Hougang Dou Mu Gong [后港斗母宫]
Address: 779A Upper Serangoon Road
Established in 1921, Hougang Dou Mu Gong is the oldest Taoist temple that is dedicated to the worship of the Nine Emperor Gods（九皇爷）in Singapore. On 14 January 2005, Hougang Dou Mu Gong was acknowledged as a national monument.
Why was it gazetted as a national monument of Singapore?
The Hougang Dou Mu Gong Temple is one of the oldest Jiu Huang Ye 九皇爷 temples in Singapore. Jiu Huang Ye also known as ‘Nine Emperors’ or ‘Ninth Emperor’. The temple serves both the Hokkien and Teochew communities.
The temple was chosen by the Preservation of Monuments Board, that was established in 1971. The board safeguards monuments just like the Hougang Dou Mu Gong temple as historical landmarks that provides us with a link to Singapore’s past. Hougang Dou Mu Gong temple not only reflects the spread of the Chinese population but also the progress and development of the suburban landscape in the early 20th century.
However, deteriorating conditions of the temple (i.e. water leakages) sparked renovation plans in 2004. Due to dissenting opinions, renovations plans were stalled for a period and only continued recently. Renovation plans include constructing a new basement carpark, a 3-storey building behind the temple (1st floor: Kitchen, 2nd floor: Office and Museum, 3rd floor: Accommodation purposes) and the interiors of the temple. Its budget is estimated to be S$5M.
Till date, construction of the carpark and 3-storey building were completed, however, the renovation of the temple’s interiors is ongoing. Idols and altars of the deities were shifted to a temporary tent.
Photo 1 -2, the temple members would make sure that every detail of the sedan chairs is well-taken care of, such as cleaning the sedan chairs and checking if any part is chipped. Each member has a specific role, of which one is to be tasked with handling the LED lights portion to change, fix, and decorate it.
Photos 3 – 4, preparations of the sedan chairs. The temple members change the appearance of the sedan chairs every year, by decorating them with new LED lightings; a skill they have gained from years of doing it. Every year, they would think of new designs for the sedan chairs, ensuring that each year the designs will be unique and memorable.
Photos 5-7, Hougang Dou Mu Gong has 4 sedan chairs. Sedans chairs are lit and ready to be carried by devotees for the invitation of the Nine Emperor Gods. Each sedan weighs approximately 400kg. The heavy weight of the sedan chairs is attributed to the elaborate wooden dragon cravings and gold ornaments as depicted in the picture.
Photos 8-10, During the Nine Emperor God Festival, red decorations – such as banners and lanterns – of the temple are swapped with yellow decorations. These yellow decorations can be found everywhere in the temple during this period as they are an important indicator that the festival is ongoing. The banners have the characters “后港斗母宫 庆祝九皇大帝圣诞” written on it (read from right to left), which means “Hougang Dou Mu Temple celebrates the birthday of the Nine Emperor Gods”.
As the Nine Emperor Gods’ celebration is a widely celebrated festival amongst Taoist in Singapore, its elaborate celebrations also conveyed a need for space for it to be carried out smoothly.
Typically, the exteriors of the temple would be used for the celebration and the premise would be segregated into three zones. Upon one’s entrance, the left zone held stalls that sold oil, food offerings and joss sticks, and a stage that holds all 4 sedan chairs for devotees to purchase and pay their respects to the Nine Emperor Gods, performances (such as the swaying of sedan chairs, lion and dragon dances) were held in the middle zone, whereas the right zone held the kitchen and dining area and the opera.
However, this year was different. The construction of an additional carpark basement had changed the layout. Upon one’s entrance, the left zone now holds stalls that sold oil, food offerings and joss sticks and a new office building, whereas the right zone now holds the stage that holds all 4 sedan chairs, a basement carpark with the opera stage built over its roof, and the kitchen and dining area.
The celebration of the Nine Emperor God’s begins proper with an invitation of the gods – The Nine Stars of the Big Dipper – to descend to earth for an annual sojourn. Taking place at Pulau Punggol Timor, it involves the temple members carrying the gods – Grand Master Qingshui, Marshall Tiandu, tablet of the Nine Emperor Gods, incense urn of the Nine Emperor Gods – on the four sedan chairs that are always violently rocked as a sign of a divine presence. This ceremony is more commonly known as the receiving of the gods.
The male temple devotees carried the sedan chairs and made their way to the opening space that is located at the front of the temple to prepare for the ritual and departure to Pulau Punggol Timor. In order to be a part of the team that carried the sedan chairs, the males have to be from the temple’s circle of devotees. Those who are not from Hougang Dou Mu Gong are not allowed to participate. Additionally, they also have to adhere to the vegetarian diet that is mandatory in this festival. These male carriers are split into 4 teams, namely A, B, C, and D. Each team is allocated to carry one sedan chair and has 10-15 males to take turns in carrying the sedan chair at scheduled intervals.
A final group photo was taken before departing to the seaside for the receiving ritual.
Devotees, like the temple members, participating in the invitation ceremony of the Nine Emperor Gods at the pier are required to dress in the attire that is depicted above. The attire is closely associated with Chinese funeral mourning due to the dominant colour white.
A significant element of the celebration is the paper dragon boat (船龙) as shown above, where a devotee is pasting a slip of paper containing her name and wishes onto it. Devotees can write and paste their wishes on the paper Dragon boat anytime throughout the festival as a symbol of receiving good fortune and protection from the Nine Emperor Gods. This paper Dragon boat will then be released into the sea on the 9th day of the celebration and be burnt as a symbol of getting rid of ill fortunes, and ensuring only good fortunes will accompany them.
The receiving ceremony began at approximately 8.30pm. The receiving ceremony this year was graced by Minister for Law, K. Shanmugam as the guest of honour.Devotees eagerly waiting for the arrival of the sedan chairs at the Pulau Punggol Timor, which would mark the start of the ritual.
The sedan chairs arrived at approximately 8.55pm, and the temple members then carried the sedan chairs to the front of the makeshift altar on the stage. After the sedan chair procession reached the front of the altar, the idols of Marshall Tiandu, and Grand Master Qingshui were transferred from the sedan chairs and onto the altar on stage.
The head priest – Master Lin Zai Tian (林再添道长) – then led the temple members into another ritual ceremony. Temple Chairman Mr.Tan Thiam Lye, and Minister K. Shanmugam and other temple committee members came onto the stage holding three incense sticks each and followed the head priest’s lead. The head priest began with a slight bow towards the altar, and then proceed to sprinkle water with pomelo leaves, followed by series of chanting and ringing of his bell. Members were then guided to bow and kneel at certain intervals too.
The temple helpers poured tea into the small teacups laid in front of the altar and shortly after, the pot of sandalwood was lighted up. A sounding of the gong signaled a solemn turn in the rituals, and at the same time, the pile of incense paper placed beyond the fence was lighted up.
Minister K. Shanmugam held the burning incense pot high up as he made his way down the stage to where the sedan chairs and carriers were awaiting. The burning pot of sandal wood was then placed into the sedan chairs along with the statues of the deities. The temple members then shouted “Huat ah” (An auspicious Hokkien cheer for prosperity).
At the same time, other temple members will collect the joss sticks from the devotees and proceed to light up the stack of kim zua.
The sedan carriers then rocked the sedan chairs in synchronized movements as they made their way back to the lorries to be transported back to the temple.
Once all of the sedan chairs and deities returned back to the temple, the 9 oiled lamps, which were arranged in a triangular structure, were holstered up the bamboo pole. The lighting of these 9 lamps marked the official commencement of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Hougang Dou Mu Gong.
The sedan carriers repeated the same ritual as at the pier, where they rocked the sedan chairs in synchronised movements. They continued to do this for several rounds, replacing temple members when suitable so as to prevent over-exhaustion as the sedan chairs are extremely heavy and the synchronised movements can take a toll on the carriers. This would also explain why there was such a large group of sedan carriers when there were only four sedan chairs.
The sedan carriers continued to move in synchronised movements and gradually made their way into the temple interior, where the pot of sandalwood and the tablet of the Nine Emperor Gods was retrieved from them. The tablet was then transported by the main temple members to the second floor and returned to its rightful place where it was previously stored.
The last ritual for the day was conducted by Master Lin to bless and consecrate the 平安桥 (pingan qiao, literally Bridge of Peace). Devotees seeking for peace could cross the bridge from this time onwards until the end of the festival.
IV. Other events
A. Yew Keng (出巡行)
This year’s yew keng (出巡) occurred on the 4th day （初四） of the Nine Emperor Gods’ celebration. Being a whole-day event, Hougang Dou Mu Gong visited 8 other participating temples (Jin Shan Shi, Nan Shan Hai Temple, Yu Hai Tang, Guan Yin Tang, Jin Shui Gang Dou Mu Gong, Leng San Giam Dou Mu Gong, Long Nan Dian, Charn Mao Hern Kew Huang and Feng Shan Gong) within the north-east areas as an opportunity to illuminate its connections and good relations between these temples. Only two sedan chairs, carrying the Nine Emperor Gods incense urn and tablet, set off at 1pm from the temple. The entire yew keng lasted till around 11:30pm.
For the yew keng, our temple followed a standardized flow when visiting the other temples as part of their protocol. The arrival of our temple’s entourage was announced by the presence of the colourful floats (花车) rowing into the host temple’s premises, followed by a short performance put up by the dragon and lion dance troupe. Lastly, the main ceremonial members arrived along with the sedan chairs. To mark the start of our yew keng ceremonial parade, a young temple member sprinkled a mixture of rice and salt onto the road just as it was done during the receiving ceremony’s parade. Raw rice mixed with salt is sprinkled onto the ground as a method of cleansing the path for the Nine Emperor Gods. Flag bearers (also known as 开路彩旗队) and temple’s management committee came together for this important ritual. One of the representatives also carried a gift basket, whereas another carried a basket of sandalwood.
To make this event accessible to the public, the temple offered charted bus services from our temple to all of the other 8 participating temples. As part of the protocols observed, participating devotees were also required to be dressed in white. As the attire has the emblem of our temple’s symbol, it formulates an identity when visiting other temples while also making it easier to spot fellow members to inform them to board the charted bus before it left the temple premises.
Fig 59. Itinerary for yew keng as posted by Hougang Dou Mu Gong.
Leng San Giam Dou Mu Gong (龙山岩斗母宫)
The temple entourage first arrived with a procession of floats, including后港斗母宫潮州大锣鼓, 马来西亚新山笨珍海南会馆铜乐队，and also floats sponsored by Luoyang Tua Pekong, Clean Solution Pte Ltd.
Next, the lion and dragon dances performances performed bv Wei Yi Ti Yu Guan（威义体育馆）arrived. The main ceremonial party arrived subsequently, accompanied by the beats of 后港斗母宫潮州大锣鼓. A young boy sprinkling rice on the ground led the others, followed by the flag bearers and the duo who would beat their gongs at regular intervals to signal our temple’s arrival. Next came the temple’s representatives, each holding three joss sticks each. Lastly, the temple representatives holding their incense followed behind.
The temple party members first paid their respects to the altar situating outside the temple. Here, we observed that each representative held 3 joss sticks when paying respects.
The party paid their second respects to the altar of the Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝), and their third respects to the altar of the fifth Nine Emperor God, also known as 九皇五帝。
The party then proceeded to enter the temple’s main interior to pay their respects to the Nine Emperor Gods. Here, we observed that the host temple’s Taoist (left) would use his left hand to offer our temple’s representatives (right) each 3 joss sticks for them to pay their respects. In Taoism, the left hand represents the ‘yang’, which symbolizes respect. He is also required to silently chant the mantra “Burning of the incense shall receive ultimate peace” while doing so.
After placing their incense joss sticks into the urn, the gift basket was presented to the representative of Leng San Giam Dou Mu Gong as a formality. A piece of sandalwood was also taken from us and placed into the urn of burning sandalwood belonging to the host temple. In return, a representative of Leng San Giam then poured a scoop of fine sandalwood into the burning urn that was placed on one of our sedan chairs. Although the formalities were completed with this, the sedan chairs continued swaying and charging towards the Nine Emperor Gods’ altar. The movements of the sedan chairs carriers synchronized to the beats of the music piece played by 后港斗母宫潮州大锣鼓, providing them with a rhythm. The sedan chairs then turned and headed towards the exit as they continued to their next destination.
Long Nan Dian (龙南殿)
After the entourage arrived at Long Nan Dian, the ceremonial party and sedan chairs arrived subsequently following the standardized flow. The ceremonial party proceeded first to pay their respects at the altar of the second Nine Emperor God (also known as 九皇大二帝). Mr Ling Kin Huat (林金发) was the representative in charge of carrying the basket of sandal wood.
The ceremonial party and representatives then paid their respect at the Jade Emperor altar situated at the other end of the tentage.
Thirdly, they proceed to pay their respects to the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu. After taking a bow and placing their joss sticks into the urn, the gift basket was presented to Mr. Tiong Choo Chye (General affairs [总务] of Long Nan Dian). With the basket of sandalwood and gift offerings in hand, Ling Kin Huat and other representatives of Hougang Dou Mu Gong entered an exclusive yellow tent situated at the back of the altar. Entry to the tent is restricted due to its sacredness, and only male temple members are allowed inside. They exited shortly and the sandalwood basket was placed on the altar of the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu. Both Long Nan Dian and our temple exchanged gift baskets as a formality to end this formal greeting.Our sedan chairs arrived next in a single file, swaying and charging towards the altar of the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu’s altar. After a series of charges, the sedan chairs were rested on wooden benches in front of the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu’s altar.
At around 7.30pm, prior to our departure, a representative from Long Nan Dian added a scoop of fine sandalwood into our burning urn that was placed in one of our sedan chairs. The sedan chairs swayed towards the exit whereas devotees hurried back to the chartered buses as we prepared to head to our subsequent destinations.
Feng Shan Gong (凤山宫)
Upon reaching Feng Shan Gong, the entourage moved in an order similar to the last few temples visited: the arrival of the colorful floats, followed by 马来西亚新山笨珍海南会馆铜乐队, 后港斗母宫潮州大锣鼓, dragon and lion dance troupes from 威义体育会, and the generals and child deities from 南仙体育会 to entertain the crowd. Our temple ceremonial party and representatives then followed afterwards. They proceeded to the Nine Emperor Gods’ altar located at the main hall. Lined in a single row, each of the representatives was offered 3 joss sticks by the host temple and respects were paid via three or more bows, following which the joss sticks were planted firmly into the urn.
Prior to the arrival of our sedan chairs, the 5 generals cleansed the area with their ritual performance. Both sedan chairs subsequently arrived and swayed around in a circular motion around the area. Similar to the previous temple, both sedan chairs took turns charging towards the altar of the Nine Emperor Gods 3 times, and subsequently made a move towards another altar located at the back of the temple.
Both sedan chairs came to a pause upon reaching the main altar, keeping still for a while. A representative from Feng Shan Gong lighted joss sticks to pay his respects, he then turned around and kneeled facing the sedan chair. Offerings made in front of the sedan chairs include: firstly a plate of oranges, folllowed by a plate of pears, then pineapples and lastly, prosperity cakes. He completed the ritual with the lighting of a final joss stick before leading the rest into shouting “Huat ah!” The pile of kim zua situated nearby was also burnt to appease the deities while the sedan chairs and carriers were loaded back to the lorries and returned to the temple. Similar to the previous temple visited, this temple also did not return our contribution of sandalwood pieces with a scoop of their own fine sandalwood powder.
Despite returning to Hougang Dou Mu Gong, the 5 generals still had to cleanse the path for both sedan chairs to enter back into our temple premises. The sedan chair carrying the burning incense swayed towards the main altar which displayed the effigy of Dou Mu and the altar of Nine Emperor Gods. The sedan chair was placed down, and a yellow cloth was draped around its carriers, only allowing one opening for the incense urn to be carried out. Next came the sedan chair carrying the sacred Nine Emperor Gods’ tablet. The sedan chair, along with the carriers, were covered in yellow cloth and they made their way up to the second level to return the tablet to its altar. Entrance to the second level is strictly restricted to selected personnel and as such we could not follow. Thereafter, all participating members (only the ceremonial party and representatives) gathered at the altar of the Nine Emperor Gods. They cupped their hands together and bowed to mark the end of the yew keng event for this year.
B. Qing Shui （请水）
The 6th day of the Nine Emperor Gods festival in Hougang Dou Mu Gong marks a significant ceremony observed by our temple. This sacred ceremony is known as 请水 (qing shui), which begins early in the morning at 5am till afternoon. However, participation is only restricted to the temple’s main committee members for the early morning rituals.
请水is a large-scale ceremony that ensues in two stages – A ritual to retrieve the temple’s well water at the temple premises and then another at the Punggol pier to retrieve sea water. A significant observation for this ceremony is its layout. The once spacious entranceway was now neatly arranged with a large altar belonging to the Jade Emperor in the middle, surrounded with rows of table laid with packaged offerings. The Jade Emperor’s altar primarily consists of an embellished paper palace. A pair of sugar cane was propped up beside the paper palace to symbolize gratitude. Joss paper and food offerings, such as oranges, apples, bananas, prosperity cake (发糕), were placed on the altar too. These offering packages found on the surrounding tables were all paid by the devotees themselves and were sold at $80 per package. Temple devotees could purchase the packages for blessings and to show their gratitude to the Nine Emperor Gods. Each package consisted of a set of joss paper and food offerings (ie. prosperity cake, a bowl of rice, oranges) and also included a set of vegetarian food such as spring rolls, vegetarian char siew meat, Ang Ku Kueh. As it was still early, the sets of vegetarian food were only displayed much later, to preserve the freshness of the food offered.
At the back of the temple, an altar was also set up in front of the temple’s old well. Fruit offerings, specifically apples, oranges and pears were arranged in numbers of fives and displayed on red tray stands. Dried condiments offered include: rock sugar, peanut, chewy pastry, colored sugar printed with auspicious characters, sesame pastry, peanut pastry, peanuts and red jujebes, dried mushrooms, dried beancurd sheets, cellophane noodle strands, seaweed, black and white fungus. Additionally, tea and rice wine were also offered.
Another significant element is the water well. Many devotees said that the well has never run dry despite the temple’s long history, which led people to believe that the water has sacred properties. Supernatural stories have also been shared by devotees, such as how camera’s screen go black or shut off when attempting to take a clear picture of the well, further emphasizing their strong supernatural beliefs.
Inside the temple’s main hall dedicated to Dou Mu and the Nine Emperor Gods, offering baskets of a different kind were displayed. These offering baskets had a yellow prosperity cake shaped in the form of a turtle as their base, for turtles are seen as a sign of longevity and the gold coins placed in their mouths represent prosperity. This was accompanied by embellishments of pineapples pop-ups and orange prosperity cakes in the front, both of which also symbolize prosperity.
Another significant element is the porcelain vessel used to contain the water retrieved from the well and the pier. The vessel was later displayed on the main altar.
At approximately 530 a.m., the first set of rituals were conducted at the altar of the Nine Emperor Gods and Dou Mu. Master Lin led the rituals, accompanied by sounds of gongs played by the other Taoist priests. The ceremonial members followed the priest’s instruction on when to kneel and bow to pay their respects.
Secondly, Master Lin proceeded to the bamboo pole’s altar stationed at the entrance of the temple’s exterior premises to continue his rituals. Master Lin began to chant and rung both his bell and the Chinese temple block at regular intervals. The temple members bowed and kneeled as the Master commanded Shortly after, they proceeded back to the temple’s main hall to complete the first set of rituals. A short break was announced for the participating members to rest and prepare the second set of ritual.
The third ritual to retrieve the well water began at approximately 7.20am. All five priests gathered at the front of the well’s altar and conducted the rituals. As usual, the Taoists played their instruments and blew their horn simultaneously at regular intervals. Master Lin again led the others in reciting their prayers and when to kneel and bow.
Whilst the priests were chanting, a red pail was lowered into the well to retrieve the water that was then poured into two small red bowls with pomelo leaves, as well as into the porcelain vessel. Both the porcelain vessel and the red bowls were then placed on the altar table. Waving a small wooden sword in one hand, Master Lin held up a red bowl and took a sip of the water before spitting it out. This act was repeated a few times as he spat the water around the compound. After doing so, he returned to reciting his chants along with the other priests.
After chanting, one member held the porcelain vessel, and another held a tray containing the two red bowls of water with pomeolo leaves that were retrieved earlier. These two members led the rest back to the temple’s main hall with the five priests and members following behind respectively.
Inside the temple’s main hall, the porcelain vessel was placed in the front of the Dou Mu and Nine Emperor Gods’ altar before Master Lin recited a few prayers and used the pomelo leaves to flick the well water around the premises, ringing his bell at regular intervals as he walked around.
Next, a different priest and other temple members moved to the back of the temple where another altar was located. The priest recited his rituals whilst ringing the bell and flicking the well water with the pomelo leaves around the altar. He also continued to ring his bell as he moved from one altar to the other. The procedure was repeated for all of altars in the temple halls (it ends with the temple’s main hall). After this was completed, it was the end of the third ritual. A short break was announced for the priests and the members to take a rest before the second part of the ceremony began.
The second part of the ceremony requires the members to visit the Punggol pier to retrieve the seawater with the porcelain vessel. Furthermore, only the sedan chairs of the Nine Emperor Gods were involved for this ritual. Prior to their departure, Master Lin flicked the well water around the sedan chairs in order to cleanse them.
With Taoist music sounding inside the temple’s halls, committee members carried the idols of Marshall Tiandu and Grand Master Qingshui out of their respective altars. Devotees whom witnessed the idols at near sight also cupped their hands together and prayed, further illuminating the sacred presence of these deities. Another member carried out a pot of sandalwood from the main hall and placed it on one of the Nine Emperor Gods’ sedan chairs. However, the other sedan chair, which supposedly carried the altar of the Nine Emperor, was wrapped around with yellow cloth, leaving one opening for male members to pass through. This is because actions happening within the sedan chair cannot be shown to the public due to its sacredness.
At approximately 9.05am, both sedan chairs swayed out of the temple and were carried into the lorries.
Upon reaching the pier, whilst the two idols were placed on the altar, the sedan chairs swayed towards the altar before coming to a stop. The porcelain vessel that contained the well water was retrieved and placed onto the altar too. The members then came on to the stage and paid their respects to the altar. Committee members and temple sponsors were offered joss sticks and told to kneel on the yellow cushions in order to pray, following Master Lin’s leads on when to bow. At an auspicious timing, the porcelain vessel was brought down to the pier to retrieve the seawater. Master Lin and the rest remained kneeling at the altar while he was doing so.
A yellow pail was used to retrieve the sea water and later, poured into the vessel. Meanwhile, Master Lin and the rest stood up as Aaron arrived with the vessel held at around the level of his head. Both idols and the porcelain vessel were brought back to the temple afterwards.
Upon reaching the temple premises, the three representatives each holding the idols of Grand Master Qingshui, Marshall Tiandu, and the porcelain vessel, entered the temple in a single row and were welcomed by the lion dance performances. The sedan chairs swayed in after, followed by child deities from 南仙体育会。The sedan chairs swayed vigorously and only stopped in front of the temple’s main hall. The pot of burning incense was carried out from the sedan chairs and carried up to the Nine Emperor Gods’ altar in the second level. Again, the members wrapped themselves along with the sedan chair in yellow cloth since they were going to retrieve the item from the sedan chair.
At approximately 11.36am, another ritual was being conducted in the temple’s main hall. After completing the rituals inside the main hall, all five priests headed to the rows of tables that contained offering packages brought by the public devotees. Each package had a stand that indicates the name of the devotee. Devotees were also allowed to bring the food offerings home after the completion of rituals. Devotees believed that they would be blessed after consuming the food.
All five priests circled each table; the first would ring his bell and sprinkled water around the offerings with pomelo leaves, the second would inked a red stamp on each rice bowl. Devotees are allowed to bring the rice back home as a sign of blessing and good fortune. The remaining priests sounded their instruments whilst chanting to supplement this ritual.
After the above ritual ended, the priests conducted rituals for the altar located at the back of the temple and also for the opera performers. Afterwards, both temple members and the priests gave a final bow to the altar of Dou Mu and the Nine Emperor Gods to mark the completion of the Qing Shui ceremony.
V. Sending Off
The 9th day of the Nine Emperor Gods festival marks the end of the celebration. The sending-off ceremony begins at 7pm at Pulau Punggol Timor. Charted buses were provided at 6pm to 8pm for public devotees whom wished to join the temple members to send off the Nine Emperor Gods.
Prior to the sending-off ceremony, committee members were moving the altar stand of the Nine Emperor Gods, boxes of prosperity cakes and incense paper, and boxes of safety vests into the lorry. These members were driven to the pier an hour earlier than the others so as to give them ample time to set up the altar at the pier.
Upon reaching the pier at approximately 6pm, the members were busily setting up the altars and preparing all the ritual materials to ensure that the sending off ceremony would go smoothly. The members unloaded all of their items on to the stage and the altar stand was first placed on the stage, then they hung the yellow banners embroidered with ferocious dragons and the Chinese characters “后港斗母宫”. Other items displayed on the altar table included vase and basket of flowers, prosperity cakes, tea cups, etc. No females were allowed on the stage due to its sacredness.
The temple members were not the only ones preparing, as other staff ensured rubbish bags were fixed onto protective rails to keep the area clean. Performance staff were placing safety mats for the Lion dance performances, and live sound checks were also being done. As it was a largely celebrated event, the sending-off ceremony was also live streamed at “RINGS Live” to cater to those devotees whom were unable to attend the ceremony.
As the sun begun to set in the cloudy sky, the preparations came to a wrap as the time for the sending off ceremony neared. Public members were strolling in and some of them were already seated down as they waited for the ceremony to begin. There were also food vendors for public to grab some snacks if they were hungry.
The sending-off ceremony kicked off with a singing performance brought by Zhu Hui Zhen (朱慧真) and Huang Hao Feng (黄浩峰). They awed the public with popular Hokkien songs and their singing. From time to time, they also tried to encourage audience interactions by pointing the mike at them in an attempt to get them to sing along and liven up the atmosphere.
The crowd was now fully packed into the seats as emcees Wang Lei and Lin Ru Ping welcomed the devotees to the celebration of the festival, together with the two singers who continued to perform songs through this time. Shortly after, the lorry carrying the paper dragon boat arrived at the venue. Parts of the dragon boat was already dismantled in the temple, and then reassembled on the premise itself, as the whole boat could not fit into the lorry. The base of the boat was first unloaded and placed on the ground and the boat was assembled on top. Members then carried the boat by its bamboo bars (tied on the sides of the boat) and placed it near the docking area. The sails were the last to be assembled and prosperity cakes were also placed on the hull of the boat. A lot of teamwork and coordination was needed to ensure that the boat was not damaged due to the nature of it being made of paper and burnable materials.
The senior temple members watched by the ramp down at the Punggol pier as the Dragon boat was carefully brought to be kept here until it was to be burnt during the ritual. Their solidarity shone even amongst yellow lanterns.
At around 8.51pm, the guests of honour arrived – Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman (East Coast GRC and Senior Minister of States, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Mayor of South East CDC), Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Chua Eng Leong (Aljunied GRC representative). With the arrival of special guests, the celebration was off to an energetic start through the commencement of performances and parades from many entertainers.
At around 9.12pm, the lion dance troupe began with the performances with a jaw-dropping act by performing stunts on the poles.
The next group of performers were the Malay and Indian percussions from Jamiyah Singapore Kompang Group and Luoyang Tua Pek Kong Temple’s Indian traditional percussion group (洛阳大伯公宫印度传统鼓乐团) respectively. Decked in their traditional costumes, they were strumming their traditional instruments rebana (for the Malays) and Nadaswaram (for the Indians). Notably, Malay and Indian instrument players were quite the multicultural sight to behold.
At around 9.20pm, the final guest of honour, Mr. Teo Chee Hean (Deputy Prime Minister) arrived with Mr. Tan Thiam Lye and some temple members. Mr. Teo Chee Hean once graced the event in 2015.
The next group of performers were tai chi practioners from Wudang Cheng Huang Taoist Rehabilitation Hospital (武当城隍道教养生院) showcasing their tai chi shan (太极扇) moves. Next up was the colorful floats procession, followed by the marching band from Persatuan Hainan Johor Bahru Percussion Group (马来西亚新山笨珍海南会馆铜乐队).
Next, we have the walking stilts from Malaysia (马来西亚新山洪场体育会高跷队) performing jaw dropping acts, such as combining break dance moves and performing stunts with rings of fire whilst on stilts. The lion and dragon dance troupe from 威义体育会 arrived subsequently with a group of 4 lions and 2 dragons in orange and green posing at various points.
The following performers included the child-like gods and the marching band from 南仙体育会 神童队，神将队，锣潮州鼓队 also arrived. Next, the Hougang Dou Mu Gong’s drumming group (后港斗母宫潮州大锣鼓) arrived, followed by the arrival of the eight generals(中莲殿武英八将团) creating formations with their poses. These eight generals were led by a head general. These people (whom posed as generals) were already at the temple since 5am to don on their costumes and put on their stage make-up. Their costumes and make-up were specifically designed to be threatening, so as to scare evil spirits off. The scary props (such as spearheads) held by them were used to capture any ‘dirty things’ that crossed their paths, so as to purify the way for the Nine Emperor Gods. The emcee constantly stressed to his audience to not cross the formations that they were constantly forming, so as to not injure the performers and themselves.
Next came our temple members and the sedan chairs. At this point, public devotees who purchased the incense sticks were told to light up their sticks at candles located at various points. The barricades containing the devotees were lifted and they could join in the procession heading towards the altar. Four sedan chairs followed at the back.
On the stage, ceremonial members and the guests of honours (incl. parliamentary members) were on the stage waiting for the sedans to reach the altar. Shortly after, everyone stood up and sang the gong ge (宫歌) in Hokkien, with the emcees leading the audience in singing. The emcees yelled “hougang dou mu gong da jia heng bo” thrice and ended with a final “HUAT”. At approximately 10.11pm until 10.14pm, the fireworks started with a song repeating “jiu huang da di huat ah huat” to signify the start of the sending off ceremony.
On the ground, all four sedan chairs came to a stop and two committee members then each retrieved the idols from their respective sedan chairs and placed them on the altar. The two members then proceeded to fold their hands together and prayed to the idols on the altar as a form of respect. Mr. Tan Thiam Lye came up shortly after holding the burning pot of sandalwood that he had retrieved from the Nine Emperor Gods’ sedan chair and placed it on the altar. Lastly, a fourth member then came up holding the NEG tablet with a garland of flowers hung around it.
Three priests (with Master Lin in the middle) conducted the rituals. Both priests at each of Master Lin’s side were playing the small cymbals and gongs at regular intervals whilst Master Lin lead the others in chanting and also blew his horn at specific intervals. All three priests ended this ritual with a slight bow, with the members at the back doing the same. Master Lin then switched from blowing his horn to ringing the golden bell whilst the temple’s duo played the gong and trumpets.
The ritual then turned quite sombre and serious as Master Lin kneeled on the cushion and beat the temple wooden block rhythmically, while the priest on his left stopped playing his instrument, and the priest on his right rang his bell constantly. With each ‘gong’ sounded, the priests would the others to bow at the same time and devotees followed along. After 43 bows, the dragon boat was being released into the waters. At the last two ‘gong’, everyone stood up and the members again played a Taoist music piece.
Devotees holding on to these incense sticks were all collected by the temple members whom would place them on the stack of incense paper (arranged in circle earlier). White head scarves and the yellow wrist banners were also collected and placed on the incense paper to be burnt to mark the end of this festival. One can hear the beats of the music hastened. Far in a distance, the dragon boat was already burning to symbolise the riddance of bad fortunes, the emcees yelled “Huat ah” thrice. On another boat, the burning pot of sandalwood was released into the waters, symbolising the sending-off of the Nine Emperor Gods. The worshippers knelt down on their knees while holding incense sticks and paid their respects to the Nine Emperor Gods as they were being respectfully sent off.
Members continued cruising around the waters to ensure that everything was fine before heading back to the shore. Idols of the gods and the Nine Emperor God’s tablet were returned to their respective sedan chairs and returned to the temple. Meanwhile, the crowd slowly dispersed and devotees board the chartered bus back to the temple.
At the temple, the yellow decorations (lanterns and candles) were taken down and replaced with red ones to formally show that the Nine Emperor Gods’ celebration had officially came to an end.
Throughout this celebration, we observed that each temple has their own culture and individual practice of doing things although all of them pray to the same Nine Emperor God. These differences further illuminate each temple’s individuality. Another observation made was the importance of rice used in Taoist rituals. Throughout the Nine Emperor God’s festival, rice was seen as an offering displayed on the deity’s altar, or as an emblem of blessing when offered to devotees during the qing shui ceremony or used to ‘open’ the path for the sedan chairs to pass. An interpretation of its presence explained rice aligns the teaching of Taoism to be uncorrupting and bland, and does not distract one’s mind unlike how the smell of fine food would. All in all, the camaraderie between temple members as well as members of different temples is highlighted by this festival, giving us important insight into the intertwined factors of Chinese culture and folk religion.
Text and Photos by Team Hougang 2017 (Jesslyn Kiam, Valarmathi Mahendran, Hakeem Hussein,)
Team Leader: Dean Wang
Our very sincere thanks to the committee of Xuan Wu Shan temple for their support and assistance during our documentation project.
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.