Welcoming the stars of the Big Dipper

30 09 2016

The coming of the Chinese ninth month brings two widely celebrated Taoist celebrations to Singapore, both of which  have a connection with water. One, the pilgrimage to the island of Kusu, is held over an entire month. This sees thousands of pilgrims flocking to the island, where a Tua Pek Kong temple and several hill top shrines are located. The other celebration, held over the first nine days of the month, is the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷).

Devotees from the Kim San Temple at East Coast Beach.

Devotees from the Kim San Temple at East Coast Beach.

The Nine Emperor Gods festival is especially interesting. The celebration proper begins with an invitation to the gods – nine stars of the Big Dipper, to descend to earth for an annual sojourn. The often very elaborate invitation ceremony is  traditionally held on the eve of the 1st day of the month. Taking place by the sea or a river, it involves the carriage of the gods on a sedan or a palanquin that is always violently rocked as a sign of a divine presence.

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This year sees the invitation spread out over several days, with a few being held on the eve itself, which falls on Friday 30 September. One that I managed to catch over at East Coast Park was that of the Kim San temple from Jalan Ulu Siglap on 29 September, the photographs of which accompany this post. The festival ends with an equally grand send off, with the gods ascending to the heavens on a burning boat. More on this and the festivalcan be found in a previous post: The Burning Boat.

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The burning boat

14 10 2014

One evening a year, a burning boat lights up the dark and forgotten shores of Kampong Wak Hassan. The fire burns quickly, its flames completely consuming the boat ‘s paper shell and its wooden frame in a matter of minutes, sending nine divine beings on a journey to their celestial abodes. The journey brings the beings’ annual nine-day sojourn into the human world to a close and is one that follows a ritual that brings much colour to the shores of Singapore.

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It isn’t only at Kampong Wak Hassan that we see this send-off in Singapore, it is also seen at several waterfront locations across the island. The boat burning act comes at the end of the Kew Ong Yah or Jiu Wang Ye (九王爷) or the Nine Emperor Gods festival, a festival that commemorates the visit of the nine stellar gods – the nine stars of the Big Dipper (seven visible and two invisible). The festival begins with the gods being invited to earth and ends with their journey home on the ninth day.

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The Taoist festival is celebrated with much fervour by the devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods, especially so in southern Chinese immigrant communities in several parts of Thailand and Malaysia. Devotees observe a strict vegetarian diet throughout the festival, which falls on the first nine days of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, starting on the festival’s eve.  It would once have been common during the festival to observe mediums, many sporting piercings through various parts of the face and on the body, going into a trance. What I especially recall from my younger days was the sight of mediums swords in hand performing acts of self-flagellation, as well as hearing the sounds of cracking whips, all of which over the years seem to have become less common.

A medium sporting a peircing – seen in 1979 (source: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline).

More information on the festival itself is to be found in a Singapore Infopedia article. The article identifies twelve temples in Singapore at which the festival is observed, one of which is the Tou Mu Kung temple at Upper Serangoon Road. Thought to be the first in Singapore at which the festival was celebrated, the temple’s festival observance culminates these days in a send-off for the gods at Pulau Punggol Timor, a man-made island off the much altered Seletar coastline that is accompanied by much pomp and ceremony.

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The ceremony at Wak Hassan, is that celebrated by the Kew Ong Yah temple, which has its origins in Chong Pang Village – it was originally located just stone’s throw away from the landmark Sultan Theatre. Now housed within the Chong Pang Combined temple in Yishun, the temple also commemorates the occasion with much colour, sending the gods off at the seawall of what was a former village by the sea. It was the temple’s ceremony that I found myself at on the evening of 2nd October, the the ninth day of the ninth month this year.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

The crowd at Kampong Wak Hassan.

There was already much anticipation in the air when I arrived at 9 pm, more than an hour before the procession was to arrive. A small crowd, made up of many extended families, had already gathered and the chatter included the excited voices of the many children in the crowd. While there was a hint of a sea breeze, it was a sticky evening and many sought relief from the strategically positioned ice-cream vendor and the ice-cream wielding crowd brought an almost festive like atmosphere that is not often seen in the area.

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The anticipation seemed to grow with the passing minutes. A commotion announced the arrival of the two paper boats that were to be used in the ritual. The first, with the head of a dragon, was one that was to be set alight on the beach in which offerings were to be placed. The second, was to carry the gods out to sea and set alight – the flames transporting the gods to the heavens. The presence of the boats, which were moved down to the beach, also provided the signal that arrival of the of the procession of the gods and their paraphernalia was imminent, prompting a frenzy of joss stick lighting among the devotees in the crowd.

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A thunder of drums heralded the arrival of the gods. Representations of the nine gods, masked men dressed in an almost gaudy fashion, circled the roundabout at the end of Sembawang Road in an unsteady dance before the procession moved down to the seawall.  A violently swaying sedan chair brought in the sacred urn. The urn is where the spirits of the gods are carried and the chair is swung from side to side by its bearers as a sign the divine presence. Among those making their way down to the seawall with the procession was Mr K Shanmugam, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law and an MP for Nee Soon GRC, who takes part regularly in the Kew Ong Yah temple’s Nine Emperor Gods festival celebrations.

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It was close to midnight when a semi-melodious chant in Hokkien rose above the gentle sounds of the waves of the nearby sea – the chants prayers sung, almost, by a Taoist priest. Once the prayers were completed, it was time for the party of temple officials and the Minister to wet launch the boat carrying the gods, setting it alight in the process, after which attention was turned to the second boat. Fanned by the strengthening sea breeze, the flames seemed in both cases to leap off the burning boat, offering onlookers such as myself, quite a sight to behold. It was past midnight when it was all over, and as quickly as the fire consumed the boats, the crowd dispersed.

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Together with the accompanying ceremony, the fiery end makes the send-off ceremony one of more colourful religious rituals that is seen today in Singapore. The setting for the send-off by the sea provides a connection to who we are and to where we came from; the sea being a naturally where we might, in the past, have sought a connection with the beliefs of our forefathers, many whom arrived here from the coastal communities of Southeast Asia, India and China. Now one of the few religious rituals celebrated by the sea that still is quite visible, the festival serves to connect us with a shore we are very quickly losing sight of. The shore that made us who we were is today a shore that has turned us into who we are not.

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A song which soon will be forgotten

18 04 2013

For me, one of the most difficult things about being at home in Singapore is how little there is of what ties me to it that I can hold on to. The Singapore of today is one which bears little or no resemblance to the Singapore I grew up in, and one which I am very much attached to. I often find myself overcome with that sense of longing and sadness that accompanies a realisation that I can never return to that Singapore I fell in love growing up in.

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I find myself wandering through many of the altered spaces, in search of the little reminders that remain of those times forgotten, often leaving only with regret. Many of these spaces, now devoid of a way of life it once supported, are empty except for the clutter of ornaments inherited from the modern world.

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There are but a few spaces which have been spared this clutter. It is in the echoes of these spaces left without their souls, that I sometimes hear the singing of a song the lyrics of which might once have familiar.

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A familiar tune is still heard along the northern shores. Spared thus far from the interventions the modern world is too fond of, it is where the memory of naturally formed beaches, now a rare find, has been preserved. It is where perhaps a memory of a way of life we have forgotten can also be found in the casting of nets and rowing of sampan–like hulls.

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Alas, the familiar tune may soon be one we are to forget. The advance of a world in which it is hard to find sanity, has reached its doorstep. We see swanky beach front units that reek of the smell of money sprout in an area in which the smells would have been that of seawater soaked wood, of fishing nets drying in the sun, and of the catch from the sea. For how much longer will I be able to hear the familiar tune in my ears, I do not now know, but it is a tune I am determined to try to hear for as long as I am able to.

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About the beach and the former coastal villages :

The beach in the photographs is one of the last natural stretches of sandy beaches left in Singapore. It stretches from the seafront of Sembawang Park eastwards past the seawall at the former Kampong Wak Hassan and past the seafront area of the former Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah, where it is broken by the mouth of a diverted and canalised former tributary of Sungei Simpang, Sungei Simpang Kiri. It would have run further east towards Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang – that area, currently used as a military training ground and is inaccessible, is a reserve site for public housing and will be the future Simpang New Town – the coastline of which will be altered by land reclamation based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan 2008.

Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah was a Malay Settlement which was established in the 1960s on some 16.5 ha. of land acquired by the Government from the Bukit Sembawang Group. It was a group of three coastal villages just east of the Naval Base which also included Kampong Tanjong Irau to its east and Kampong Wak Hassan to its west. A mosque, touted as the “last kampong mosque in Singapore”, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, was built in Kampong Tengah which still stands today, despite the disappearance of the village.

Coming a full circle, the land fronting the beach is currently being developed by the Bukit Sembawang Group as a luxury development, Watercove Ville which will see some 80 strata houses built, and in all probability, the beach and beachfront will soon have to be made over.