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.

jeromelim-4771-3

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.

jeromelim-4698-2

jeromelim-4709-2

jeromelim-4717-2

jeromelim-4726

jeromelim-4747

jeromelim-4755-2

jeromelim-4775-3

jeromelim-4814

jeromelim-4819-2

jeromelim-4820

jeromelim-4826

jeromelim-4855-2

jeromelim-4857

jeromelim-4864

jeromelim-4870

jeromelim-4876

 





What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street

27 09 2016

A curious sight found at one of Telok Ayer Street’s two beautifully restored mid-19th century Chinese pagodas, the Chung-Wen pagoda or Chong-Wen Ge (崇文阁), are eight figures that are seen propping up the pagoda’stop tier. Referred to rather disparagingly in  colloquial Hokkien as “dim-witted foreigners”, these figures carved from wood have no structural function and are purely decorative features. Similar figures, which are also sometimes made of clay, are apparently, quite commonly used in Minnan architecture and are thought to have their origins in the Tang Dynasty when they may have been used to commemorate the efforts of foreign labourers who were often involved in building projects.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

The eight wooden cravings are just some of an amazing array of decorative work found in the incredibly beautiful pagoda. Built between 1849 and 1852, the pagoda, besides it features that define a strong Chinese flavour, also has features that speak of the influences present in the 18th century Singapore such as a wrought iron sprial staircase that was put in during a restoration effort in 1880 and encaustic floor tiles, which can also be found in other Chinese buildings in the country.

Decorative details.

Decorative details.

The second tier.

The second tier.

The reverse view.

The reverse view.

The wrought iron staircase.

The wrought iron staircase.

Linked with the Hokkien community, whose spiritual centre was at the next door Thian Hock Keng temple, the Chung-Wen pagoda apparently also had the support of other groups within the wider Chinese community. This is evident in one of three steles found on the site. The stele, which commemorates the pagoda’s construction, sees the names of Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin as well as that of a Hakka, Liew Lok Teck, alongside names associated such as Tan Kim Seng, Ang Choon Seng, Wee Chong Sun and Cheang Sam Teo from the Hokkien community.

The stele commemorating its construction.

The stele commemorating its construction.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

We also see on the stele that a shrine dedicated to Zitong Dijun (梓潼帝君) was placed on the pagoda’s second tier. Zitong Dijun, also known as Wenchang (文昌), is considered to be the Chinese god of culture and literature, and is a patron deity of scholars. This is a clear indication of the Chung-Wen pagoda’s intended purpose as a place given to promoting learning, although not all experts agree on the manner in which it was done. What is clear however, is that the Chong-Wen Ge was where the written word was venerated. This was carried out through the practice of the burning of papers on which words have been written, in honour of the inventor of Chinese characters, Cangjie (倉頡). The installation of a small paper burning pagoda on the site for this purpose is also recorded on the stele.

A view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay.

Old world gods now surrounded by the gods of the new world  – a view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay and the financial centre of the city beyond it.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The practice of burning the written word ended in 1910 when the trustees of the Chong-Wen Ge handed control of it over to the Thian Hock Keng temple, although it can be said that the written word was then celebrated in a different manner with the founding of the Chong Hock School for girls in 1915. The school operated in the simple but lovely two storey building adjacent to the pagoda and only moved out in 1985 as Chongfu School.  The school’s building have seen several uses since and now houses the Singapore Musical Box Museum on its upper level. An encaustic tile shop and a Peranakan café is also now found on its ground level.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

The Chong-Wen Ge, which translates as the Institute for the Veneration of Literature, was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973 with the Thian Hock Keng. Its wonderfully restored state is the result of its last major restoration effort which was undertaken between 2001-2003. More information on it and other conserved former school buildings can be found in a URA Heritage Schools Pamphlet.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda's second level.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda’s second level.

jeromelim-7027

A view from Telok Ayer Street.

A view from the cafe.

A view from the cafe.


A close-up of the eight “dim-witted foreigners”

jeromelim-6996

jeromelim-6978

jeromelim-6976

jeromelim-6975

jeromelim-6972

jeromelim-6971

jeromelim-6970

jeromelim-6969






The eighth night

1 03 2016

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.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore's oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

The Thian Hock Keng at Telok Ayer Street, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien Taoist temple.

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”.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

Pai Tee Kong prayers held at the former Keng Teck Whay.

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.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day.

Stalks of sugarcane going on sale on the seventh day. Legend has it that a field of sugarcane offered Hokkiens fleeing from attackers a place of refuge.

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.

JeromeLim-8430

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.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

A table of offerings together with two stalks of sugarcane, placed at the front of a business. Similar tables are also seen outside the homes of Hokkien Taoist families.

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 temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The temporary altar to the Jade Emperor at the Thian Hock Keng.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

The crowd at the Thian Hock Keng on the eighth night.

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.

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay ...

The ceremony at the former Keng Teck Whay …

Which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.

… which was taking place at the same time as a getai performance for the Thain Hock Keng across the street. Street opera and getai performances are often held at temples to provide entertainment to the deities during Taoist festivals.





Celebrating SG50 and a heritage gem

14 08 2015

One of the joys of living in Singapore, a melting pot of immigrant cultures for over two centuries, is the diverse influences seen in the architecture on display across the city-state.  One area where a concentration of this can be admired is in and around Telok Ayer Street, a street once fronting the bay after which it was named and a point of landing for many of modern Singapore’s earliest immigrants.  Along the street, stand two gorgeously adorned pagodas, possibly the oldest in Singapore, both of which were erected by Hokkien immigrants, one of which takes one from earth to heaven and houses an altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor within what was once the home of the Keng Teck Whay.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

A second pagoda - Thian Hock Keng's Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way's pagoda.

A second pagoda – Thian Hock Keng’s Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way’s pagoda.

The Keng Teck Whay, a mutual-aid society, was founded in 1831 by 36 Hokkien Peranakan (Straits Chinese) businessmen from Malacca whose origins can be traced back to Chiang Chew (Zhangzhou), China. The association, membership of which passed from father to eldest son, erected what can be said to be a clan complex around the mid 19th century. Being a very exclusive association, the complex and the fine example of southern Chinese architecture found within it, was kept well hidden from the public eye for much of its long existence.

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders - one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions - a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders – one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions – a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

A National Monument since 2009, the former Keng Teck Whay building – the only surviving example of a Straits Chinese clan complex, has since been taken over by the Taoist Mission. The complex, which was in a state of disrepair when the mission took possession in 2010, was painstakingly restored over a two and a half year period by a team of experts appointed by the Taoist Mission at a cost of some $3.8 million. Having first opened its doors to the public as the Singapore Yu Huang Kong or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor early this year, the newly restored complex was officially opened on 9 August, the day independent Singapore celebrated its golden jubilee.

A view of the central door and the door gods.

A view of the central door (reserved for the Deity) and the door gods.

A view through the opened Deity door.

A view through the opened Deity door.

The opening of the former Keng Teck Whay as the Yu Huang Kong, which was officiated by Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, was a celebration in many ways. Marking the the end of the restoration effort, the ceremony, which also included the commemoration of National Day, was also a celebration of Singapore’s unity in diversity with representatives from Singapore’s many faiths also in the audience.

JeromeLim-8601

JeromeLim-8529

JeromeLim-8533

JeromeLim-8546

JeromeLim-8548

There is also much to celebrate about the beauty of the complex and its traditionally constructed structures and decorations. Laid out along a north-south axis, the complex features two courtyards, separated by its rather interesting pagoda. The beautifully constructed pagoda, laid out on a square base with octagonal plan upper tiers, said to represent Earth and Heaven respectively, is thought to have been modelled after the pagoda structures seen in temples to Confucius. It is on the second level of the three tier pagoda that the altar dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor is found. The ancestral hall, housed on the lower level of the rear two storey building, lies across the inner courtyard from the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

The entrance building.

The entrance hall.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

The ancestral hall, would have been where the main focus of the gathering of members five times a year to conduct ancestral prayers or sembayang abu, was. The hall is where a tablet inscribed with the 35 names of the association’s founding members can be found. While the name of the 36th founder, who was ejected for reasons unknown, is missing from the tablet, 36 places were still somehow set at the sembayang abu food offering table – a practice that the Taoist Mission continues with. More information on the Keng Teck Whay and the sembayang abu food offerings be found at this link:  http://peranakan.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/2005_Issue_2.pdf.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

Further information on the Keng Teck Whay can be also found at the following links:


More photographs of the Opening and SG50 National Day Commemoration ceremony

JeromeLim-8619

JeromeLim-8631

JeromeLim-8487

JeromeLim-8493

JeromeLim-8506

JeromeLim-8510

JeromeLim-8514

JeromeLim-8525

JeromeLim-8527

JeromeLim-8460


More photographs of the beautifully restored Singapore Yu Huang Kong

JeromeLim-8686

JeromeLim-8649

JeromeLim-8657

JeromeLim-8681

JeromeLim-8683

JeromeLim-8676

JeromeLim-8694

JeromeLim-8703

JeromeLim-8710