Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2017
A Short History of Long Nan Szye
The history of Long Nan Szye can be traced back to the early 1960s. Its history began in one of the Bukit Panjang kampongs where Chen Shifu established the temple and took the lead in the temple’s activities and events. The temple, Long Nan Szye, moved to Bukit Timah after the kampong was demolished and relocated to the top of a small hill along the 10th milestone of Upper Bukit Timah Road. However, in the early 1990s, the government acquired that plot of land for the building of the Ministry of Defence and this resulted in Long Nan Szye’s relocation to 36 Jalan Asas where it is today.
A glimpse of Long Nan Szye at Jalan Asas during another event
Despite multiple relocations, Long Nan Szye has been celebrating the Nine Emperor Gods Festival every year. Between the 1960s and 1990s, the festival celebration venue was at the temple’s location, at Bukit Gombak, and the celebration was a rather large-scale affair, often joined by a huge crowd. Around the 1970s, Long Nan Szye even began organizing banquets for a thousand people (千人宴会), quite a feat in those days, during the celebration. The celebration would also begin and end off with a receiving and sending off procession from its temple at the 10th milestone of Upper Bukit Timah Road to Kranji Reservoir. However, since Long Nan Szye relocated to 36 Jalan Asas, the festival celebrations are no longer held in the temple. Due to space constraints, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebration is held at Bukit Batok where open grounds are available (this will be discussed later!).
When delving into the history of Long Nan Szye, one cannot forget about Chen Shifu, a prominent figure in the temple. He is the founder and the master of the temple. Having been exposed to and learned Buddhism as early as the age of 7, Chen Shifu incorporated Buddhist elements in the temple and in the Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebration. For instance, portraits of Siddhartha Buddha and other Boddhisattvasfound in Mahayana Buddhism, including Guan Yin (观音), constitute the main altar of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival tentage. In addition, he included a Confucius prayer session in the festival celebration. Through these Buddhist elements and the festival, Chen Shifu hopes to teach participants and devotees of the temple and the festival celebration to have a “Buddha heart”.
Chen Shifu, the founder and master of the temple, giving a lesson to devotees and helpers during the festival
Long Nan Szye’s Preparations for the 2017 Nine Emperor Gods Festival
As mentioned previously, the celebration venue was held at Bukit Batok where open grounds are available. In 2016, the celebration venue was at its usual site in front of Block 280. However, because the usual site was recently renovated and the contractor had a 1-year contract that prohibited anyone from holding events there, the celebration this year was held in front of Block 235, which was just opposite the usual site. The venue in front of Block 235 is relatively smaller than the venue in front of Block 280, and due to this space constraint, Long Nan Szye’s Emperor Gods Festival celebration was scaled down. Unlike the 2016 celebration, the 2017 celebration excluded several events and activities. These included stage performances, temple dinner (for devotees), internal temple dinner (for helpers) and bidding for temple items. Instead, the 2017 celebration focused more on nightly lessons on various topics related to Chinese geomancy, health, and fortune-telling that were given by Chen Shifu for devotees and helpers coming to the temple for the festival.
An overview of the tentage
Prior to the start of the festival and celebration, the helpers and devotees of Long Nan Szye went to the temple at Jalan Asas to help with the festival preparations and some of them also went to the celebration venue to assist the preparations. The strength of their individual contribution reflected how closely-knitted the community is at Long Nan Szye.
At the temple
Weeks or even months before the festival, helpers of the temple prepared notification mails that were to be mailed and sent out to the temple community members to inform them of the venue and schedule of Long Nan Szye’s Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebration. Nearing the festival period, the workload of the preparation intensified, and more devotees and helpers came to the temple to help. They brought out the sedan chairs and pagodas to clean them while Chen Shifu prepared scriptures that were to be recited during the festival.
Chen Shifu gathered the temple helpers to teach them the correct pronunciation for the scripture that would be recited during receiving ceremony/ procession.
In the process of setting up the tentage
The helpers of Long Nan Szye also had to do individual preparations for the festival. They had to wear all white throughout the festival, which symbolized purity. They also had to adopt a vegetarian diet 15 days or one month before the start of the festival. Because of the need to have a vegetarian diet (to cleanse the body of impurities) and the lack of vegetarian options in the neighborhood, the side of the tentage was a small kitchen set up to cook and provide free vegetarian food. The food was meant for anyone, including the devotees and helpers, who came to the tentage to pray and participate in the festival celebration.
Kitchen to cook and provide food for temple community
The Festival Area
When the preparations were completed, the white and yellow tentage, flags and banners stood out among the HDB flats. This would be the celebration venue throughout the festival. Long Nan Szye celebrates the Nine Emperor Gods Festival from the 16th October to the 28th October (27th day of the eighth lunar month to the ninth day of the ninth lunar month).
Banners and flags were displayed around the venue, making the tentage conspicuous to anyone walking past
Upon entering the tentage, one can see the main altar at the center of the tentage. It was dedicated to Guan Yin, the main deity of the temple, and several Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
This was also where the devotees pray at upon arriving.
Guan Yin at the center of the main altar
A devotee praying and wishing for blessings at the main altar
Here, a devotee reads from a small yellow slip of paper known as the Fu Yin Biao (复印表). It contained instructions for the devotees on what to recite or say when praying and wishing for blessings. The devotees would have to say his or her name, names of family members and address, and the blessings that he or she would like to receive.
At both the left and right hand sides of the main altar, there were tables set-up for administrative purposes. The tables on the left were for registration cum donations and the tables on the right were for attendees to buy incense sticks and joss papers for paying respects and making offerings to the deities.
Left: Registration and donations; Right: Buying incense sticks and joss papers
There were also a few stretches of tables at the side where the Sheng Ming Deng (生命灯) were displayed. Each unit of the Nine Lotus Lamps consisted of food items such as peanuts, fruits, rice, rice vermicelli and a yellow card (pai, 牌). On the yellow card, the name of the devotee and his or her address are written on it. As part of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebration ritual, throughout the festival, owners of the Nine Lotus Lamps had to go to the festival site to light the lamps.
Nine Lotus Lamps or Sheng Ming Deng (生命灯) displayed on the tables at the main altar
The purpose of the Nine Lotus Lamps was for the devotees to wish for blessings, be it for themselves or for their family members. On the first day of the festival or Chu Yi (初一), the devotees would light up the lotus lamp, bring their unit of the Nine Lotus Lamp to the Nine Emperor Gods (九皇大帝) and pray to the Nine Emperor Gods to ask for blessings, such as prosperity and longevity. This lotus lamp would be lit for nine days in the festival area, either by the devotees themselves or by the temple helpers if the devotees were unable to go to the tentage on any of the day. The unit would then be taken back home by the devotees at the last day of the festival or Chu Jiu (初九).
One of the Nine Lotus Lamp units representing the owner of the unit and his/her family
Alongside these stretches of tables, there were two dragon boats on the right side of the main altar or the main praying space. Devotees would make a donation at the registration-cum-donation table on the left of the main altar and receive a pink slip of paper on which they would write their names including the names of their family members if they wanted to and their address. This pink slip of paper would then be pasted on the dragon boats. During the sending off ceremony of the festival, which was the last day of the festival, these dragon boats would be placed on the sea and set on fire. This was done together with the sending off of the Nine Emperor Gods. The purpose of pasting the pink slip of paper and burning the dragon boats was to take away unhappiness from the devotees who had pasted their paper on the boats and also to receive protection from Bodhisattvas.
Left: Dragon Boats; Right: a devotee pasting her pink slip of paper the boat
This concludes the main altar or the main praying space of the festival area.
Moving on, the opposite of the main altar was the Four Heavenly Kings (四大天王). They are: Duo Wen Tianwang (多闻天王), Zeng Zhang Tian Wang (增长天王), Chi Guo Tianwang (持国天王) and Guang Mu Tianwang (广目天王). It was also an altar for the Jade Emperor (玉皇 yu huang).
The Four Heavenly Kings (四大天王) and the Jade Emperor in the middle
After praying to the Four Heavenly Kings, the devotees would proceed to the Nei Dian (内殿) to pray to the Nine Emperor Gods (九皇大帝). The Nei Dian, which carries that name of Dou Mu Gong (斗母宫), is one of the most significant part of the festival area. It is a restricted area where the Nine Emperor Gods would reside throughout the festival. Hence , it was important to maintain the purity of the area. No one was allowed to enter the area except for Chen Shifu and a selected group of helpers who maintained a strict regime of a vegetarian diet and abstinence [for a longer period?]. Devotees could only pay respects in front of the chamber. A veil was installed at the Dou Mu Gong altar to prevent “direct contact” with the statue of the Nine Emperor Gods. The Nine Emperor Gods’ urn was kept in the inside of the chamber after the invitation/receiving ritual at the sea.
A devotee praying at the Dou Mu Gong; Here, devotees who have a 九皇爷福 talisman can hold it above the incense urn (炉 lu) and circle it three times around it for the talisman to be blessed.
A gold veil installed in front of the Dou Mu Gong to prevent “direct contact” between the Nine Emperor Gods and the people praying at the altar
Moving on to another part of the festival area is the altar on the left side of the Dou Mu Gong altar. It was an altar dedicated to the Buddhisattva, and this was the next altar that the devotees will head to after praying at the Nei Dian.
Left altar: House the Buddha, for prayers of protection
On the right side which was where the devotees will pray at next, it was for the Buddhisattva like the left side. It was also used for Confucius prayers and rituals and for the salvation of the deceased (超度 chao du).
Right altar: House the Buddha, for rituals to chao du (超度) the deceased souls were carried out here
Holding lighted joss sticks, devotees will then proceed to cross this bridge, called Ping An Qiao (平安桥), and in front of it was the Nezha altar. Crossing the bridge was seen as a part of the “cleansing process” and being to cross over the bridge safely signified that the deities granted prosperity and blessings to the devotees for the year. After crossing the bridge, the devotees would be in front of the Nezha altar where they would pay their respects to Nezha and a stamp would be stamped at the back of their shirts or necks. This was believed to grant the devotees’ blessings.
Ping An Qiao 平安桥: crossing the bridge is believed to give the one good fortune
Nezha altar: with a statue of Nezha and an incense urn for Nezha
A devotee receiving a chop at the back of her neck after praying to Nezha
“Qing Shui” (请驾):
The Receiving of the Nine Emperor Gods
“Qing Shui” was on the 16th of September, indicating the start of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. At Long Nan Szye’s Bukit Batok tentage, most of the participants joining the receiving procession came around 8pm, and soon, pieces of yellow cloths, which were used as belt, and pieces of white cloth, which were to be tied around the forehead, were distributed to the participants. All of the participants, including the devotees and helpers of the temple, had to tie the yellow cloth around their waist and the white cloth around their foreheads. Then, all of them boarded the bus to to Kranji reservoir, where the ceremony will officially begin.
Upon reaching Kranji reservoir, the devotees and helpers laid mats on the grass in front of the reservoir for the participants to sit down. Equipment, incense, lighters and scriptures used in the receiving ceremony were also placed on the mat, near Chen Shifu and the group of helpers who led the ritual and praying.
Arranging the equipment for the receiving ceremony
While Chen Shifu and the group of helpers assisting him sat at the front, nearest of the reservoir, the other participants sat behind them. Chen Shifu had a large urn and a hammer which were his main equipment to conduct the receiving ritual. The offerings for the ritual were placed around him and each item was placed a short distance apart from each other. More importantly, these items had symbolic meanings relating to the five elements – metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Some of the items were: fortunate cake, urn and fruits. They were placed in between two small ritual flags.
The participants sitting behind Chen Shifu and the group of helpers were given a joss stick at the start of the ritual or ceremony. Holding the joss sticks, they followed Chen Shifu’s instructions and recited chants sincerely and accurately, as encouraged by Chen Shifu. This reciting of chants ritual lasted for up to half an hour. During this, Chen Shifu gave cues for when to ask for blessings and reciting some verses for blessings. The participants also bowed according to Chen Shifu’s instructions.
Chanting and reciting of scriptures continued. Next, Chen Shifu used two pails to scoop water from the reservoir and soaked the Fa Zhang (法杖) into the pails. One of the helpers from the group leading the prayer shouted, “huat ah” three times, then Joss sticks were lit and placed onto two urns while incense papers were burned. Towards the end of the ritual, a few volunteers collected the joss sticks from the participants and distributed flowers to the participants. When given cues from Chen Shifu, the participants plucked off a few petals of the flowers and throw them in the air. Soon, the receiving ritual by the reservoir came to an end. The urns with three joss sticks were carried by Lu Zhu (炉主) onto a car and transported back to the tentage at Bukit Batok.
Back at Bukit Batok, Chen Shifu conducted a palm reading and fortune-telling session. This concluded the process of the receiving ceremony of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival and the first day of the festival. The following days of the festival saw many activities and events happening at Long Nan Szye’s celebration venue.
Activities and Events during the Festival
Every evening, there were lessons for the devotees/ members of the temples. The general public was allowed from sitting in to listen to the lesson given by Chen Shifu himself. These lessons covered a range of topics – from fortune-telling to health remedies to paranormal encounters to many others.
Chen Shifu conducting a lesson on a usual weekday evening during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival
Below are some of the topics that he covered:
Health Remedy. Chen Shifu taught the audience about remedies for common injuries, ailments and acupuncture with the aid of pamphlets, medicinal formulas and books. In addition, he taught them how to identify signs and symptoms of illnesses. For instance, one of the signs and symptoms is mole; depending on the size and colour of moles, a person’s health and fortune can be predicted.
Paranormal Encounters. There are different types of spirits and different levels of strength or power for each type of spirits, as suggested by Chen Shifu. He said that water spirits were one of the most vicious spirits.
Fortune-telling. Xiang Shu (相术) or fortune telling based on physical features was shared with the audience, especially the parents among the audience, to teach them how to pick the right partner for their children by observing for specific facial features. For instance, thick earlobes represent good life and if there were a line across either one of the earlobe, one would likely to develop cancer.
Reading one’s fortune based on physical features, also known as Xiang Shu (相术)
Qie Fa (窃法). The recitation of Buddhist chants was unofficial or not legitimate. These chants will not receive the attention of the Guards of the Buddhas. To have one’s chants received by the attention of the Guards of the Buddhas, one had to conduct an “initiation” ceremony first. Chen Shifu guided and helped the audience of his lesson to legitimize their prayers by seeking permission from the Buddhas. This process involved the audience to follow Chen Shifu in reciting “Liu Zi Zheng Jing” (六字正经).
Lessons often ended with a recitation of chants, in particular Liu Zi Zheng Jing (六字正经). It served to Chao Du (超度) the deceased and allowed oneself to cultivate one’s character (修行 xiu xing).
22nd of October: Confucius Ritual
The target audience for the Confucius Ritual was youths and children who seek to achieve good academic results. To begin the ritual, the youths and children had to fill in their details on a pink slip of paper, write their name on a yellow piece of paper, and make a small donation in a red packet that was given to them. Following that, they were required to line up in front of Chen Shifu, who was the master of the temple, for palm reading and Chen Shifu jot a dot of a red coloured ink, called “Zhu Sha” (诛砂) on their thumb. The ink was dotted on the right thumb of the females and the left thumb of the males.
Chen Shifu jotting a dot of Zhu Sha Yin (诛砂印) and reading the palm of the girl
The youths and children then settled down on the cardboards that were laid on the floor for them to sit. They sat in front of the altar at the right of the Dou Mu Gong altar where a statue of Confucius was placed in front of Guan Yin. The ritual soon officially began and throughout the ritual, elements of Buddhism (in terms of chanting) and Confucian (in terms of the presence of a Confucius statue) could be seen.
Standing in front of the youths and children, Chen Shifu held a bowl of holy water and a holy flower which he used to spray the holy water with at the audience; on his right was a statue of Confucius in front of Guan Yin
Chen Shifu taught the youths and children a chant that was in Sanskrit but a Romanised version was given for them to pronounce the chant easily.
Chen Shifu teaching the youths and children a chant
While the audience recited the chant, they had to put their palms together and bow whenever Chen Shifu hit the gong. Chen Shifu’s purpose of teaching the audience this chant was to encourage them to be focused and attentive when they are studying. In addition, he commented on their sitting posture, and said that they had to sit upright so that they would have an upright and proper attitude towards whatever they do. After teaching the audience the chant, Chen Shifu played a song called “常回家看看” (Chang Hui Jia Kan Kan or Come Home Often) to teach them to be filial to their parents – to be filial, one of the things that, after getting married, they should do was to go home often to see their parents. This was a key takeaway for the audience. Soon after this, the audience were instructed to circle a pagoda and attach the pink slip of paper with their particulars on it.
The youths and children circling a pagoda and pasting a pink slip of paper on it for blessings
Once again, the youths and children lined up in front of Chen Shifu to get stamped with the Zhu Sha on their head and get a dot of Zhu Sha on their forehead in between the eyebrows. It was believed that the Zhu Sha Yin (诛砂印) could grant them their wishes and thus, used to allow the youths and children to acquire the knowledge and intelligence they desired.
The audience lined up in front of Chen Shifu to wait for their turn to receive the Zhu Sha Yin (诛砂印) on their forehead and head
The Confucius Ritual finally ended with Chen Shifu dipping the holy flowers in the bowl of holy water and spraying the water on the youths and children. They then recited a few verses to request Guan Yin to fulfil their wishes and for good grades. This then concluded the event of the day.
23rd October: Jing Shui Gang’s Visit (汫水港斗母宫)
Between 12pm to 1pm, the leaders and members of Jing Shui Gang arrived at Long Nan Szye’s festival venue. The people of Jing Shui Gang wore a yellow shirt, representing their temple. When they arrived, the members were led by their leaders to bow and pray to the main altar, where Guan Yin was placed, and then to the Dou Mu Gong. As it was a joyous occasion, they all shouted, “Huat ah!”.
Members of Jing Shui Gang paying their respects at the main altar and the Dou Mu Gong altar
The main leader of Jing Shui Gang holding a basket of fruits as exchange/visiting gift
The cook distributing food to the members of Jing Shui Gang
Chen Shifu chatting with the leaders of Jing Shui Gang
After paying respects, snacks were provided for the visiting temple, and while the members of Jing Shui Gang ate, the heads of the two temples chatted.
“Song Jia” 送驾:
The Sending-off of the Nine Emperor Gods
Finally, it was the last day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. On the 28th of October, Long Nan Szye’s festival tentage was filled with a crowd of people in white, preparing for the sending-off procession. Buzzing with anticipation, the devotees and helpers of the temple waited for the arrival of the lion and dragon dance troupes, and they tied their yellow waistband and white headband that they wore on the receiving day. At around 7pm, the troupes arrived at the tentage. While the troupes began their performance, the two dragon boats were taken away from the tentage and transported to Kranji reservoir.
Moving of the dragon boats
Performance by the lion and dragon dance troupes
The audience gathered around the tentage with the lion and dragon dance troupes performing at the centre of the tentage. The lions unravelled two scrolls with couplet written on them and presented auspicious numbers on the ground using fruits. This signalled the end of the lion and dragon dance performance.
Auspicious numbers presented by the lion dance performers
After the performances ended, the devotees and helpers gathered in front of the main altar to recite chants, led by Chen Shifu. The males were instructed to stand on the left of the tentage while the females were instructed to stand on the right. Chen Shifu stood in the middle, in front of the main altar, to lead the chanting.
Chen Shifu leading the chanting
Buddhist scripture that was recited was written on a large yellow cloth, displayed at the front for people to read
Reciting chants; scriptures printed on pink-coloured paper were distributed to the people
During the chanting session, the devotees and helpers bowed towards the main altar when Chen Shifu gave the cue. The Lu Zhu (炉主) occupied the centre of the tentage and he was accompanied with temple helpers to guide him in performing his role of escorting the urn from the tentage to the reservoir.
The Lu Zhu (炉主) stood in front of the main altar during the chanting session
In the next part of the sending-off ceremony, Chen Shifu’s assistant who stood beside him during the chanting session, led the Lu Zhu to circle the tentage. They were then followed by a group of helpers who carried the Nine Emperor Gods flags. The female group and then the male group followed suit.
Circling the tentage
While the group circled the tentage, they repeated verses that Chen Shifu recited through his loudspeaker. After circling the tentage, the more experienced helpers placed the urns which were inside the Dou Mu Gong on two sedan chairs. This was done in secrecy; the helpers went inside the Dou Mu Gong to move the urns from the altar to the sedans.
Placing the urns in the sedan chairs
The sedan chairs were made from bamboo and were decorated by the helpers on the day before the receiving ceremony. There were lights attached to it and were turned on during the night of the sending off ceremony. During the processions, the male helpers carried them – only four of them carried the sedan chairs at any point of time. Two at the front and two at the back. When carrying the sedan chairs, they swung the chairs back and forth, and side to side constantly. At the side of the group carrying the sedan chairs, there were two other male helpers following them as they had to replace the helpers who got tired from carry the sedans and needed a rest.
When the sedan chairs were ready to move, the Lu Zhu and the group of helpers assisting him left the tentage. The devotees followed suit. The lion and dragon dance troupes were called into action once again as the entourage parade from Block 235 to the Heavy Vehicle Park situated at a few traffic lights away from the festival area. At the Heavy Vehcile Park, all the devotees and helpers boarded the lorries. The Lu Zhu who held the Nine Emperor Gods urn began the journey to Kranji Reservoir for the final part of the sending-off ceremony.
Lion and dragon dance troupes at the front of the line towards the Heavy Vehicle Park
Lorries catered for the devotees and helpers to travel to the reservoir
The devotees and helpers alighted the lorries at a distance away from Kranji Reservoir. From there, they walked towards the reservoir, in the same formation as how they walked from Block 235 to the Heavy Vehicle Park to board the lorries.
The procession continued after alighting the lorry
Upon reaching Kranji reservoir, the devotees were once again separated according to their gender – the males were on the left of Chen Shifu and the females were on the right. Chen Shifu and his group of experienced helpers sat nearest to the reservoir, at the center of the participants.
Chen Shifu and his assistant sat in front of the reservoir
The sedan chairs were placed at the sides of the participants, and nine golden flags that represented the Nine Emperor Gods and 12 flags that represented the Chinese Zodiac were hoisted up.
Situation at Kranji Reservoir for the sending-off ceremony
During the ritual to send off the Nine Emperor Gods, Chen Shifu recited prayers to send them back to the heavenly realm. As each of the Nine Emperor Gods left, each of the nine flags was lowered down. When this part of the ritual was completed, Chen Shifu instructed all devotees to stand behind the flags of their zodiac sign. He then recited prayers for the devotees to seek blessings from their zodiac. At the same time, flowers were distributed to the devotees which they would then pluck the petals of the flowers and scatter them in the air when they received Chen Shifu’s cue.
It was the final part of the sending-off ceremony. The dragon boats were set on fire and pushed into the waters of the reservoir. All the devotees and helpers took out their headbands and waistbands and threw them onto the burning dragon boats. This signified the riddance of misfortune and unhappiness.
The burning of the dragon boats
At the end of the ceremony, tired devotees and helpers boarded the lorries back to the tentage where there was food prepared for them to freshen them up.
At last, Long Nan Szye’s Nine Emperor Gods Festival have come to an end. Throughout the festival, it could be seen that there were many devotees and helpers from different walks of life coming together to help and join Long Nan Szye’s celebration of the festival. This could not have been possible without Chen Shifu, the prominent figure in the temple. He led the festival celebration and every evening, he conducted lessons to teach the devotees and helpers about certain values, beliefs and life lessons. As the 2017 Nine Emperor Gods Festival has come to an end, the temple will soon begin preparing for the 2018 Nine Emperor Gods Festival.
龙南寺2017小组编撰(Tham Ki Yee, Paul Soh Zhan Hong, Tan Teenzhen, Tammy Chew, Chia Jielin, Ong Xiaohui, led by Lin Chia Tsun)
网页编辑Lin Chia Tsun
Special thanks to Long Nan Si for allowing us to do the documentation and for their assistance and advice.
The Project Team (through the Principal Investigator) and the National Heritage Board of Singapore own the rights to the photos and photo essays on this website unless stated otherwise.