Unity in the spirit of the Nine Emperor Gods
I. Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian: The Young Temple
As a temple with just eight years of history, Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian (玉封九皇殿) is a comparably new temple among the known temples celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Singapore.
As shown in the picture on the left, the white bandanas are stamped with the words “Nine Emperor Gods (九皇大帝)” in red.
The white attire has three explanations:
Historically, it was believed that pirates, who were prevalent during the Song dynasty, would be warded off if people living near the sea wore white; 2.The Nine Emperor Gods like the colour white; and 3.To show respect to the ancestors.
Another important practice is to undertake a vegetarian diet, at least for the period of the festival, just as the five generals do. Of course, we do not eat as much as the generals; they are provided with heaps of food to replenish their energy, which is needed to protect the Nine Emperor Gods. Committee members commonly begin the vegetarian diet on the 1st day of the 8th lunar month, a month before the beginning of the festival, while other members start 49 days before the festival (on the 10th day of the 7th lunar month).
At Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian, the festival typically lasts for ten days, from inviting the gods (请水) on the 30th day of the 8th lunar month to sending the gods off (恭送九皇爷) on the 9th day of the 9th lunar month. The festival has always been at Jurong, shifting from Jurong West Street 41 (2009-2013) to the current location at 347 Jurong East Avenue 1 (2014-). At the current location, the set-up is as follows (not drawn to scale):
There is an “inner palace hall” (内殿), also called Dou Mu Gong (斗母宫), which only committee members may enter, and an “external palace hall” (外殿), also called Jiu Huang Dian (九皇殿), which is displayed to the public. Generally, the members begin preparation and setting up two weeks before the festival.
II. The Young Temple, led by the Young Generation
Not only is the temple relatively new, the committee members are younger on average compared to the other temples.
In a religion which places high respect for elders, it is inevitable that younger devotees face more objection and scepticism when setting up their own temples. It is therefore impressive for this group of young devotees to overcome the odds, and finally managed to set up their own temple.
The path has not been an easy one. To set up this temple, one of the founding members, Lawrence, underwent training as a priest.
He too knew that being relatively young and without the support of a prominent figure from the older generation, it would be difficult to convince people about their temple’s legitimacy. Hence, he spent two years at a cemetery as part of the priest training, taking time to learn the rituals.
Perhaps due to the hardships of setting up their own temple, it seems to me that the members form a close-knit community revolving around the festival. As most of the members are still working full-time, there is additional coordination work to be done to fit each other’s schedules (who takes leave at certain periods of time etc.). Yet, from the very first night I met the temple members (on the second last day of the 8th lunar month, when they lifted the bamboo), they demonstrated teamwork, each contributing in their own ways.
Some members set up the top of the bamboo (where a flag and pulley system would be assembled) while others pasted paper talismans on the stem of the bamboo.
Once the bamboo was all prepared, the members came together as one to lift it in place. Some members acted as back support, pulling the ropes tightly on the sidelines, and looking out for the safety of the members lifting the bamboo.
There were other moments of friendships captured as well, especially during the inviting and sending off of the Nine Emperor Gods, when the entire crew travelled to Changi Beach.
For instance, members helped each other tie their bandanas…
…and posed together for the camera.
In spite of the long strenuous walk from the tentage location (at Blk 347 Jurong East Ave 1) to Toh Guan Road, the atmosphere was uplifting.
Even during non-festive periods, some of the members still got together from time to time for a meal or just to chat.
Nevertheless, being a new temple with only a small number of devotees, financing the celebration can be an issue. There are two main methods of financing:
…donations by devotees when they come to pray,
…and the auction on the night after sending off the Nine Emperor Gods. However, with the nearby market closed for renovation, resulting in less visitors, the members had to cut down on the expenses for the year. As such, some devotees were quick to comment that the activities in 2016 were less grandiose in comparison to 2015.
The remaining costs not covered by the donations were probably covered by the members themselves. The three sedans, for example, were sponsored by the members.
In a way then, the documentation of Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian has displayed the perks and hardships of setting up a new temple by a group of younger devotees.
III. The Temple as a Node in the Established Network
Having expounded on the relations within the temple, I would like to focus on the external network of the temple. On the 8th day of the 9th lunar month, Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian organised its Jin Xiang (进香), visiting and paying respect to the other temples.
It seems that when members of a temple visit your temple, you are more obliged to return with a visit as well.
Long Shan Yan Dou Mu Gong visits Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian
Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian visits Long Shan Yan Dou Mu Gong
Furthermore, a letter must be sent to the temples involved, stating the date and estimated time of the visit. Also, the dynamic network of temples is displayed through the fact that there are no clashes between visiting temples, i.e. although some temples choose to visit on the same day, the timings do not overlap.
Last but not least, on the 10th night of the 9th lunar month, the night after sending the Nine Emperor Gods off, Member of Parliament (MP) Ms Grace Fu attended the banquet.
Her presence was warmly welcomed by members of Jiu Huang Dian. The last day reveals the network of Jiu Huang Dian, which consists of three layers of relationships: within the temple, between temples, and Yu Feng Jiu Huang Dian’s relationship with the government.