Chinese Filipinos

Chinoy heritage comes alive in Zamboangueña’s ‘Feeding the Hungry Ghost’

Mike Baños

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Chinoy heritage comes alive in Zamboangueña’s ‘Feeding the Hungry Ghost’

READING. Six-year-old Irie Beley reads a section from ‘Feeding the Hungry Ghost.’

Mike Baños/Rappler

The children's book published in English, Filipino, and Mandarin tells the story of a Chinese Filipino child witnessing her grandmother cook a feast for their ancestors

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Alanna Michelle Escudero, a compoblano from Zamboanga City and fellow graduate from Ateneo de Zamboanga University (AdZU), recently did the Mindanao launch of her latest children’s book at the La Castilla Museum of Liceo de Cagayan University in Cagayan de Oro City.

Although we differ by three decades and seven years in our graduation dates from AdZU, that didn’t stop me from being impressed by what she’s done with her book, Feeding the Hungry Ghost published by Adarna House in English, Filipino, and Mandarin which tells the story of a Chinese Filipino child witnessing her amah (grandmother) cook a feast for their ancestors. The children’s book is illustrated by award-winning artist Bru Sim.

Dedicated in loving memory of her maternal grandmother Conchita Cua Bernardo who passed away in 2021, the story shares her fascination watching her grandma’s annual ritual preparing a feast for her tai-kong (Hookien for great grandfather) during Hungry Ghost Month, and her exasperation waiting for her ancestors to finish their meals first, since those living are not allowed to touch their food until the deceased have had their fill.

Cover of children's book Feeding the Hungry Ghost
CHILDREN’S BOOK. ‘Feeding the Hungry Ghost’ is Alanna Escudero’s fourth children’s book. Courtesy of Adarna House

In Chinese culture, the 15th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the 7th month is generally regarded as the Ghost Month, in which ghosts and spirits, including those of deceased ancestors, are believed to visit the living.

On the 15th day, the realms of heaven and hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is veneration of the dead, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths.

“Usually, after we offer the food, we give it some time and pour our drinks around three times, after which we ask our ancestor if he’s done so we can also eat,” she explained. Their ancestor purportedly indicates whether it’s time for the living to eat depending on how a pair of moon halves cut in half face up after they are cast by her amah.

During this month, ghosts are free to roam the earth seeking food and entertainment. Family members offer food and drink to the ghosts and burn hell bank notes and other forms of joss paper. Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife, considered to be very similar in some aspects to the material world.

Elaborate meals would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family, treating the deceased as if they are still living. Ancestor worship is intrinsic to the Ghost Festival because it includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations.

“This is a sense of preservation of heritage for me, a sense of remembering your roots, remembering where you come from, your ancestry, and remembering what your ancestors have taught you,” Escudero explains. “This is what I want to achieve with this story, and at the same time, I want to encourage other Chinoys (Chinese Filipinos) out there, to also share their stories.”

Activities during the month include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mâché form of material items such as clothes, gold, and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors.

In a bow to current mores on the preservation of the environment, Escudero suggests making folded lotus paper out of joss paper and provides detailed instructions at the end of her story on how to do this, and use these in lieu of the traditional kim-goon (Hookien word for spirit money or joss paper, used as a burnt offering in traditional Chinese ancestral worship).

Originally, Escudero wanted to have her story translated into the two Chinese languages most often used in the Philippines.

“Back in the 1990s it was Hookien, but now it’s Mandarin that’s taught in schools. We did not have enough space to include Hookien in the print edition but that’s something we hope to do in the future,” she notes.

Escudero pursued her lifelong dream of writing stories for children after graduating from the Bachelor of Arts in English Language Studies program of AdZU.

Feeding the Hungry Ghost is her fourth picture book. Her debut picture book, The Little Hero, was released by Kahel Press in 2018 and was nominated for Best in Children Short Story at the 2019 Catholic Mass Media Awards. In 2020, she self-published her second children’s book Tides of the Sea to raise funds for the Yellow Boat Foundation Incorporated.

Her third picture book, Tala, the Child of the Sea, was published in 2023 by Vibal Group Incorporated. In 2024, Escudero was included in the Severino Reyes Award Honor list. Her next project is her fifth title, The Monkey Who Loves the Tiger.Rappler.com

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