How do I explain the Chinese community’s belief that for one month, ghosts and spirits of the deceased roam among the living? Or that during this festival, rituals include offering of food, burning of incense and operatic performances on a temporary stage that would never receive council approval in Australia.
How do I explain that in parts of Asia, supernatural and spirituality are so popular that the stories permeate your subconscious even if you are a skeptic. It’s easy to scoff when ghosts and spirits are discussed in a café or apartment in the city but something in me shifts whenever I go outdoors or to rural areas which is the usual setting for many of these stories which date pre-dates modern day Malaysia.
As a city person, I am also suddenly conscious that I am out of my element and give in to superstition
As a city person, I am also suddenly conscious that I am out of my element and give in to superstition. This is why I am still wary of driving on an infamous highway in Malaysia that cuts through a mountain range because I have heard too many stories of ghost sighting and accidents. The ghosts may be figment of a nation’s imagination but the car crashes are real enough to keep me away.
We’re talking about a region where one of the literary bestseller is a book series called True Singapore Ghost Stories (TSGS) which debuted in 1989. It is now up to book number 25 and each book blends reports, commentary and retelling of the supernatural with modern life without making it seem incongruous.
There is a lot of fodder for these stories as the types of ghost (hantu) is varied, if not mildly sexist and racist. There are the usual water spirits and undead spirits as well as long haired female vampires (pontianak) who seduce men and shiny, black greased creatures (orang minyak), who abduct young women by night.
My favorite is the Chinese ‘hopping’ zombie-vampire-undead creature (jiangshi), portrayed in many Chinese movies and TV series, albeit as comedy more than horror. It can be stopped if someone tacks a yellow paper with spells on its forehead, proving that even supernatural beings respect paper forms and bureaucracy in Asia.
There’s no need for a full-scale exorcism or an intervention from the Ghostbusters crew
There’s no need for a full-scale exorcism or an intervention from the Ghostbusters crew. Thanks to these experiences, I have a long list of tips for dealing with spiritual beings which include general politeness (ask permission from the tree owner before you pee on it, because no invisible being wants to be peed on), humility (do not brag that a hiking trail is easy because the spirits will deliberately make it harder for you) and sensibility (do not take objects from nature back home as the spirits will follow you).
I’m often disappointed that stories of the supernatural or spiritual are not a large part of mainstream Australian culture, because it means I no longer have a group of people to share these stories with. There goes a chunk of my standard dinner conversation material.
Perhaps this is because monotheist religions like Christianity and spirituality are mutually exclusive in Australia. In Asia, religion, spirituality, mysticism and ancestral worship can somewhat coexist.
These differences became clear when I went for a hike in Grampians, Victoria. I asked the seasoned hikers for tips and they gladly shared their preferred trails, recommended snacks and cautioned against staying at some sites. Nobody gave me any tips on how to be respectful to the local spirits. I would have asked, but did not want to seem like the odd woman with strange ideas. Modern Australian life does not quite approve of that.
Annie Hariharan is a business consultant, pop culture nerd and writer focusing on identity and feminism.