Chinese New Year, celebrated over a fifteen day period that culminates with Chap Goh Mei or Yuanxiao Jie (元宵节), is an occasion for much joy and feasting for the Chinese community here in Singapore. It is also an occasion when the many sub-cultural practices brought in by the diverse group of early Chinese immigrants are brought to the surface. One such observation is that of the Heavenly Jade Emperor’s birthday. Commemorated on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, it is celebrated by members of the Hokkien community.
For the community, who were among the earliest group of immigrants to come ashore in British Singapore, the observation is of great importance. Referred to as Pai Tee Kong in Hokkien (or Bai Tian Gong, 拜天公 in Mandarin), it is sometimes also called the “Hokkien New Year”.
As to how the community came to regard the birthday as the most important of the fifteen days, there are several versions of the story (one of which is found here). The many variations do have one thing in common – that members of the community were able to elude would be attackers by taking refuge in a field of sugarcane and praying to the Jade Emperor for deliverance.
Where the story differs is in when it took place and who the Hokkiens were running from, ranging from the incident taking place during the time of the Song or Mongol dynasties with Hokkien (or Fujian) province under attack by the armies loyal to the ruling dynasty, to it taking place during the days of the Ming Dynasty and the Hokkiens being pursued by bandits or pirates. Whatever it was, it was on the ninth day – coincidentally the birthday of the Heavenly Jade Emperor – Taoism’s most supreme deity, that the Hokkiens were able to emerge from their hiding place and celebrate the new year.
Preparations to greet the Heavenly Jade Emperor begin in earnest on the eve of the ninth day. Stalks of sugarcane are purchased by Hokkien families who place them by the doors of their homes or on either side of a table of offerings. The offerings include items such as pineapples, sweets, roast pigs and huat kueh (steamed “prosperity cakes” often used as prayer offerings), all of which also have a special significance.
Temples are probably where the celebrations are at their most colourful. At the Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple and the spiritual home of Hokkien culture in Singapore along Telok Ayer Street, a temporary altar to the Jade Emperor is erected to which prayers and offerings made. It is however just next door at the former home of a Hokkien Peranakan mutual-aid society, the Keng Teck Whay, that one of the more elaborate ceremonies is held.
The beautifully crafted 19th century Keng Teck Whay, long in a state of disrepair, has only very recently been restored by the Singapore Taoist Mission. The mission now runs the National Monument as the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple and maintains many of the practices of the Keng Teck Whay. Dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor, the temple’s Pai Tee Kong, all of which was conducted in the Hokkien vernacular, is especially elaborate and a wonderful reminder that Singapore, in all its modernity, is still where many traditions have not lost their place.