GEORGE TOWN: Kotai (stage performance) is a common sight during the Phor Thor (Hungry Ghost Festival) celebration.

Such shows, usually free and held at night, are meant to entertain the wandering spirits, but human beings are welcome too.

Those who wish to watch these programmes must adhere to one taboo – never sit on the first row – because these seats are specially reserved for the “unseen souls”.

During the festival, which is also known as Yu Lan in Mandarin, one is not allowed to pick up food that is left on the streets because they are offerings for the dead.

In Chinese folklore, the Gate of Hell will open during the seventh lunar month and spirits will get to go on “vacation” to the mortal world under the supervision of Tai Su Yeah and his minions.

This year, Phor Thor is held from July 29 to Aug 26.

For decades, the festival has been one of the busiest periods for the local Chinese community.

Stages are set up in predominantly Chinese areas and the programmes include Chinese opera performances, puppet shows and concerts.

Troupe manager Lim Poh Chye, 54, said he was shocked by the turnout for the kotai on the first day of Phor Thor last Friday.

“I was expecting a smaller crowd, but we had at least 50 people.

“Some in the audience brought their own chairs and some preferred to stand while enjoying the show,” he noted, adding that the audience could request that singers perform a particular song.

Lim added that many traditional rituals had been done away with over the years.

“Last time, the performers would pray to the local deities and King of Hades (Tai Su Yeah in Hokkien) before the show, but not anymore.

“We also used to put the deity in charge of performances on the stage, but lately, we decided not to do so as the stages are smaller in size,” he pointed out.

However, Lim said there were a few practices and traditions that he still insisted his troupe follow.

“We cannot eat kuaci (sunflower seeds) and peanuts on the stage because we believe it will cause arguments and there will be no peace.

“Performers whose family members have passed away are also banned from the show,” he said.