre theme park built by the Aw Brothers in 1937 – warning, although these are just statues, some images are very violent. And bloody. Some are just plain weird.)
Apart from the spooky afterlife, Choo’s novel just meant a lot to me. There aren’t many books that are situated in Southeast Asia, despite its 11 very diverse and interesting nations, including the fourth most populous country in the world, Indonesia. (Here’s my list of books set in Southeast Asia/written by Southeast Asians). Malaysia, which neighbours Singapore, has more than a few similarities, and so to read of foods, traditions, customs, slang that I could relate to, that just made me feel so very warm inside. And a little homesick.
“They had all my favourite kinds of kuih – the soft steamed nyonya cakes made of glutinous rice flour stuffed with palm sugar or shredded coconut. There were delicate rolled biscuits called love letters and pineapple tarts pressed out of rich pastry. Bowls of toasted watermelon seeds were passed around, along with fanned slices of mango and papaya.”
For instance, Li Lan’s Amah, a very traditional, superstitious woman who has looked after for Li Lan since she was a baby. I was tickled by her solutions of boiled soups and tonics, of her fondness for consulting mediums and so on, which are not out of place even in today’s modern Singapore. My mother-in-law, for instance, still boils up ginseng tonics to boost energy, and when I was pregnant would make sure I drank chicken essence every day (thankfully that was the only thing, as there were plenty of other soups and tonics one ‘ought’ to consume during pregnancy, and even more after, during the ‘confinement period’ of the first three months).
“Malacca was a port, one of the oldest trading settlements in the East. In the past few hundred years, it had passed through Portuguese, Dutch_ and finally British rule. A long, low cluster of red-tiled houses, it straggled along the bay, flanked by grooves of coconut trees and backed inland by the dense jungle that covered Malaya like s rolling green ocean. The town of Malacca was very still, dreaming under the tropical sun of its past glories, when it was the pearl of port cities along the Straits. With the advent of steamships, however, it has fallen into graceful decline.”
I adored Choo’s depictions of Malacca, a sleepy coastal town I’ve been to just once in my life during a school trip when I was 12, despite the fact that it’s only about 2.5 hours from Singapore. I remember the red-bricked Stadthuys, built in 1650 as the office of the Dutch governor, visiting a Peranakan museum and eating Peranakan food. Of course it was a lot more about having fun with our classmates as it was our last year of primary school and we would likely end up in different secondary schools.
“Malaya was full of ghosts and superstitions of the many races that people it. There were stories of spirits, such as the tiny leaf-sized pelesit that was kept by a sorcerer in a bottle and fed on blood through a hole in the foot. Or the pontianak, which were the ghosts o women who died in childbirth. These were particularly gruesome as they flew through the night, trailing placentas behind their disembodied heads.”
Longing and wistful, haunting and melancholy, Ghost Bride has a little something for everyone – a romance, a mystery, a coming-of-age story. An apt read for the Hungry Ghost Festival but also for every other month in which the spirits do not roam the earth.
Yangsze Choo is a fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent. She lives in California with her husband and their two children, and loves to eat and read (often at the same time).
Connect with her on her website or on Facebook.
I received this book from its publisher and TLC Book Tours
Check out the other stops on the tour:
Tuesday, August 5th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Wednesday, August 6th: Jorie Loves a Story
Thursday, August 7th: Book Dilettante
Friday, August 8th: Bibliosue
Monday, August 11th: Broken Teepee
Tuesday, August 12th: Fuelled by Fiction
Monday, August 18th: Literary Feline
Tuesday, August 19th: Book Without Any Pictures
Wednesday, August 20th: Olduvai Reads
Thursday, August 21st: Snowdrop Dreams of Books
Friday, August 22nd: nightlyreading
Saturday, August 30th: guiltless reading