The other day while I was on the bus, I noticed a lot of fires burning in trash cans, which is something I've never seen here before. I also noticed lots of food arranged neatly on the sides of sidewalks, especially little cakes. Sometimes there are even teapots with little teacups, like in the photo below. I asked a guy I work with (Oliver) about it, and he said that it was the first day of the month-long Hungry Ghost festival, a Chinese celebration in which people believe that the gates of hell are opened, and the restless spirits of long-gone ancestors are freed to wander the streets. Feeding the spirits is said to appease them, and also to ward off bad luck. People also light incense and do other things, like put on performances and say special prayers, all to placate the roaming souls.The monkeys love Hungry Ghost time, and respond as though everyone is laying out a little feast for them. They steal the food, and get chased away by angry people that have spent a lot of time cooking and praying, only to have their offerings snatched by little monkey thieves.
When I was out buying fruit the other day, I saw a huge setup of food and tapestries and statues and offerings and all sorts of stuff. One of the guys setting it up said that it was for a Hungry Ghost service, and he let me wander around for awhile, taking these photos. In the one directly below, if you look closely, you can see my favorite part- a guy sleeping under the table with his arm hanging out from under the tablecloth. As you can see, the observation of Hungry Ghost month is very elaborate, with lots of gold and flowers and colors and tons of food.
Hungry Ghost reminds me a lot of the Mexican observation of El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). On the Day of the Dead, it is believed that the barrier between the living and the spiritual is more permeable than usual, and the spirits of the dead can cross over to visit the living. The observation of that day includes remembering deceased ancestors and loved ones, burning candles, and building altars which often include offerings of the favorite foods of the deceased. I went to a Day of the Dead celebration when I was living in New Mexico, and the vibe was very similar to what I've seen at Hungry Ghost observations- reverent, but also celebratory. The picture below is an altar that I saw on the Day of the Dead in Mesilla- an homage to someone's dearly departed dog.