I remember being terribly scared of the Seventh Month as a kid. (I mean… even now too lah…)
I mean, even the name Hungry Ghost Festival is like, super no filter can?
Horror movies are also not helping at all.
I will always remember the scenes from The Maid, which revolved around the festival.
During this period, I’ve always walked past makeshift tentage, with various tables set up like an outdoor wedding banquet.
People would be yelling into microphones in Hokkien, while holding up hampers embellished in red and gold.
It took me many years before realising that these were live bidding sessions.
It also took me many years to realise HOW MUCH these items actually cost.
I decided to look into this intriguing practice that takes place every year.
TL;DR: How Much Can Seventh Month Live Auctions make?
|Assumption||Amount for one event||Total amount earned for the month|
|Auction event||Large-scale event|
Event duration of 4 hours, Items ranging from $5,000 to $100,000
Assuming 15 events for the month
|24 x $52,500 (average) = $1,260,000||$18,900,000|
|How much can an auctioneer make?||$500 to $800 earned per event|
Assuming 20 events for the month
|$500 to $800||$10,000 to $16,000|
What Is Hungry Ghost Festival?
For people who are less acquainted, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a period believed that the gates of the netherworld are opened, for the spirits to return to the living world.
It takes place on the seventh month of the Lunar calendar (19 Aug to 16 Sep this year).
During this month, we will usually spot a couple of usual activities, which include burning of incense and paper effigies, loud and dazzling getai (live stage performances), as well as live bidding events.
What Are These Bidding Sessions About?
Personally, I’ve found these bidding sessions a distinct part of the Hungry Ghost Festival, where I would sometimes hear the loud echoes of dudes yelling Hokkien numbers from my block.
These bidding sessions (also known as 喊标活动 in Chinese) are not your usual auctions.
During these sessions, the auctioned items usually have been blessed by the priest (or monk) over prayer sessions.
These items are said to bring good health, wealth, bring longevity and happiness to the person bidding it.
As such, items that may seem like common everyday goods would usually fetch shockingly high prices.
The prices of these items are also usually priced with numbers ending with 8, as 8 signifies luck in Chinese.
What Are Some Items That People Bid For, and for How Much?
These auctions usually feature a range of items, and could be practical items such as TV sets or bottles of wine.
It could also be things like golden sculptures or deity statues.
Items like oranges, coin banks, and wood barrels are the most popular.
Charcoal is also another popular item during auctions, as it is referred to as ‘black gold’ and is a highly auspicious item.
An auctioneer mentioned during an interview that $15,000 for 20 oranges is very normal for big events.
However, when it is held near HDB blocks, it would be less than $300.
Charcoal has gone for $88,888 at big events, and usually $800 at smaller auctions.
In 2013, a businessman paid $488,888 for a prosperity urn.
Another viral video in 2018 showed that someone bidding at $555,000 for an item.
Now, based on these prices, how much can an auction make?
Let’s calculate based on some assumptions.
Let’s assume a big event that is running for four hours, with items ranging from $5,000 to $100,000.
Let’s assume that an average transaction would take 10 minutes.
This means a total of 24 items being auctioned during the event.
Total amount = 24 x $52,500 (average) = $1,260,000
So, why are people willing to bid for such high prices?
There was a research paper published to find out how social and cultural goals influence the bidding behavior during these events.
In short, bidders tend to believe that their decisions and actions have important cosmic influence.
They are pleasing the gods and helping to take care of the “good brothers” (i.e. the hungry ghosts).
As such, these auctions are usually more than a process of assigning values to material goods.
For them, the symbolic value they derived is the satisfaction of performing the duty of compassion for the otherworld community.
Also, it is commonly observed that people who bid high prices tend to be towkays (business owners) in their 40s or older.
Where Does the Money Collected Go?
With such big amounts of money, I was curious where the money collected would go.
Apparently, these amounts would go back to the organisation (i.e. temples, religious associations) as funds to plan for the event in the following year.
The getai and live bidding events depend heavily on these auctions, as well as donations from the public.
This also means that if the funds received is lesser than expected, the magnitude of the event next year would be scaled down, or even canceled.
How Much Can You Earn as an Auctioneer?
Auctioneers can typically earn about $500 to $800 per session.
Each of them can have about 20 sessions within a month, which translates to $10,000 to $16,000.
This can be earned on top of regular jobs, so it could be a lucrative side job.
However, not everyone can be an auctioneer.
According to a seasoned auctioneer, many ‘disciples’ of auctioneering did not make the mark.
One generally has to be fluent in hokkien to be able to shout those huat (lucky) numbers with zest, and also not have stage fright.
What’s the Future of These Bidding Sessions?
As we would’ve imagined, there are not young people who are interested in becoming auctioneers.
In addition, situations like COVID-19 has forced such events to look for alternatives.
As a result, lively auctions will be replaced by silent auctions.
Devotees who are interested would be dropping their bids in boxes.
Companies have also started looking into new ways to appeal to the younger crowd, such as having live streams and having Facebook groups.
All in all, let’s hope that these intangible culture heritage will sustain through the times, and still be present for future generations to enjoy.
Besides being an auctioneer, are there any other interesting side hustles that you’ve come across?
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