Text and Photos by Team Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng 2017 (Harold Teo, Eunice Lim, Queenie Ng, Yong Jileen
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.
A brief history of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng and the Nine Emperor Gods Festival
Founded during the post-war era, Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng (葱茅园九皇宫) was originally located in a kampong known as Lemongrass Garden, or Charn Mao Hern (葱茅园) near Jalan Alsagoff. The kampong was located around present-day Paya Ubi Indutrial Park in the eastern region of Singapore. Two major linguistic groups make up the majority of the Chinese ethnic residents of Charn Mao Hern, with Hokkien speaking community residing in the northern area of the kampong colloquially called Shang Ba (上芭), or the upper region, and the Teochew speaking community residing in the lower Xiaba(下芭) colloquially known as Xin Ba She (新芭社). Airport Road served as a boundary between them.
Prior to the establishment of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng, Nine Emperor Gods devotees from Charn Mao Hern would visit Hong San Temple (⼤成巷葱茅园凤山宫), the sole Nine Emperor Gods temple then which was located in the Hokkien area of Lemongrass Garden since its inception in 1905/1906. During the 1940s, the devotees from the southern part of Lemongrass Garden hoped to establish a temple of their own in the southern region of the kampong so as to make it convenient for devotees to pay respects to the Nine Emperor Gods without having to travel to the northern part of the kampong. Thus, the pioneers of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng invited Hong San Temple’s ‘joss ashes’ (⾹⽕)，which represents the Nine Emperor Gods, to a new compound in Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng, marking its official establishment. Hence, many of the devotees in Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng today are predominately Teochew speaking. The welcoming and sending-off processions were held in the afternoon as there was only one Taoist priest in the village.
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng from post-war to 1970s
Prior to its relocation to its present location along Arumugam Road, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival was a communal event which involved the participation and mobilization of the entire kampong. Devotees recount how the entire community would come together and partake in the preparation and celebration of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. Devotees from Charn Mao Hern would start their vegetarian diet together and residents would take turns to cook the meals for each other.
During the festival, men would often partake in more laborious activities such as the carrying the palanquins whereas women and children would take on less labour-intensive roles such as being flower-bearer or flag-bearers during the procession. The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is often celebrated on the same scale as major events such as Chinese New Year, where the local school Hua Nong School (公立华农学校) would suspend classes in order to accommodate the festive celebrations as a majority of the students were involved in this festival.
Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng was eventually forced to relocate as a result of Singapore’s urban redevelopment plans in the late 1970s and many of the residents of Charn Mao Hern were subsequently relocated to various Housing Development Board (HDB) estate clusters(Eunos Crescent, Haig Road, Sims Drive, Bedok North). In 1986, the temple shifted to a temporary holding site off Arumugam Road. During this period, Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng was approached by the Teochew temple Cheng Hong Siang Tang (众弘善堂) to establish a combined temple together. Thus on 27 October 1990, the combined temple named Cheng Hong Siang Tng Kew Huang Keng (众弘善堂九皇宫) was officially completed and inaugurated at its present location along Arumugam Road
Organizational Structure of Kew Huang Keng
The temple is organized into seven 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 Li Shi Hui (理事会 [Main Council]). This council consists of the most senior members of the temple and makes the final decisions on matters related to the temple or the organization and running of the festival.
The other six sub-committees are:
- Xiang You Hui (⾹友会 [Devotee Group]) – the members of this group are responsible for the extensive preparation related to the rituals and who are participating directly in the rituals and carrying of the palanquins;
- Cheng Jing Hui (诚敬会[Respect Group]) – the lion dance troupe dedicated to the temple;
- Cheng Xin Hui (诚⼼会 [Sincerity Group]) – the group 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
- Yin Yue Hui (音乐会 [Music Group]) – the music ensemble which performs during the festival in a uniquely identifiable Teochew style;
- Ge Pao Hui (歌炮会 [Song and Firecracker Group]) – derived from the idiom ⼀炮⽽红, the group is 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; and
- Fu Nu Zu (妇⼥组 [Women’s Group]): the female members of the temple who perform duties such as the manning of the stalls selling offerings during the festival as well as food preparation for festival participants and devotees.
Preparations for The Nine Emperor Gods Festival – Making of Decorative Yellow Flower Balls
For Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng, preparations for the festival begins approximately a month before the festival. One of the main preparation before the festival is the weaving of the decorative yellow flower balls (花球). These flower balls which are to be adorned on to the palanquins and statue of the temple’s deity during the festival are painstakingly handwoven using multiple strips of yellow cloth. These flower balls are representative of the deity’s essence and they are a unique feature of temples celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods in the east as most temples in the west do not prepare flower balls for the celebration of the festival.
The making of a flower ball is a complicated, time consuming and laborious process which takes around an hour and a half for a seasoned craftsman to create and twice as long for an inexperienced craftsman to complete one. The technique for making the decorative flower ball has been passed down from generation to generation and it has become a source of pride for the craftsmen who feels honoured being able to preserve this form of tradition. Similarly, many of the other devotees of Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang Keng also take pride in the preparation for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival as it provides them with a sense of spiritual fulfilment performing the various activities which they feel helps them connect with the deities.
However, there are certain restrictions and strict requirements which need to be adhered when making the yellow balls. The craftsmen must go on a vegetarian diet before they are allowed to make the flower ball and female volunteers who are on their menstrual period are forbidden from making or touching the decorative flower balls as they are considered unclean during this period. The completion of these decorative pieces spans over several days as many of the craftsmen are mainly members of Xiang You Hui who volunteers their personal time after work to help complete the weaving of the flower balls.
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 both 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 the festival. Symbolically, the bridge represents the connection of the celestial and the natural world.
The construction of the bridge is tiresome work as members of the temple have to first drag the bulky wooden planks from the temple backyard to the front of the temple. The red safety barriers at the front of temple are then removed to lay the wooden beams which would form the skeletal body of the bridge. Next, members erect metal supports below the wooden beams which hold in place the bridge and reinforces it and the wooden planks then placed horizontally accordingly.
Once done, thinner wooden planks are subsequently placed upon the base and hammered in individually which act as additional footing for people to walk up the bridge. Once complete, the yellow metal railings are then welded into the structure. The entire process took over four hours to complete, however, while the task is backbreaking and laborious especially under the sweltering heat, the temple insist on constructing the entire bridge by hand rather than hiring external contractors as this activity allows them to retain the kampong spirit where everyone come together to help each other just as they did in the past.