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Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost Festival, which occurs during the Chinese 7th lunar month, is a time for lively celebration, a clear contrast to its macabre name.

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An interesting event that only happens during the Hungry Ghost Month is the Por Thor celebration. Held by Chinese communities centred around markets and businesses, it is celebrated on a grand scale especially in Penang. Parts of roads, sidewalks and open spaces in certain urban areas where these communities congregate are first cordoned off, and slowly the celebration area comes into being. Temporary shelters and makeshift stages are erected for the celebration, with the worship area being the most important.

Paper effigies of Chinese deities, including the King of Hades, occupy places of honour at these shelters, sitting before tables filled with an assortment of offerings. Traditional paper items in various forms, which will be burnt as offerings to the Underworld, including the famous hell notes, are piled high in a display of wealth and prosperity. Baskets of fruits, packs of rice and other grains, huge pink rice buns in the shape of turtles, all offerings vie for space on the tables laid out before the King of Hades. The centrepiece of these offerings are whole roast pigs, accompanied by chickens and ducks, which will later be served to all those who are a part of the community celebrating the event. These temporary 'temples' dedicated to the King of Hades are put up for a certain number of days and anyone who wishes to pray there is welcome.

Entertainment has traditionally accompanied this event, with Chinese opera shows based on famous Chinese myths and legends populating the stages in earlier days. Though these can still be seen, a more modern performance has become more popular in recent years. Known as 'Koh-thai' in local Hokkien dialect, these shows somewhat resemble a mini concert, often showcasing female singers dressed in outlandish costumes. As these shows are meant to entertain the spirits and humans alike, it is the norm for organizers to reserve a row or two of seats for the 'honored' guests, right at the front of the stage. So, no matter how tempting those best seats of the house looks, never ever choose to occupy those seats because one may never know who or what one's neighbours are.

At the end of the celebrations, which can last for a couple of days, the paper offerings are burnt in a giant bonfire, along with the effigies of the deities, and the offerings of food are divided among the community. It is also customary for these communities to have a Chinese banquet dinner at the area to close the entire event. These dinners are usually loud and boisterous functions, with lots of food and drink, and are occasionally used as fundraising opportunities for the committees that organise the Por Thor. The banquets serve to foster closer ties between members of the community and are a fitting end to a colourful celebration by the living to commemorate the dead.

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