Hungry Ghost Festival – Part 1: Is that snow?

Welcome back to my blog!

Over the next two weeks, I will be covering the impacts of the Hungry Ghost Festival as per my observations and explore some possible measures to mitigate these impacts.

The Hungry Ghost Festival that just ended over the weekend is observed annually in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, where it is believed that spirits of the dead come to earth and roam around (Tan, 2018). It is customary for Taoists and Buddhists to put out offerings and light joss sticks on the street along their houses to honour wandering spirits and pray for peace and safety for their family members.

Even though my family observes this tradition, I was never involved in the process. To me, this time of the year just meant joss sticks on curbsides, “hell money” strewn all over the neighbourhood and a persistent burning smell.

In order to take a closer look at the effects of the festival, for the first time ever, I followed my grandfather as he performed the rituals on the last day of the hungry ghost festival and here is what we did.

Step 1: Find a patch of grass near our house

Step 2: Set up joss sticks, candles and food offerings as below

A typical offering setup includes candles, joss sticks and some food. 

 Step 3: The last step involves burning paper offerings like “hell money”

The inside of a typical burning bin, featuring my grandfather’s hand.

As I walked around my neighbourhood, I noticed that our offering setup was relatively simple and basic – some others had more than twice the number of joss sticks and candles. A strong smell of smoke permeated the air and ash drifted around with the wind, looking almost like snow.

In this photo, you can see the ash particles from the burnt offerings.

The most obvious impact of the Hungry Ghost Festival would be air pollution. Yesterday in class, I learnt about the different air pollution sources, one of it being area sources, which refer to multiple small sources that may be negligible individually but amount to considerable emissions as a collective whole. It occurred to me that the burning of offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival is a perfect example of area sources.

While surveying my neighbourhood, I counted an average of two burning bins per HDB Block and most were in use. When we consider the combined emissions from the burning bins of HDB blocks across Singapore in the entire month, this could raise PM2.5 levels by 18-60% (Webster et al, 2015). High PM2.5 levels may cause respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses (The Straits Times, 2014) and the danger is amplified by our high population density.

Perhaps it is time that we think of environmentally friendly alternatives? Next week, I will look into some hygiene issues exacerbated by the Hungry Ghost Festival before moving on to possible solutions. Stay tuned!



Tan, C. (Aug 18,2018). Singapore’s Hungry Ghost Festival: what to do in the Lion City during the month-long event … and taboos to avoid

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Webster, R. D. et al (Sep, 2015). Annual air pollution caused by the Hungry Ghost Festival

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The Straits Times (Mar 12, 2014). Budget backgrounder: What is PM2.5 and how it affects air quality

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4 thoughts on “Hungry Ghost Festival – Part 1: Is that snow?

  1. Qi Han

    Hi Si Hui!

    Interesting topic! I believe that it is close to the heart for many Singaporeans especially in the cases where the smoke gets unbearable. I remember when I was a child, I used to cough badly whenever I had to burn offerings. That was one of the reasons why I dreaded going to Qingming festival even though it was to pay respect to my ancestors. In my personal opinion, I believe that while searching for greener alternatives is important, we must keep in mind not to undermine the spirit and purpose of the activity. I am interested to find out more about how we can do so. If it seems feasible while still keeping its traditional roots I would definitely recommend it to my family!

    Qi Han

    1. Si Hui Post author

      Hi Qi Han,

      Thank you for sharing your personal story with me! Discomfort and respiratory illnesses from air pollution are definitely a concern in a city like Singapore, where 1 in 5 children suffer from asthma (KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, 2018). This is why we should take the problem of air pollution seriously for the sake of our children, if not for the environment. At the same time, I agree with you that we need to strike a balance between finding alternatives and preserving longstanding traditions and we need to start thinking about how.

      Si Hui

      KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (2018). Asthma in Children
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