General characteristics of the Festival
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival, as celebrated by Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng in 2016, was held from the twenty-eighth day of the eighth lunar month to the ninth day of the ninth Chinese Lunar month, which coincided with the Gregorian calendar for that year (28th September to 9th October). The general practices or traditions of the festival that Kew Huang Keng abide by are detailed below.
Most of the practices were similarly present (in different degrees or some form) in other Nine Emperor Gods temple in Singapore.
First, devotees, as well as participants, must abstain from meat and keep to a strict vegetarian diet for the duration of the festival. This restrictive diet is necessary because it represents the devotee’s or participant’s penance for their wrongdoings for the year. Furthermore, the diet is a means of purifying and cleansing the bodies (participants and devotees) before respects were paid to the Nine Emperor Gods. Apart from the vegetarian diet, participants involved in the rituals, such as the palanquin-bearers, had to adhere to stricter guidelines. For instance, they are encouraged to begin their vegetarian diet one month prior to the festival and follow strict rules of behaviour and abstinence, to ensure their purity.
Second, on the first day of the festival, the nine yellow kerosene lamps were raised after receiving the Nine Emperor Gods. The raising of the lamps symbolises the deity’s presence as well as the commencement of the festival. The nine lamps will be kept lit for the entire duration of the festival.
The vessel-bearer (lou zhu, 炉主) was tasked with this sacred duty of raising the lamps; apart from him, no one can perform this task. As the urn bearer held the yellow metal lamp fixture (Figure 29), the remaining temple members cautiously placed the lamps on the designated lamp hooks. After all the lamps were secured, the yellow metal lamp fixture was hoisted up slowly with the attached string.
Accompanying the ‘lamp raising’ ceremony was the mandatory cleaning and refilling of the kerosene lamp. Every day, at dawn and dusk (approximately 6am and 6pm), the nine lamps were lowered for cleaning as well as for kerosene-refilling. The cleaning and kerosene-refilling task was an extremely ‘clean’ affair. The table that the lamps rested upon had to be first cleansed with ‘holy water’ made up of pomelo leave and water (Figure 30).
Afterwards, white cloths representing purity was used to wipe down the interior and exterior of each lamp. Following so, kerosene was meticulously poured into the sparkling clean lamps. During the entire process, the atmosphere was solemn and silent. As one of the temple members explained, “we don’t talk because we do not want to be distracted, no bad thoughts (没有杂念), so our state of mind is clean. Clean thoughts are very important when dealing with the lamps”.
Third, the element of water is ubiquitous to the Nine Emperor Gods festival. For instance, water is related to the festival’s mythologies and the rituals (receiving and sending off); which were exclusively held at either rivers or seas.
Lastly, a general dress code of all-white attire complemented by white headscarves and yellow sashes around the waist as shown in Figure 31, were required of devotees and temple members partaking in the rituals. The donning of the white attire signifies purity and denotes respect towards the Nine Emperor Gods. Distinct to Kew Huang Keng, the palanquin-carriers of the Devotee Group (Xiang You Hui, ⾹友会) may collectively opt to don the yellow long-sleeved shirts when they are on their Yew Keng procession. The underlying reason for a different outfit, as one of the members explained, is “for convenience’s sake, to differentiate and locate the palanquin-carriers during the procession amongst a large crowd.”
Nevertheless, yellow or white, the two colours are characteristic of the Nine Emperor Gods festival since white signifies purity and Kew Huang Ye’s Huang (皇, “emperor”) has the same pronunciation as Huang (黄, “yellow”).
The ‘Receiving’ of the Nine Emperor Gods in Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng
The Nine Emperor Gods festival commenced on the twenty-eighth day of the eighth lunar month (28th September), with the ‘Receiving’ ceremony held in the afternoon at the seaside of East Coast Park. Yet, since morning, Kew Huang Keng was bustling with activity.
Temple members were notably engrossed in their preparation of the altars for religious praying (Figure 32). Placed on the altar were ceremonial items and offerings, typical of the Teochew tradition. It consisted of five fruits, namely-pineapple, apple, orange, pear, and banana, that signify the five colours: black, red, yellow, white and green which is synonymous to the five generals who accompany and offer the Nine Emperor Gods protection for its journey to the natural world. The offerings also include glutinous rice, tea, a bowl of sweet treats, a bowl of savoury treats, a row of sago that have been dyed orange, betel nuts and leaves, and tobacco.
Meanwhile, other temple members were occupied with the preparation of the “talisman water” (符⽔). The talismans were first blessed, then burnt and transferred to a large metal water dispenser. As Mr Tan, a devotee of the temple, explains “this water will bless us, protect the family from diseases.”
The makeshift kitchen was similarly clamouring with action. The ladies from the Women Group (Fu Nu Zu， 妇女组) were churning out large portions of vegetarian bee hoon (rice vermicelli), vegetable curry and tau pok (dried beancurd puff) spontaneously. This is to meet the huge demand for vegetarian food as the temple offered free vegetarian food to the public for the entire duration of the festival.
Several moments later, the other temple committees; notably the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui, 音乐会) (Figure 33) and the Respect Group (Cheng Jing Hui, 诚敬会) arrived. Against the roaring sounds of drums and cymbals, the lion dance troupe of the Respect Group began to perform the lion dance to the deities in the vicinity as shown in Figure 34. As disclosed by a member of the Respect Group, the lion dance is synonymous to “greeting” the other deities and to inform them of their arrival.
As the time drew closer for the motorcade’s departure for the sea at East Coast Park, crowds began to gather, and sandalwood was burnt in front of the two palanquins to “cleanse” them (Figure 35). Following this, the palanquins were carried into the temple (Figure 36). In the temple, an elaborate prayer was performed before the urns were brought out from the inner chambers into the palanquins. While the ceremonial party and the palanquins (with the urns) were hauled out of the temple, the path for the deities was “cleared” by several temple members with two separate mixture: one is a mixture of rice and salt while the other is holy water (pomelo leaves steeped in water) as captured in Figure 37.
In a dignified manner, the elaborate entourage (in the following order: ceremonial party, palanquin-bearers, devotees) headed towards the lorries and chartered buses. The ceremonial party and the devotees sat in the buses whilst the palanquin-bearers sat alongside the sedan-chairs in the lorries. After the sedan-chairs were loaded into the lorries, the motorcade proceeded to East Coast Park.
Before the arrival of the procession at East Coast Park, an advance party had barricaded the ritual area with yellow metal rods and strings as depicted in Figures 38 and 39. Apart from blocking out the ritual zones, the advance party was also tasked to create a makeshift “gateway”. The “gateway” consisted of two banners, one in red and the other in yellow, both propped between two wooden poles and adorned with bamboo leaves as shown in Figure 40.
Positioned at the edge of the water, the “gateway” acts as the entrance to which the Nine Emperor Gods enters the natural world. Access to the interior of the barricaded area was exclusive to the palanquins carriers and members of the temple (mainly males), while females were forbidden from entering the interior. Most females were only allowed to observe the proceedings outside the demarcated lines.
At 3 pm, large groups of devotees, most dressed in white started to appear at the designated meeting area, which is East Coast Park Zone C. Several moments later, the ‘clangs’ produced from the gongs broke the silence, indicating the arrival of the procession. Spearheading the procession was the fanfare of the lion dance troupe of Cheng Jing Hui (Respect Group).
Following closely behind was the musical ensemble (comprised of one huge drum and numerous percussion instruments) of Yin Yue Hui (Music Group). Meanwhile, the lion dance troupe assembled themselves into a straight row before the procession party (ceremonial party and palanquin-carriers). At this moment, the procession party came to a temporary halt and the lion dance troupe began to perform a sequence to greet it.
The lion dance sequence lasted for a few short minutes. As the sequence draws to an end, the procession party (headed by the Taoist priest, the urn-bearers and assistant bearers, followed by the palanquin and palanquin-bearers) made their way towards the centre of the ritual area. Promptly, the procession party, together with several temple members began setting up for the ‘Receiving’ ceremony.
The set-up was elaborate and required an extensive number of items. As shown in Figure 41, the items included two large yellow candles, nine cups of tea, plates of tobacco, fresh flowers, oranges, betel nuts and leaves, a basket of sandalwood, a bunch of thin yellow stripes (wristbands), a yellow coconut-husk bowl, joss sticks, joss paper, a large yellow urn (covered with yellow talisman and filled with incense ash), and a golden triangular flag that bore a dragon and the temple’s name (Figure 42).
The experienced temple members began the process of setting-up by partially burying two large yellow candles that were placed adjacent to each other into the sand (Figure 43). Following so, in front of the two large candles, temple members speedily stuck a golden triangular flag and a bunch of joss sticks into the sand (Figure 44). Thereafter, behind the large yellow candles, offerings (fresh flowers, oranges, tobacco, and sandalwood), and ritual items (a coconut-husk bowl and a bunch of yellow stripes) were being placed onto yellow plates and neatly laid onto the sand as seen in Figure 45.
Meanwhile, nine teacups were carefully arranged in a row in front of the offerings. Tea was then poured into the cups in the following sequence: from the centre to the right, and from centre to the left. Subsequently, the urn-bearer (lou zu, 炉主) lit the sandalwood (placed behind the oranges in Figure 45) and headed to the palanquins to retrieve the large dense yellow urn that was covered with yellow talisman and filled with incense ash. Assisting him for this task were two assistant urn-bearers (fu lou zu, 副炉主) and several other temple members. After the large dense yellow urn was lifted into the ritual area, it was instantaneously rested between the offerings and the golden triangular flag.
The ‘Receiving’ ceremony began with a paying of respects to the deities in the vicinity by the urn-bearers in a pious fashion, with them kneeling and bowing down with joss sticks in their hands. Sighting the commencement of the ceremony, the participants and devotees instinctively knelt down. Following the initial prayer to the surrounding deities, the joss sticks used for that prayer were collected from the urn-bearers and carefully inserted into the large dense talisman-ornated urn (Figure 46).
As the joss sticks were being inserted into the urn, the urn-bearers were handed another set of joss sticks (three sticks make a set) while the other participants and devotees were given a single stick. With the joss stick in their hands, everyone waited patiently for the actual inviting ritual to begin. Several moments later, against the sound of the crashing waves, the ritual began with the ringing of the bell and the incessant chanting of the Taoist priest (in orange) as shown in Figure 47. The ringing of the bell and chanting lasted for approximately fifteen minutes. During this period, the urn-bearers performed the task of offering joss paper to the Nine Emperor Gods in Figure 48. Several temple members stood up periodically to burn piles of joss paper at a corner while the Taoist priest continued to recite his “blessing and protection” chants from the pink paper.
A loud “huat ah, huat ah, huat ah” pierced the air, as the chanting draws to an end. Gongs began to chime, and the urn-bearers made another prayer. Afterwards, the yellow stripes of cloth, which acted as wristbands, were handed to the urn-bearers and worn immediately. Concurrently, these yellow ‘wristbands’ were distributed to other temple members and devotees. The spirit of goodwill was clearly illustrated in the festival, as participants sought to help each other tie their wristbands (Figure 49). After the distribution of the ‘wristbands’, incense paper was burned, concluding the first part of the ‘Receiving’ ceremony.
The second part of the ceremony was ‘inviting the gods’ (qing shen, 请神). The gongs clashed once again, indicating that the ceremony has progressed to the next stage. As the gongs clashed, the urn-bearers held the coconut-husk bowl (with the yellow invitation within) with reverence (Figure 50) and made their way into the sea through the ‘gateways’ under the guidance of the main committee members (Figure 51).
Supported by several main committee members, the urn-bearers who were already waist-deep into the sea proceeded further to receive some water (Figure 52). Once the water was received, the members of the main committee escorted the urn-bearers back to the shore. The return journey to the shore was dealt with extreme cautiousness as the husk of water represented the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods, therefore a plethora of hands clutched the husk to ensure its safety (Figure 53). As the group approached the large yellow talisman-ornated urn, they collectively poured the water from the husk into the urn as depicted in Figure 54.
The ‘receiving’ of water was repeated, this time with less deliberation with the urn-bearers being substituted with two temple members. As the two temple members returned with the husk of water, the urn-bearers proceeded to offer ‘gratitude’ to the deities. The ‘gratitude’ towards the deities was expressed through the bowing and praying motion known as the can bai (参拜). As each item was presented, the urn-bearers performs a can bai as seen in Figures 55 and 56.
As the offerings underwent the process of can bai, the edible perishables, such as fruits, and non-perishables, such as the wristbands, were kept and brought back to the temple while perishables (such as tobacco, flowers, and betel nuts and leaves) were laid behind the urn as shown in Figure 57.
Following the offer of ‘gratitude’ was the tea-emptying ceremony. Akin to the tea-pouring ceremony, the tea was emptied in the following sequence, from the centre (Figure 58) to the right and from the centre to the left. A final joss stick offering had been made by the urn-bearers after all the teacups had been emptied. As the urn-bearers departed for the palanquins to pay their respects and offer joss sticks, the bell of the Taoist priest began to ring, and the gongs and the percussion of the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui, 音乐会) started to clamour.
Together, the urn-bearers and several temple members returned to retrieve the large yellow talisman-ornated urn. While the urn was being lifted, the crowd roared “kew huang dai day, huat ah, kew huang dai day, huat ah” (“九皇⼤帝,发啊, 九皇⼤帝, 发啊”). The roar persisted until the urn made its way to the palanquin. The securing of the urn was done in complete secrecy behind the cover of the yellow cloth as depicted in Figure 59. After the urn was secured, the seaside ‘Receiving’ ritual concluded with a final prayer by the ceremonial party as seen in Figure 60.
As the procession departed from the seaside, the palanquins were seen to be shaking vigorously from side to side, indicating the presence of the deities within the palanquins who were now being transported back to the temple. Akin to the arrival, the departure was similarly spearheaded with a short lion dance sequence. While the procession halted for the lion dance sequence, several temple members promptly removed the metal rods and strings used to barricade the ritual area and transported them to the van.
Once the lion dance sequence was completed, the procession party and the palanquins made their way to the lorries swiftly. The procession party and palanquin-carriers were visibly worn out, as perspiration soaked through their white shirts. On the other hand, the devotees were clearly excited about the arrival of the Nine Emperor Gods. Mr Chew, a devotee, exclaimed, “I have been waiting for this day to come, it feels good to be here to reunite with my fellow kampong members.”
Upon arriving back at the temple, the path was first cleared by two temple members with pomelo leaves and water as well as rice and salt. A lion dance sequence greeted the procession as each group (the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui, 音乐会), the ceremonial party, and the palanquin-carriers) made their entrance into the temple compound.
The first group that entered was the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui, 音乐会). Upon entering the temple, the Music Group began to organise themselves at the back part of the temple courtyard. Meanwhile, the ceremonial party (the urn-bearers, assistant urn-bearers and palanquins) and the palanquin-bearers headed to the entrance of the neighbouring temples along Arumugam Road to pay their respects (Figure 61). When inquired about the underlying rationale of this gesture, one of the temple members explained, “The party’s visits to the neighbouring temples is like saying hi to your neighbour when you return home. If you don’t say hi, it is disrespectful.”
Upon completing the visits, the ceremonial party (Figure 60) entered the temple grounds while the palanquin and palanquin-bearers stood outside. The ceremonial party performed a short can bai before the palanquins and its bearers entered the temple compound.
Once the palanquins and its bearers entered the temple compounds, the palanquins began to make extensive manoeuvres, such as turning round and round while swinging vigorously as seen in Figure 62. Mr Li, a palanquin-bearer, mentioned that the vigorous motions can be attributed to the Nine Emperor God’s eagerness and excitement to return home. While the palanquins were making the manoeuvres, the ceremonial party proceeded to the Jade Emperor altar located right outside the temple to perform a short can bai (Figure 63).
After the short can bai, the ceremonial party turned towards the temple and headed in. Inside the temple, against the systematic ringing of the bell, the ceremonial party made their way into the inner chamber while a crowd gathered outside to take a glimpse of the activities happening within.
Moments later, the ceremonial party emerged. Repositioning themselves to face the palanquins (which was at courtyard), the ceremonial party, as well as the participants, suddenly knelt down. What approached were the palanquins which had successfully charged up the wooden ramp into the temple. The palanquins were guided into the temple and an extensive ritual of joss sticks offering and can bai occurred. Afterwards, the urns were lifted from the palanquins and brought into the inner chamber. Similarly, during this process, “kew huang dai day, huat ah, kew huang dai day, huat ah” (“九皇⼤帝, 发啊, 九皇⼤帝, 发啊”) was yelled.
The celebratory component of ceremony commenced after the urns had returned into the inner chambers.
Prancing around excitedly, the lion dancers began to perform several high-level technical stunts. The audiences were clearly wowed by the performance as “oooh’s and aah’s” were constantly produced from the crowd. After performing a series of stunts, the lion dancers started to assemble themselves into a row. Parking themselves on the floor, the ‘lions’ proceeded to silently form a celebratory message for the temple using the oranges. Once the celebratory message was completed, the ‘lions’ started to jiggle and rattle around.
To add to the festive atmosphere, the ‘lions’ popped a party popper. At this instance, a main committee member was ushered to the ‘lions’ to receive the blessings as well as the celebratory message as seen in Figure 64. The celebratory message read “⾹⽕兴旺” (xiang huo xing wang) which can be understood as “May the temple flourish and prosper” (Figure 65).
Four lucky numbers accompanied the message. While the audiences marvel at the lucky numbers, the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui, 音乐会) exchanged places with the lion dance troupe and organised themselves according to the formation. Promptly, the percussion group kickstarted the musical fanfare (Figure 66), which lasted for ten minutes, after which the celebratory component of the ceremony concluded.
The day of the ‘Receiving’ was officially concluded with the hoisting of the nine lamps (北⽃灯). The lamps were essential because they symbolise the official commencement of the festival, whereby the Nine Emperor Gods have been received. Prior to the lamp-hoisting ceremony, which took place at approximately 6 pm, preparations were under way. The lamps were lit (Figure 67) and the ceremonial table was fully set up with offerings and an urn.
At 6 pm, the ceremony commenced, and the lamps were being secured to hooks (Figure 68) before being slowly hoisted up by the urn-bearer, marking the end of the ‘Receiving’.