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It's Hungry Ghosts or Phor Thor festival now. The Chinese equivalent of Halloween, the festival is still very much alive in predominantly Chinese areas like Penang, and believers are now busy appeasing the spirits through ritual food offerings, burning of joss paper, and stage shows.
According to Taoist ghostbuster Ong Q Leng, spirits are at their most powerful during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar but those released from the gates of hell are not harmful.
"The harmful ones are the restless spirits that roam the earth freely throughout the year," says Ong, who claims to have seen them all, from office hauntings to eerie bodily possessions.
The 34-year-old spiritual healer shares some advice with those low on luck during this festival.
"Do not wear red this Hungry Ghost Festival. The spirits are drawn to red, so avoid anything red, including underwear. This is especially so if things have not been going smoothly for you these past few months."
She also warns believers against going out past 9pm.
"Stay away from drugs and alcohol because it's easier for spirits to take over those who are intoxicated. If you are always alert, it's also difficult for people to cast a spell or charm you."
Ong's caution may offer some "personal protection" against the unseen but hauntings are not limited to people.
The 65-storey Komtar tower in Penang which houses Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng's administration has its fair share of stories about ghostly apparitions. Staff members who experienced unnatural phenomenon on one of the higher floors recently called in an Ustaz to conduct prayers and sprinkle black pepper, apparently to "cleanse" the place.
Law firms seem to be a popular haunting ground in old George Town, with chilling tales ranging from smelling burning incense late at night to seeing an old woman roaming the corridors.
A 33-year-old senior partner in one firm shares: "A feng shui practitioner came to our office once and saw a child running around. In fact, we had an employee who suffered a miscarriage and it is thought that the baby's spirit followed her to work."
Another lawyer, who also declined to be named, relates how a client saw "another lady" in the conference room when there were just two of them.
"My boss too has a gift' for seeing these things'. One day, he saw an old woman wandering along the corridor but she vanished as he approached her. I've heard that during the Japanese Occupation, soldiers were beheaded here."
At a developer's firm not too far away, the office workers have come to terms with sharing their premises with "unseen friends".
"There have been many unexplained incidents; the air-conditioner starts even after it has been switched off and radio channels change randomly. A monk hired to cleanse the place failed to drive away the spirits, claiming there were just too many to capture.Every year during the Hungry Ghost Festival, we make offerings to the spirits here," one senior staff confides.
Even cars are not spared the spooks. Writer E. J. Loh, 46, recalls how a nee-kor (nun) who performed the funeral rites for her premature baby, sold her car, claiming that the child's spirit was "disturbing" her. The nun had driven the dead child in a casket to the crematorium.
Ong, who offers healing, spiritual cleansing, feng shui tips and general consultation to her clients, reckons that seven out of 10 cases she sees are caused by evil spirits or black magic. Her clients are from different races and religions, and include Germans, Australians, people from China and Hong Kong, and Singaporeans.
She says she has seen cases of clients experiencing extreme body aches, youngsters speaking in old voices, and those who cannot stop sobbing or whose eyes and tongues are rolled back as they stare blankly into space.
"Whether it's Thai kong tau or Chinese mao shan (black magic), it doesn't matter. I will try to help as long as the victim trusts me."
Ong, who always appears confident, is the first to admit she is not always this brave. Growing up, she says, she used to be scared out of her wits by apparitions she saw, which led to her stuttering as a child. But by the time she was 11, she was so fed up of being frightened that she started "scolding the spirits and threatening them not to bother her".
Four years ago, while working as a sales representative, it dawned on her that she could use her "gift" to help others.
Her most recent success was helping 73-year-old Zainab Sulaiman from Kelantan. The widow, who lives in a wooden house in Kampung Penambang Bunga Emas near Kota Baru with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, had been plagued with hundreds of mysterious fires which destroyed over 250 articles of clothing, mats, curtains, mattresses and many other things. Last month, Zainab made a trip to Penang to thank Ong.
For Ong, the more evil spirits she battles, the stronger and more alert she feels.
"I don't get tired although I sometimes work from early morning until past 3am."
Temple medium Lai Seng Hee says the younger generation are not as sceptical about ghosts as you would imagine.
"The temple is always packed with devotees who include young Mercedes-driving professionals and businessmen," he shares.
Lai, 47, goes into a trance at the Leong Hong Keong temple in Penang to assist Tua Pek (Grand Uncle) devotees to communicate with the deity.
The temple, which was established more than three decades ago, is dedicated to underworld deities - Tua Pek and Jee Pek (Second Uncle). Tua Pek - the Chief Inspector of Hades - always carries a fan while his assistant Jee Pek, carries a chain. Together, the brothers are known as Poh Tiao Pek.
Three nights a week, Lai goes into a trance until way past midnight. Devotees come from as far as Johor, Kuala Lumpur and Kedah with pleas to cure their illnesses, prolong the life of a sick loved one, or keep away evil spirits.
Lai's service was procured after the tragic and gruesome murder of three-year-old Ooi Ying Ying in 2007, a case that jolted the nation. Lai used a dried, wax-coated lime to communicate with the dead girl a method the former electrician learnt from a sifu (master) in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The seance was filmed by a Hong Kong production company for a documentary.
Lai's expertise was also sought to help "collect" fragments of Ying Ying's soul and conduct rituals to appease her soul.
Lai says during the Hungry Ghost month, spirits of the ancestors will try to contact their living descendants.
"They don't mean any harm. They may have some requests or want to warn their families of some impending danger."
The Star/Asia News Network
Sunday, Aug 14, 2011
By Christina Chin