August in Singapore was hot and humid, with sudden showers followed immediately by blazing sun. The rain would hit the road and quickly turn into steam, which rose up to mix with lingering smoke from burning incense. Strewn along the pavement were piles of wet ash, encircled by coloured candies. As a child, I used to wonder why anyone would waste such delicious candied biscuits. My mother would catch onto me almost telepathically and curtly remind me that those offerings are for the dead, not to be touched, much less eaten.
Yes, it is the Hungry Ghost Festival. Following closely from the prolific incense burning, temporary wooden stages have mushroomed, splashed with neon colours and strobe lighting. At night, glitzy performers decked out in shiny sequined outfits, would trade witty jokes and belt dialect show tunes, much to their audiences’ delight.
Getai (literally song stage) is a colourful tradition in Singapore that has always been popular among the older generation and recently, with the masses, because a viral music video series on the Pioneer Generation card. Directed by local filmmaker Royston Tan (the same person who brought us 881, the movie), this public service announcement features the same bold and glitzy flourish with familiar personalities like Liu Lingling and Lee Pei Fen.
Over the past year, there has been a notable shift in our focus to our pioneers. As we celebrate our Golden Jubilee, we look back and are thankful to our forebears for their labour. Just recently, a fellow Singaporean in Germany shared a link to a Channel NewsAsia series Daughters of Singapore, which celebrates remarkable female pioneers in our nation’s history. I especially enjoyed the story of Puan Dr Noor Aishah, our inaugural First Lady who rose to the occasion in a very matter of fact way. In one particularly charming interview, she says, “Some people, they worry ah? Want to do, do so many thing, worry. No, I say no worry. I say, put everything ok. Done? Done. Then jalan, we call it in Malay.”
This spirit of gratitude was well exemplified in this year’s National Day Parade show during the mobile column segment. When our pioneer SAF servicemen marched out in their green uniforms, the crowd went wild. When our pioneer policemen came out in shorts, the crowd cheered even louder. Finally, when the last vehicle contingent rolled to a stop in front of the President, with families boasting three generations of servicemen, the audience pretty much exploded.
SAF pioneers marching in step
Photo taken from The Singapore Army Facebook
Policemen in khaki shorts
Photo taken from NDPeeps Facebook
Families with servicemen in the Home Team and SAF
Screenshot taken from NDP broadcast
By the end of August, most of the Getai performances have ended, along with the equally boisterous auctions organised by the larger temples. If you’ve lived anywhere near a Chinese temple, you would be very familiar with calls of “Jit sia, neng sia, sa sia! Huat ah!” (Loosely translated to “Going once, going twice, going thrice! Let’s prosper together!”), which ring late into the night. Much of the proceeds from these auctions go to helping the needy.
On a nondescript Sunday, to much lesser fanfare, the temples would line up rows and rows of red plastic pails filled with daily food items like rice and cooking oil. For a nominal fee (or none at all for the needy), these would be distributed to the community. They would come alone or in pairs, some with children, to help lug the hefty pail home. They would leave with a smile, grateful for that extra helping hand from fellow Singaporeans.
It’s moments like these that I find myself deeply appreciative of our local traditions. The seventh month festivities is much more than colourful shows and loud auctions, it’s about the community coming together to remember our past and extend a helping hand.