SINGAPORE, Sept 9 — Just past midnight earlier this month, Daniel Tay and several friends ventured out to Bishan and Ang Mo Kio for a somewhat unusual mission: To hoover up food offerings left behind among rows of melted candles during the seventh lunar month.
Tay, 41, and his friends belong to a group known as “freegans”, who believe in the importance of reducing waste by retrieving unwanted goods that are discarded — food among them.
The Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls within the seventh lunar month and started on Sept 2, provided the group with a perfect opportunity to pick up unwanted food items. Taoist and Buddhist devotees mark the festival by offering food to appease the dead and ward off bad luck.
Fruits are a common food offering and oranges formed the bulk of the group’s haul. The group also bagged other fruits, such as apples, pineapples and rambutans, albeit in much smaller numbers.
Tay, who organised two freegan “fruit hunts” on Wednesday and Thursday last week, said that the Covid-19 outbreak has not put a damper on these food “rescue” efforts.
The fruits collected are inspected through a “look, smell and taste test” to ensure they are safe for consumption. Group members also use hand sanitiser during the fruit hunts, said Tay, a former self-employed financial adviser.
During their first outing last Wednesday, Tay and three others gathered around 80 oranges in four hours. On the second trip the next day, Tay and a friend yielded about 122 oranges in three hours.
Tay told TODAY yesterday that the focus was on fruits because they are covered in their peels and need only be washed before consumption.
The group kept the fruits collected for their own consumption or handed them out to family members who were receptive to the idea.
The idea of a seventh-lunar-month fruit hunt was sparked by a question posed to Tay recently: Can freegans collect food offerings left behind by devotees?
Before the group set out on the hunts, Tay, a freethinker, consulted a Taoist master to ensure that they were not disrespecting religious rituals.
The master gave the go-ahead and even provided some context about the festival, said Tay.
Offerings, Tay learnt, may be removed after the incense has stopped burning and group members say “a word of thanks and accord a bow of respect”.
A spokesperson for the Singapore Taoist Mission told TODAY that the collection of food offerings from the streets is acceptable. “(The) most important (thing) is to show respect for the practices and culture of others.”
Likewise, Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, president of the Singapore Buddhist Federation, saw no issues because the religious rites had already taken place.
Still, Tay and his band of freegans said that they started making their rounds of the neighbourhoods only after midnight to avoid any misunderstanding and curious stares from onlookers.
Starting late at night also meant that most of the candles and incense would have stopped burning, and the group could remove the offerings.
Tay is not new to freeganism, with TODAY reporting in 2017 on his “veggie hunts” — outings to supermarkets and grocery stores after operating hours to pick up discarded edible produce.
In early 2017, Tay started the Freegan in Singapore Facebook page. The next year, he co-founded SG Food Rescue, which focuses on collecting food from businesses before it is discarded.
Tay has since relinquished his roles in both groups because of personal issues that he did not wish to disclose.
Lessons from the pandemic
Tay said that the economic fallout from the pandemic has shown the importance of paying attention to what Singaporeans throw away.
“We like to boast of our food security, but a lot of it is based on having international channels open,” he said. “In such a pandemic, where a lot of the global food supply chain is affected, our food security suddenly becomes threatened.”
Tay said that another fruit hunt may be on the cards next week, just before the end of the Hungry Ghost Festival on Sept 17.
Asked if he encountered any supernatural events on the two fruit hunts, Tay said that the group was leaving the toilet at a petrol station last Wednesday when they heard the sound of marching boots.
“We turned around and realised it was just the sound of a trolley rolling across a bridge,” he said.
“When you are out doing these things (during the seventh lunar month), the mind does play tricks on you.” — TODAY