On the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, according to Chinese belief, the gates of hell open and ghosts pour out of the lower realm. On that day, Southern California's Chinese diaspora celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival. They perform rituals to appease the dead.
It is a time of great and sometimes confusing activity at the Thien Hau Temple in downtown L.A.'s Chinatown. Explanations fall to volunteer docent Michael Le Tigre, who over the years has become the temple's friendly, garrulous wandering spirit, its ambassador to the English-speaking world.
Are there ghosts walking around right now?
“We don't discuss the ghosts,” Le Tigre says. “That word 'ghost,' I keep seeing it, but I don't like it.” Ancestors, he says, is a more respectful term. “Ghost is a bit demeaning.”
He smiles, rubbing a patch of gray hair along his brow. “People come with misconceptions. I am here to make bridges.”
Le Tigre, who hails from Trinidad by way of New York, speaks with a lilting, Caribbean accent. Asked what his ethnicity is, he answers simply, “I am all.” Born and raised a Christian, he studied the I Ching and Taoism for 20 years before happening upon the temple by accident some seven years ago. He has been here ever since.
Here, there are no priests or monks. The temple is run by the Camau Association of America, a group of Chinese-Vietnamese refugees who came over from Ca Mau province in Vietnam.
Today, at the festival's start, the red and gold space is suffused with the musky scent of incense. Food offerings for the dead are piled high on various altars — peaches, mangoes, grapefruits, sticky buns, pink rice cakes. There are bottles of beer and bowls of rice. Volunteers from the community will chant for hours to give the spirits relief from their karmic duties.
Le Tigre stands aside to let the undulating line of black-robed chanters pass. Distracted now by a confused-looking family, he calls out to them, “Welcome! Welcome. Are you Persian?”
Yes, the husband answers. Attracted by the noise and bustle, they'd decided to pop in. Le Tigre guides them to a map, explains how to light 11 sticks of incense and place one per altar in sequence. “It's very powerful,” he says. “If you have any questions, I am here all week until 5 p.m. How do you say tiger in Farsi?”
“Babali,” the wife says.
“Then I am Michael Babali.”
Though the temple was built in 2005, Le Tigre continues, its story is a thousand years old. “Thien Hau” refers to the sea goddess. Her nickname is “Mazu,” and this is her house. For a thousand years, people have honored her as protector of sailors and fishermen.
Le Tigre has just worked his way to 960 A.D., the Song dynasty, when a pair of passersby interrupts.
“I have a question,” one announces.
“The Papa John's pizza. Is it near?”
“Yes!” says Le Tigre, as if that is the question he most wanted to hear. “I think it's there on Cesar Chavez.”
Where was he? Oh yes, the 11 altars. No. 1 is outside. Incense lit here goes directly to the sky. No. 2 and 3 are the door guardians. No. 4 is Mazu. No. 5, the guy on her right with the white beard, represents worldly goods. “He's called Grand Papa,” Le Tigre says. “He's Santa Claus.”
No. 6, the guy with the angry red face, is General Gong. Le Tigre: “Very popular guy. In Chinatown you'll see him in restaurants. The red face represents courage, righteousness, heroism. Businessmen doing multimillion-dollar deals pray to him. He gives them answers.”
How does he give them answers?
Le Tigre shakes his head. “That's esoteric stuff.”
He moves on to No. 7, a tiger at Mazu's feet, lounging like a pet cat. “No. 7 is a mysterious one. Very Taoist. Involves astrology.”
This weekend's activity is concentrated at altars eight (Amitahba, god of compassion), nine (Dizang, god of underworld navigation) and 10 (departed ancestors and relatives). In a minute, Le Tigre pulls over Anna Vong, a temple volunteer who is passing by.
“I don't like the word 'ghost,'?” Le Tigre says to her. “But what do you call it?”
“It's, uh, the underworld?” Vong replies. “It's like a vacation. For all the spirits to go home and visit their family. It's like a free month that they can go anywhere. Usually, they are restricted.”
If offerings aren't made, Vong says, malicious spirits can bother the living. “The spirits can interrupt your normal life. When you are weak or sick? They are able to invade your body.” It's up to the living to help them. “You ask the spirit, 'What do you want?' Or 'Who do you seek for?' Or 'What do you need to help settle your soul?' Otherwise, they can do all kinds of bad things.”
Thus, many superstitions accompany Ghost Month. People avoid swimming, lest evil spirits try to drown them. Children are told not to walk outside at night. Ghost Month is believed to be an inauspicious time to get married, start a business or buy a new house.
“We also try not to travel. Because you don't know what you're gonna run into,” Vong says cautiously.
She walks to a corner of the temple, where an old Chinese man is wrapping bundles of faux money — known as “hell notes” or “ghost money” — in cellophane and throwing them into a pile. Next to him, heaped along the wall, are stacks of cardboard shipping boxes.
“For the past two months, this gentleman here has been making packages, packages, packages,” Le Tigre explains. The packages contain papier-mâché shirts, slacks, toys, shoes, cigarettes, televisions, radios — anything and everything an ancestral spirit might need to live comfortably in its world, only made of paper. “Even iPads and iPhones,” Le Tigre says. “They gotta live their life!”
Each box is labeled for a particular ancestor. “We put their name, the sender's name,” Vong says. “It's like a P.O. box.”
“Come,” Le Tigre says. “I will show you the post office.”
The post office, aka the furnace, is a huge, pot-belly contraption with a long, slender chimney. Licensed by the city, it sits in the temple parking lot, next to the god who guards the gates of hell. The god, or rather a statue of him, is sitting on a folding table underneath a tent, which is temporarily blocking tiny altar No. 11, the Altar for Unknown Souls.
Tomorrow, when the gates of the underworld are open widest, the packages will be chucked into the furnace.
“Some cultures believe that smoke goes through the ether,” Le Tigre offers. “Ah!” he says, spotting a smartly dressed man in suit and tie. “This is our president of the temple. This gentleman represents the continuity of culture.”
“Today is like Halloween in the West,” president Vincent Fang says. “Tomorrow, we will chant all day. Then the gates will be closed.”
Which gates? The gates of hell or of the temple?
Fang answers only, “Yes.”
And so around 4:30 p.m., the gates of either hell or the Thien Hau Temple will close. The crowds will gather. The burning will begin.
Fang lifts one of the packages, caresses a vertical strip of paper taped to it and reads the handwritten characters. With so many supplicants and so many ghosts, people are limited to one offering per person.
Asked if he can see the ghosts, Fang shakes his head. “Oh no,” he says. Then, on second thought, with a sly smile adds, “But you can feel them.”