The ‘Sending Off’ of the Nine Emperor Gods of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival concluded on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month; 9th October with the ‘Sending off ‘ ceremony, held in the afternoon at the seaside of East Coast Park. Akin to the day of the ‘Receiving’ (first day), Kew Huang Keng was bustling with activities since morning. Temple members were notably engaged in their preparation for the conclusion of the festival, where magnificent decorations made out of incense paper (Figure 111) were retrieved from the altars and burnt as seen in Figure 112.
Meanwhile, the makeshift kitchen was similarly clamouring with action as 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, tau pok (deep-fried tofu) and green bean soup to meet the huge demand for vegetarian food as the temple experienced a sudden surge of devotees. Devotees who previously were unable to come to the temple to make prayers came since it is their final opportunity to pay respects to the Nine Emperor Gods during the celebrations.
Several moments later, the other temple committees, notably the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui) and the Sincerity Group (Cheng Xin Hui), arrived. Against the roaring sounds of drums and cymbals, the flower ladies together with the Music Group as depicted in Figure 113, paid their respects, then retreated. The lion dance troupe of the Respect Group (Cheng Jing Hui, 诚敬会) arrived and began performing the lion dance to the deities. After the fanfare, the ‘lion’ proceeded into the main altar to pay its respects to the deities.
As the time drew closer to 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 as well as Nine Emperor God’s seat for cleansing. Following which, temple members carried the two palanquins and Nine Emperor God’s seat into the main temple. In the temple, an elaborate prayer (same as the one during ‘Receiving’) was performed before the urns were brought out from the inner chamber and secured onto the palanquins.
Afterwards, the palanquins were carried out of the main altar into the courtyard. At the courtyard, the palanquins began to swing vigorously (indicating the presence of the deity) and proceeded to the neighbouring temples to pay respects. Meanwhile, the ceremonial party waited at the main deities’ altar area. At the main deities’ area (Figure 114), several temple members began to carefully remove the offerings from the Nine Emperor God’s altar to make space for the proceeding ritual.
It is pertinent that the offerings underwent the can bai as seen in Figure 115 before being removed. As the altar has been emptied (Figure 116), the ceremonial party (urn-bearer (lou zhu 炉主), assistant urn-bearers (fu lou zhu 副炉主), and several temple members) paid their respects to the Nine Emperor God statue.
After the paying of respects, a temple member climbs up onto the altar. In a kneeling position (Figure 117), the member lifted the statue of Nine Emperor God, and in a cautious manner, he handed the statue to the lou zhu (炉主) and the two assistant lou zhu (副炉主) (Figure 118), while the bell was struck continuously.
The statue was brought to its seat by the urn-bearer (lou zhu, 炉主) and the two assistant urn-bearers (hu lou zhu, 副炉主) (Figure 119) and secured with thick stacks of incense paper by two other temple members as seen in Figure 120. Apart from the base, it is pertinent that members should not have any physical contact with the statue as it is deemed disrespectful. The body of the statue can only come into contact with incense paper (Figure 121).
After securing the statue, the assistants helped to put on the special yellow flower ball made for the occasion (Figure 122). Upon securing the yellow flower ball, the temple members began to adjust the robe of the Nine Emperor God (九皇爷⽟袍) and tidy up the appearance of the Nine Emperor God statue by patiently combing its beard with incense paper in Figure 123.
After fifteen minutes, the statue has been tidied and the ceremonial party proceeded to the Jade Emperor altar to pay respects. Trailing behind the ceremonial party was the Nine Emperor God’s statue on its sedan chair. Before the Nine Emperor God’s statue and sedan chair descended the rampart, the palanquins made three charges towards the statue as a form of respect. After paying respect, the palanquins retreated naturally to the corners of the temple.
The entourage proceeded towards the motorcade in the following order: with the ceremonial party leading, followed by the Nine Emperor God’s statue on its seat, which was sheltered by an ‘umbrella’ (宝伞) (Figure 125), and subsequently the palanquins. Similar to the day of the ‘Receiving’, the ceremonial party and the devotees sat in the buses whilst the palanquin-bearers and Nine Emperor God statue bearer sat alongside the sedan-chairs and the seat in the lorries. After the sedan-chairs and Nine Emperor God seat was loaded up the lorries, the motorcade proceeded to East Coast Park.
Similar to the ‘Receiving’, the advance party had cordoned off the ritual area with yellow metal rods and strings and created a makeshift “gateway”. This time, the yellow banner is in front facing the sea, as the red banner is behind. The set-up for the “Sending-Off” ceremony was quite similar to the “Receiving” ceremony except for the small motor-boat used to ferry the censer-master (lou zhu, 炉主) and two assistant urn-bearers (hu lou zhu, 副炉主) out to sea for the actual sending off of the Nine Emperor Gods (Figure 126).
At 3 pm, large groups of devotees, mostly dressed in white, started to appear at the designated meeting area – 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 the Respect Group (Cheng Jing Hui, 诚敬会). Following closely behind was the musical ensemble (comprised of one huge drum and numerous percussion instruments) of the Music Group (Yin Yue Hui, 音乐会). Meanwhile, the lion dance troupe assembled themselves into a straight row before the procession party (ceremonial party, Nine Emperor God’s seat and palanquin-carriers). At this moment, the procession party came to a halt and the lion dance troupe began its performance.
The lion dance sequence lasted for a few short minutes and as the sequence drew to an end, the procession party (headed by the Taoist priest, the urn-bearers and assistant urn-bearers, followed by the Nine Emperor God’s statue and seat bearers) made their way towards the centre of the ritual area while the palanquins that were swaying vigorously followed behind. Promptly, the procession party, together with several temple members began setting up for the ‘Sending off’ ceremony while the Nine Emperor God’s seat was rested on the ground (Figure 127).
The set-up for the ‘Sending off’ ceremony is identical to the ‘Receiving’ ceremony – with two large yellow candles placed at the forefront and offerings (flowers, betel nuts, oranges, tobacco, tea, and urn) were placed behind and arranged accordingly as depicted in Figure 128.
While the setting up was underway, the palanquins suddenly charged towards the sea (Figure 129) and circled behind the gateway before coming ashore (Figure 130).
Subsequently, the palanquins settled down and the talisman censer (Dou Mu Yuan Jun censer) was removed from the palanquins (by the urn-bearers (lou zhu, 炉主) and two assistant urn-bearers (hu lou zhu, 副炉主)) and nestled between the long yellow ceremonial candles and the offerings. At this moment, the entourage collectively knelt down and began to shout “Kew Ong Dai Day, Huat Ah, Kew Ong Dai Day, Huat Ah, Kew Ong Dai Deh, Huat Ah” continuously while the Taoist priest rang his bell signalling the commencement of the ritual and started chanting the scriptures. Upon hearing the signal, the ceremonial party performed the can bai while the priest chanted. Some temple members then began to amour themselves with life-vests while the jet boat nears the shore (Figure 131).
The chanting lasted for fifteen minutes. Its completion was marked with the handing over of the petition (pink paper) of the Taoist priest to a temple member. Following this handover, with a lit incense, the temple member made some marks on the wristband of the urn-bearer. Like on cue, the other temple members began removing their yellow wristbands that they wore during the day of the ‘Receiving’ and placed it into the talisman urn as seen in Figure 132. Joss sticks from the prayer was collected and inserted into the same urn. The urn was filled to the brim with joss sticks.
With the aid of several temple members, the censer master (lou zhu, 炉主) and assistant censer masters (fu lou zhu, 副炉主) lifted the urn (Figure 133), headed towards the jet boat, and boarded the boat with the urn (Figure 134).
Overall, the festival had been an interesting and eye-opening experience as prior to the documentary project, we had not heard of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival nor how it was being celebrated here in Singapore. Thus, being able to interview the participants and document the festival first-hand has truly been an insightful and special privilege to learn more about this unique cultural heritage. We would like to thank the Kew Huang Keng temple committee, helpers and devotees for this very special opportunity to experience and document the festival.
While Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng has faced many challenges over the past few decades with the rapid modernization of Singapore, it is heart-warming to learn that the community’s strong relationships and bonds with each other continues to persevere till this day despite the various setbacks. The Nine Emperor Gods Festival not only acts as a means of celebrating the deities coming, it also serves a secondary function of allowing the dispersed kampong community to maintain and rekindling relations with each other every year.
The Nine Emperor Gods festival at Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng highlights both the inter-community relationships and the religious aspects of the festival. Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng adopts a more minimalist symbolic approach where it their palanquins are painted mainly in yellow with simple decorations. Their practice of cooking free vegetarian food for the public and the Geylang Bahru altar station members coming together to give away care packages to their community’s needy residents highlight the warm and welcoming kampong spirit and it is this bond which gives meaning to the celebration of the festival for Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng.
Without the community, the celebration of the festival would lose its meaning and significance. Thus, while the temple continues to make a commendable effort in preserving these traditional practices, the rapid changes in society and increasing rise in secularism amongst Singaporean youths in recent years is clearly taking a toll on the temple and its aging members who hope to pass on their knowledge and traditions to the next generation.
Hopefully through this documentary project, this unique aspect of Singapore’s Chinese heritage and traditions would not only be preserved for future generations, but also serve as a means of providing Singaporeans with a glimpse of what Singapore’s past was like through the lens of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
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.