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It’s a little-talked-about segment of the music industry. The lights are burning, the speakers are blaring and an enthusiastic crowd looms near the stage – but the front row seats are empty. A stone’s throw away, a boisterous crowd dines in tables of ten as an auctioneer touts his wares with a kind of feistiness that would put off any Sotheby’s regular. This is the Hungry Ghost Festival#18 in Singapore.
In the seventh month of the lunar calendar, pop-up shows like this, also known as getais, are hosted under large tents set up in open fields scattered around the heartlands of Singapore. Alongside raucous dinners and auctions, the entire entertainment extravaganza is set up to entertain the souls of the dead, and the first row of seats are reserved for them. Want to join in? Not a problem – tourists are welcome to visit but are strongly advised to leave those front row seats alone.
If over-the-top cultural celebrations are what you enjoy, plan to arrive in Singapore just when we are gearing up for one of our many festivals. While our celebrations are deeply rooted in the cultures of our forefathers, our country’s multi-ethnicity has gotten us used to sharing it with people from different cultures. Knowing what strangely wonderful festivities to expect and when to expect them can really come in handy.
Every year, traffic is stopped at the heart of one of our cultural enclaves as a large, colourful procession traverses the 4.5km between two temples on foot. This, however, is not a scene for the weak at heart. Look out for the devotees who have pierced their tongues with skewers or have elaborate kavadis with multiple spikes mounted right on their flesh. This is Thaipusam#55, a highly symbolic festival for which Hindu devotees often spend an entire month in spiritual preparation. During this period, devotees must live a life of abstinence whilst maintaining a strict vegetarian diet. The prayers and chants of their family members and friends also accompany them as they take on this walk.
If you are looking to spend the last few weeks of Spring on holiday, Deepavali is another great festival to check out. It is a festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and they do literally light up the town.
The best place to catch a slice of the action? Little India, where the streets come alive to deliver a sensory overload with intense colours, lights and even fragrances. Be sure to look out for the rangolis. Composed of flour, rice or flower petals, these intricate patterns are created to usher deities into the home so they can bless the household for the year ahead.
Pack your reds and antacids
There are a few things that you cannot miss about Chinese New Year– the colour red, the massive amount and range of seasonal food to be devoured, and the sheer exuberance of the general populace.
In the three weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year and after, everything takes on a festive shade of red. Red is an auspicious colour, and many will adopt it as the colour of the season. Be sure to pack plenty of red from your wardrobe to blend in with the bright hues of brand new clothes that people will be wearing.
Whether you are at Chinatown, River Hongbao or following the lion dance troupes in the heartlands to soak in the festivities, try and learn the meaning behind some of the food we pop into our mouths this season. For example, the sweet, yellow melt-in-your-mouth pineapple tarts are actually served to bring luck because of how its name sounds in different Chinese dialects. Try and see what else you can find!
And of course, do not miss out on Chingay#52, the largest street performance and float parade in Asia. This is a parade that brings people and performances from across the spectrum of Singaporean culture together, and takes place amidst the festivities of Chinese New Year. From dazzling floats to dancing dragons, stilt walkers to pyrotechnic performances, this is a multisensory spectacle that perfectly captures the multicultural personality of Singapore.
But if you cannot be in town to experience the Lunar New Year festivities, fret not – in the eighth month of the lunar calendar, there is another annual event the city springs alive for. Marking the end of the autumn harvest, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a great time to visit as children, families and couples take to the street with colourful lanterns and indulge in oh-so-sweet mooncakes. During this period, it is also possible to shop at a festival bazaar, take part in mass lantern walks, and even try your hand at lantern making in Chinatown!
Two festivals with (almost) the same name
The Malay community celebrates two versions of Hari Raya – Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and Hari Raya Haji. While the names are similar, the two festivals are celebrations of two different things.
Also known as Hari Raya Puasa, the first of the two is the day that marks the end of a month-long period of repentance and dawn-to-dusk fasting. Spot the locals dressed up in brightly coloured ‘baju melayu’ and ‘baju kurung’ as they go visiting, but also look out for entire families clothed in the same hue! In fact, many families tailor their outfits from the same piece of cloth.
Whether you are in Singapore during the celebrations or just before, the Geylang Serai Bazaar is definitely the place to be. In the lead-up to Hari Raya Puasa, you can often see Malay families dining together after breaking fast for the day, and shopping to stock up in preparation for the celebration to come. But even as you people watch, don’t forget to try all the authentic Malay cuisine!
In contrast, Hari Raya Haji, otherwise known as the “Festival of Sacrifice”, is somewhat more toned down in terms of merrymaking, but nowhere less significant in terms of spirituality.
On this day, worshippers carry out the Korban as a reminder of Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice even his own flesh and blood to God. Livestock is ceremonially sacrificed, cleaned, and distributed, with a part of it going to the poor and needy. While the celebrations are more subdued for this festival, it is a great opportunity to tour Sultan Mosque and its surrounding area to learn more about the Muslim faith.
Whether you are here during the festivities or not, there are also plenty of other ways to get acquainted with our strangely wonderful way of life. To get started, you might want to find out what we mean when we say that there’s something strangely wonderful in our neighbourhoods.
Strangely Wonderful Glossary
#18 Hungry Ghost Festival- The Chinese believe that the gates of the underworld open up for a month each year and where souls of the dead roam the earth. People pay their respect by entertaining and giving offerings to them.
#52 Chingay- We love celebrating in Singapore, with a parade filled with floats that demonstrate Singaporean diversity!
#56 Thaipusam- Only those whose minds are free from materialism are worthy to honor Lord Murugan by piercing their skin and carrying the heavy metal kavadis mounted into their flesh without a shred of pain.