Malaysia's Ghosts of the Past Get Hip

Chinese opera singers in ornate silk robes and white painted faces perform on a wooden stage. The first two rows of seats in front of the stage are empty, but that's not a reflection of the quality of the show. They are reserved for spirits. But the spirits may well be elsewhere, watching Lady Gaga.

Chinese Buddhists in Malaysia believe that the tormented spirits of their ancestors are released from hell for a month every year to seek food and entertainment. The traditional entertainment for wandering ancestral spirits is known as the "Hungry Ghost Festival" and is predominantly celebrated by Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore. Some of the biggest Hungry Ghost celebrations take place in the Malaysian state of Penang, but this year the festival is drawing inspiration from some nontraditional sources – Hokkien and American pop.

Mow Yee Hsian has been a singer for eight years and she says that during the Hungry Ghost Festival she has to perform as many as 40 shows a month. Asked if she has ever had any otherworldly encounters Hsian says: "I've never really given much thought to it because we are performing for them. That's why they don't disturb us. But of course I focus on performing for humans."

The island of Penang is home to one of the largest Chinese Malaysian communities in the country. During the festival, families offer joss sticks, hell money, food and entertainment to ease the suffering of their ancestors who they believe have been mistreated in hell.

All Hungry Ghost celebrations in Penang are coordinated by the Teong Guan Association. Loke Poh Chye is the group's deputy chairman and he says the hungry ghosts need money and cigarettes in hell.

"These hungry ghosts are in hell for a year. From the first day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar they release all the ghosts from hell. Every area will treat the ghost with food so that they can have a good meal. You know that in hell they have no means to earn money. So they give them money to spend in hell. In hell there are policemen. At times they have to buy cigarettes from them to pay them for their extra services just like here. At the end of the seventh month they will go back to hell," explains Chye.

The tradition began during the Tang Dynasty where Buddhist traditions were fused with Taoist customs, but today Chinese opera has largely been replaced with something more modern, says Penang resident Loh Yeow Khoon.

"Originally these kinds of performance were to please the ghosts, but they have been commercialized. Now instead of pleasing the ghosts we are pleasing the audience," says Khoon.

Here at the Esplanade, Penang's shopping district, shows with modern guitars and drums are a major crowd puller. Performers with elaborate costumes have made way for skimpily clad singers and bands don't just play only Mandarin or Hokkien pop, they also do Lady Gaga.

Event organizer Loke Poh Chye says that out of hundreds of applications for stage performances in Penang, only two are for Chinese opera. Poh Chye is echoing a troubling trend stretching across Asia and into China itself. Beijing opera clearly is not what it was in the late 18th to early 20th century, when it was northern China’s most popular theatrical entertainment. According to a stry in the Sept. 7New York Times, "The big national spectacles of recent years have included the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony, which, while drawing on China’s rich tradition, did not echo the traditional opera. There was also the lavish production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” directed by the celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou. That production was a Western import that was once banned in this country because it was deemed insulting to China."

"The old people still prefer opera. In some areas they are still some opera performing. They come from China or Thailand," says Chye.

But he says they need to cater for the dead. "Now the dead people are not at the age where they have opera, where they appreciate opera. Now they would rather sing karaoke. Those that have passed away will remember karaoke so maybe the ghosts will be more pleased with modern singers," says Chye.

In Malaysia, even if you're dead, you still have to move on with the times.

This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia's independent radio news agency KBR68H and broadcast in local languages in 10 countries across Asia. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.