Text and Photos by Team Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng 2016 (Queenie Ng, Teh Ka Kiong, and Jerry Lim)
Editing: Chew Sihui and Tan Simin
Online Formatting by Cheng Shao Meng (Merlin)
Special thanks to Sunny Lian for reading the essay and giving comments.
Special thanks to Sunny Lian, 刘瑞丰先生，吕序奎先生，吕礼茂先生， 吕礼成先生，members of the Kew Huang Keng temple committee, and Vickson Toh for allowing us to use his photos.
Our very sincere thanks to the committee of Kew Huang Keng temple for their support and assistance during our documentation project.
History – The founding of Charn Mao Yuen Kew Huang Keng
Founded during the 1940s, Charn Mao Herng Kew Huang Keng (葱茅园九皇宫) was originally located in a kampong known as Lemongrass Garden Kampong (also known as Charn Mao Hern or 葱茅园) that was situated in the eastern part of Singapore, near the Geylang Serai area. Spanning a large area, this region was divided into the northern area (Shangba (上芭)), where the inhabitants were predominantly Jiaowan (诏安), and the southern area (Xiaba (下芭), also called Xinba (新芭)) where the residents were predominantly Teochew and Malay. Another set of names divides the area in to three regions, with the Teochew region as the Qianba (前芭), the northern region as the Houba (后芭), with a Zhongba (中芭) in between.
Prior to the establishment of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng, devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods in the southern region went to Hong San Temple (⼤成巷葱茅凤山宫) for the festival. The devotees later started their own Nine Emperor Gods festival by inviting the incense from Hong San temple.
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival of Charn Mao Heng Kew Huang Keng from post-war to 1970s
Held within the village, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival from the duration of the post-war to 1970s can be considered a village affair as the festival often sighted the participation and mobilisation of an entire family as well as the community. Ms Lin, an ex-resident of Charn Mao Hern, reminisced that the “entire village was on a vegetarian diet, the residents took turns to cook the meals and shared with the neighbours” and “personally my brother was the sedan-chair barrier and I was the flower-girl”.
Moreover, she commented that “my father, uncles and brothers were involved in the procession, they were strong, they could carry the sedan chairs”. On the other hand, Ms Lin suggested that women and children partook in less labour-intensive roles. She explained, “most of the women in the village were flower-girls that follow behind the processions”. The flower-girls were “just daughters of the residents”. According to her, they (the flower-girls) carry the banners or items that were auctioned during the festival. Furthermore, she added that children who were too young to be in the operations of the procession, join the festival by walking or marching alongside the parade.
Indeed, the old photographs (Figures 2, 3 and 4) tells a tale that supports Ms Lin’s description of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival of Charn Mao Hern. This festival was one that transcended both age and gender.
Apart from the above-mentioned qualities, the scale of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Charn Mao Hern parallels that of the Chinese New Year. This comparison is not an exaggeration because Hua Nong School (华农学校, the village school) had to suspend lessons to accommodate the nine days of festive celebrations since a majority of the students were involved in this festival. As seen in Figure 5, school children were donned in tailored outfits.
Mr Lee, an ex-resident of Charn Mao Hern, concurred that the Nine Emperor Gods Festival experience was like Chinese New Year. “[Festival] is like a holiday, there is no school, we get to go out to play, the drums were so loud and it is just like Chinese New Year “, he said.
The development of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng from the 1970s to 1986
This period was marked by industrialisation. As part of Singapore’s initiative to modernise and develop, a land redevelopment programme was introduced to transform the land into industrial estates. Although the temple still stood on the village site, most of the residents of Charn Mao Hern were gradually relocated to various Housing Development Board (HDB) estates, and the patronage of Charn Mao Heng Kew Huang Keng saw a slight dip. In 1986, the temple was shifted to a temporary holding site off Arumugam Road.
Subsequently, a Teochew Shan Tang (众弘善堂) came together with Kew Huang Keng to establish a combined temple on its temporary site off Arumugam Road. In 1990, the combined temple, which is where the temple currently stands, was completed and was officially launched on 27 October that year.
In spite of the relocation of the temple, the kampong spirit of Charn Mao Hern has been symbolically and physically preserved through the Kampong Yew Keng. Replacing the traditional procession of parading through the village was the visitation of the ex-residents of Charn Mao Hern at the HDB estates, where most of them have relocated to. As part of the kampong visitations, Nine Emperor Gods altar stations akin to those featured in Figures 8 and 9 were being erected by ex-residents of Charn Mao Hern in their respective HDB estates. While the temple’s kampong have been dramatically extended in geographical terms to a multiplicity of locations, community ties continued to be retained through the adaptation of the village Yew Keng.
Organizational Structure of Kew Huang Keng
The temple is divided into six committees; one main committee and six sub-committees, each holding specific roles and performing significant functions
in the festival. Overseeing all the other sub-committees is the Main Council (Li Shi Hui, 理事会). This council consists of the most senior members of the temple and makes the final decisions on matters related to the temple or the running of the festival.
The other six sub-committees are:
(1) the Devotee Group (Xiang You Hui, ⾹友会), whose members are primarily responsible for the extensive preparation related to the rituals as seen in Figure 10, and who are participating directly in the rituals and carrying of the palanquins (Figure 11);
(2) the Respect Group (Cheng Jing Hui, 诚敬会), who manage the lion dance troupe dedicated to the temple (Figure 12);
(3) the Sincerity Group (Cheng Xin Hui, 诚⼼会), the group which is responsible for liaising with the other patrons of the temple or participants to the festival and used to co-ordinate with the dancers and actors hired to entertain the crowd in the kampong;
(4) the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui, 音乐会) takes care of the music ensemble that will perform during the festival (Figure 13) in a uniquely Teochew style;
(5) the Song and Firecracker Group (Ge Pao Hui, 歌炮会) derived from the idiom “⼀炮⽽红” (yi pao er hong), which is the group responsible for co-ordinating with the Teochew opera troupe to perform during the festival and used to be in charge of setting off the firecrackers;
(6) the Women Group (Fu Nu Zu, 妇⼥组): the female members of the temple that perform duties such as the manning of the makeshift stalls which sold offerings during the festival (Figure 14) as well as food preparation for festival participants and devotees (Figure 15).
Preparations for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival – Part 1: Making of Decorative Yellow Flower Balls
For Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng, preparations for the festival begins approximately around the start of the eighth lunar month. The very first preparation for the festival is the weaving of the decorative yellow flower balls (花球), which are painstakingly hand woven with multiple strips of yellow cloth. These decorative pieces are placed on the palanquins and the statuses of the temple’s deities for the duration of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
The process of making a flower ball is as follows. First, the craftsman (Mr Tan) needs to cut and bundle ten strips of yellow strings, measuring 90cm each, together as seen in Figure 16. Following so, he needs to fold the two edges of the bundle inwards towards the centre (Figure 17) and repeat this motion until all the edges have been folded towards the centre.
The flower ball is completed (Figure 18) after all the edges are neatly folded inwards. The process of making the decorative yellow balls is tedious because it requires a high level of concentration as well as precision in folding the edges. Moreover, it is time-consuming. According to Mr Tan, he said: “for people with my skill level and experience [it] would take an average of one and half hours to make; [for] new people, they usually take about three hours”.
The process of making the decorative flower balls is laborious. However, Mr Tan alluded that the sense of pride and fulfillment overrides the laborious emotion. This is because the hand-woven flower balls are a product of generational teaching, for the method of weaving was passed from an elder to him. Mr Tan noted that the ability to preserve this tradition makes him proud.
Furthermore, spiritual fulfillment is derived from weaving the flower balls because the activity is a demonstration of his [Mr Tan’s] devotion to the Nine Emperor Gods and through the activity he connects with the deity.
However, there were restrictions or strict requirements to adhere to when making the yellow balls, with an emphasis on purity. The volunteers or craftsmen need to be on a strict vegetarian diet. During their period, female volunteers were forbidden from making or touching the decorative flower balls because they are regarded as impure.
The completion of these decorative pieces spanned over several days because the craftsmen were mainly members of the Devotee Group (Xiang You Hui, ⾹友会), who volunteered their personal time after work to complete the weaving of the flower balls.
Preparations for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival – Part 2: Construction of the Bridge
Another key preparation for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival that is unique to Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng is the construction of the wooden ramp also known as the bridge. Constructed three weeks prior to the festival, this bridge serves a functional and symbolic purpose. Functionally, the bridge extends the entrance of the temple so that the palanquins, participants and devotees can make easy ingress and egress during rituals. Symbolically, the bridge represents the connecting of the two worlds (the celestial and the natural world) where the deities can make their entrance into the natural world.
The construction of the bridge was backbreaking work. Under the sweltering heat, the devotees helping out had to drag the cumbersome wooden planks from the temple backyard (Figure 19) to the forefront of the temple. Next, to form the base, the members erected the metal scaffolds (Figure 20) and positioned the wooden planks accordingly. This action often involved the prolonged arching of the back which might induce strain. Mr Lee, a fellow member of the Devotee Group working on the bridge noted, “today go home confirm back pain.”
Following so, the members placed the thin wooden planks (Figure 21) upon the base and hammered them individually into the base to form the structure. Subsequently, the yellow metal railings were welded into the structure (Figure 22) as the final finishing touches of the bridge. The bridge took approximately four hours to complete.
Although the construction of the bridge was both time-consuming and laborious, the devotees insisted on constructing the entire bridge by hand rather than hire external contractors to perform this menial task. This is because the activity allows them to retain and preserve the kampong spirit. Mr Lee concurred, “it is like the good old days, we [brothers] come and build this together.” Moreover, the members regarded the work as enjoyable instead of tiring as the presence of frequent joking and bantering has lifted the spirits amongst the temple members.
Preparations For The Nine Emperor Gods Festival – Part 3: Spring Cleaning
A week after the construction of the bridge, the temple members came together again to continue with the preparations for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival by conducting the “spring cleaning”. The main purpose of this “spring cleaning” is to ensure that the temple’s cleanliness is immaculate before the festival commences, as the concept of purity is central to the festival. Every part of the temple, including the inner chamber (内殿), have been dusted, swept, repaired, scrubbed and hosed down with soap and water. The more inaccessible areas were reached by younger and more agile members of the temple as seen in Figure 23.
Upon completion, the temple was adorned with banners, flags, and other items, most of which were coloured in yellow which signified the impending arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods. While some members were putting up various decorative ornaments, other members were actively hoisting up a huge metal pole at the front of the temple. Affixed with a small shrub of bamboo leaves on the top, the metal pole held nine flags and nine yellow lamps, symbolising the Nine Emperor Gods.
Although the “spring cleaning” lasted for the entire day, the temple members showed little signs of fatigue. Instead, they were brimming with excitement about the festival, with one member stating, “it is finally coming, huat ah”.
Preparations for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival – Part 4: Bamboo Cutting Ritual
Another important component of the preparations for the festival is the bamboo cutting ritual. Bamboo is a central feature in many Chinese folk religion rituals as it has been regarded to be a sacred object that signified purity and spirituality. Besides being a symbol of purity, the long bamboo stalk in the Nine Emperor Gods Festival serves as a ‘flag’ or a geographical indicator to inform the Nine Emperor Gods the location to descend. Attached to both a metal pole as well as the Nine Emperor Gods lamp, the bamboo stalk is a primary feature in all Nine Emperor Gods Festivals.
After being retrieved, the bamboo stems were transported back to Kew Huang Keng. Speedily, the members began to erect the bamboo stems against the metal pole (Figure 24). Effortlessly, one of the experienced members scaled the tall ladder to secure the remaining parts of the bamboo stems (Figure 25).
Anchored to the pole, the bamboo stems stood tall and straight (Figure 26). At the same time, another member skilfully attached the bamboo stems to the Nine Lamps (Nine Emperor Gods lamp) as seen in Figure 27. After securing the bamboo stems, a Taoist priest appeared from the temple. He began to perform a short ritual to “bless” the bamboo which already had talismans pasted on its stem.
The completion of the bamboo-installation ritual marks the end of Kew Huang Keng’s Nine Emperor Gods festival preparations.