The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods in Johor Bahru: A Photo-Essay of Sam Siang Keng Temple (2019)
Soh C. M. Esmond
Each year, countless worshippers devoted to the Nine Emperor Gods begin their respective vegetarian diets a few days – others, months – before the deities arrive in the human realm for a festivity that spans across the first nine days of the ninth lunar month. Maritime Southeast Asian countries that are home to a sizable Chinese diaspora, namely Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, burst to life with various religious activities throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods.
The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods only begins in full-swing from the first day of the ninth lunar month. However, the scale of the occasion means that temples have to begin preparing for the divinities’ arrival since the last week of the eighth lunar month. In a typical year, the Nine Emperor Gods would arrive from the coast of Johor Bahru. A sacred censer emblazoned with the name of the visiting divinity would be prepared by Sam Siang Keng to host the deity. This year, the author was fortunate enough to document a variant of the invitation ceremony performed by the temple. This time, Sam Siang Keng’s leadership journeyed to 南天宫Nan Tian Gong [Palace in the Southern Heaven], a renowned Nine Emperor Gods temple in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.
The main altar of Sam Siang Keng, undated (possibly 1955-1960s). The image of the Eighth Emperor God can be seen at the right. Photograph courtesy of two anonymous devotees.
Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, undated (possibly 1980s to 1994). Photographs were taken by the late Mr. Chua Choon Kwang (husband of Fifth Aunty). Photographs courtesy of Ms. Connie Tay.
There is an interesting history behind these excursions, which are organised once every five years. Since 1955, Sam Siang Keng was originally devoted to the worship of the Bodhisattva of Purple Light. However, by the 1960s, the founder of Sam Siang Keng was possessed by the 九皇八帝Eighth Emperor God, who anticipated the role that the temple would play as a hub for the Nine Emperor Gods’ worship in Johor Bahru. In response to the Eighth Emperor God’s advice, Sam Siang Keng’s leadership made their way to Nan Tian Gong. In Ampang, sacred ashes from the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense censer were obtained and enshrined within Sam Siang Keng. In honour of the Eighth Emperor God’s readiness to introduce the deities’ worship to Johor Bahru, the first image representing the Nine Emperor Gods in Sam Siang Keng was carved in the Eighth’s likeness. Since 2019 marked the end of another five-year cycle, a pilgrimage to Ampang was necessary to rejuvenate the spiritual and historical relationship shared by these two temples.
At the end of these five-year cycles, the Nine Emperor Gods would decide which among the nine brothers would be stationed to oversee the needs of the temple and its devotees. 2019 marks the end of the Second Emperor Gods’ five-year term as the temple’s spiritual adjutant. However, the Second Emperor God has demonstrated his continued commitment to Sam Siang Keng, and has chosen to extend his term after repeated tosses of divination blocks by the temple’s kengzu.
A stalk of bamboo lashed to a flag emblazoned with the title of the Nine Emperor Gods.
Purifying the flag and bamboo pole with holy water and a sprig of pomegranate leaves.
Raising the bamboo pole into the sky. Note how a small metal latch had been installed into the flagpole for this purpose.
After establishing whom among the Nine Emperor Gods would be hosted in Sam Siang Keng for the next five years, the temple’s leadership and volunteers occupied themselves with the final preparation of the ritual implements necessary for the occasion. One of the indispensable rituals associated with the Festival was the raising of the Matriarch of the Dipper lamps 斗姥灯. A stalk of bamboo lashed to a flag bearing the temple’s name and occasion was attached onto a prepared metal latch. Once this was complete, the bamboo pole will be raised till the tallest point of a flagpole, where it will poke into the skyline of the vicinity until the end of the Festival. Meanwhile, nine kerosene lamps were lit in preparation for the final phase of the ritual. After the bamboo pole was raised, the nine lamps were eventually attached onto a running chain and raised into the sky.
Nine lamps fuelled by kerosene. These lamps will be lit for the entire duration of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods.
Throughout the Festival, all nine lamps were to be lit. Only twice daily were the temple’s leadership and ritual specialists allowed to refuel the lamps with kerosene. Sam Siang Keng has a unique conception of the Nine Heavenly Lamps, where the nine lamps take the form of a continuous chain. For the next two weeks, an altar devoted to the Matriarch of the Dippers, the mother of the Nine Emperor Gods, will be maintained and situated perpendicular to the array of nine lamps. This alignment was deliberate, for the Matriarch, after noticing the nine lamps raised into the sky in her honour, would notice Sam Siang Keng observing the Festival and thus grace the occasion with her presence.
Three Dipper Lamps placed in the main hall of Sam Siang Keng.
While the nine lamps were prepared, the temple’s remaining volunteers busied themselves with the preparation of three Dipper Lamps that would be given a place of prominence in Sam Siang Keng’s main hall. Many other Dipper Lamps decorated with pomegranate leaves and talismans issued by the Matriarch of the Dipper were also lit in commemoration of the upcoming Festival, but these three Dipper Lamps were given a place of prominence. The first Dipper Lamp is devoted to the worship of the Matriarch of the Dipper and the Nine Emperor Gods, whereas the two other flanking Dipper Lamps were lit on the behalf of world peace and the temple’s devotees respectively.
The leadership and volunteers of Sam Siang Keng in presenting their respects to the deities before the congregation proceeds to Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.
The chairman plants three sticks of incense into the main urn of the temple.
The vice-chairman moves a lit Dipper Lamp to the main altar of Sam Siang Keng.
Time flies when everyone is busy contributing towards ensuring the Festival’s success. A few hours into nightfall, the contingent of Sam Siang Keng’s volunteers and leaders were ushered into the main hall of the temple for a final briefing and prayer, where the departing contingent expressed their wish for a smooth and successful trip to Ampang. As the temple’s leadership planted their joss sticks into the temple’s main incense censer, final preparations for the trip to Ampang were made.
Attaching lit lamps onto a running chain to complete the Matriarch of the Dipper’s lamp.
The end of this prayer session triggered a new flurry of activity, where the bamboo stem and nine lamps devoted to the Matriarch of the Dipper were quickly raised into the sky. After the nine Matriarch of the Dipper lamps were hoisted into the sky, it was time to install the spiritual armies and soldiers who would keep the temple’s compound safe for the many upcoming activities and devotees.
Purifying the flag of the Buddha Triumphant in Countless Battles with holy water and a sprig of pomegranate leaves.
Ritual implements required for the stationing of spirit-soldiers in the temple’s compound.
Attaching a command flag for spirit soldiers onto an awaiting flag pole.
Command flags emblazoned with the names of the three main deities who were honoured in Sam Siang Keng – the Ancestor of Great Balance 鸿钧老祖, the Bodhisattva of Purple Light 紫光菩萨 and the Buddha Triumphant in Countless Battles 百战胜佛 – were raised onto three separate flag poles overlooking the temple’s entrance. In Sam Siang Keng, these spiritual soldiers were brought to the occasion by the attending deities themselves. These armies were thus called to carry out their due vigilance and patrol the vicinity until the end of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. All of these flags were affixed with seal imprints empowered by the temple’s spirit-mediums of old, and each of these flags were purified with a sprinkling of holy water by pomegranate leaves before they were raised.
Ready and prepared to leave Johor Bahru for Ampang.
In time, the temple’s leadership and censer-masters prepared to make their way to Ampang. Ampang was a good five-hour long drive away from Sam Siang Keng, and given the nature of the charge of conveying the Nine Emperor Gods’ sacred ashes back to Johor Bahru, Sam Siang Keng decided to undertake the journey to Kuala Lumpur throughout the night. This mission was of an austere nature and urgency, not only because the consecrated incense-censer represented an earthly embodiment of the Nine Emperor Gods, but because the contingent had to enshrine the ashes within the premises of Sam Siang Keng by 2 P.M the next day. The journey to Ampang was thus made throughout the night, in the hope that the ritual could begin once Nan Tian Gong opens its gates to devotees in the wee hours of the morning.
The main title plaque of Nan Tian Gong, Ampang, Kuala Lumpur. Wolfgang Franke and Chen Tieh Fan (1995) considered this temple to be one of the oldest and a centre for the Nine Emperor Gods’ worship in Malaysia.
Group photograph under the titular plaque of Nan Tian Gong to commemorate the occasion.
Inner chamber of the Nan Tian Gong temple. Sam Siang Keng’s command flags were temporarily housed there.
It was a serene ride to Kuala Lumpur under the cover of darkness. Sam Siang Keng eventually arrived at the gates of Nan Tian Gong an hour before the latter’s opening. By 6 A.M., Sam Siang Keng made its way into the temple’s grounds, led by the command flags of the Matriarch of the Dipper and the Nine Emperor Gods. These flags and ceremonial swords wielded by the kengzu and the committee’s chairman were then housed in an inner chamber (alternatively translated as ‘ampang,’ the ‘secret room’) in Nan Tian Gong, alongside an incense censer enveloped in yellow cloth. Meanwhile, Sam Siang Keng’s devotees busied themselves with paying respects to the Nine Emperor Gods and other deities in the premises of Nan Tian Gong. Joss sticks were lit and planted into the many altars located within the temple’s compounds, whilst bells are rung by the Nan Tian Gong’s keepers to acknowledge the receipt of token donations by the visitors from Johor Bahru.
The three censer-masters nominated by the Nine Emperor Gods in the year 2019. Being a censer-master was “as much a privilege as a responsibility,” for they were not only held to the highest standards of conduct, but were expected to serve the deity as well.
The leaders, ritual specialists and censer-masters of Sam Siang Keng presenting a final petition to the Nine Emperor Gods in Nan Tian Gong’s inner chamber.
The Nine Emperor Gods’ incense censer leaving the inner chamber of Nan Tian Gong.
The key ritual – where the sacred ashes from an incense censer devoted to the Nine Emperor Gods would be integrated into another incense censer prepared by Sam Siang Keng – took place at daybreak. To initiate the final phase of this ritual in the inner altar, Sam Siang Keng’s leaders first expressed their gratitude to the Nine Emperor Gods’ protection for the past five years, before inviting the divinities to grace Sam Siang Keng for another five years. More joss sticks were lit, and after each attendee planted their sticks into the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense censer, the kengzu and two senior ritual specialists began the ritual, while remaining devotees knelt outside the chamber in anticipation.
A final photograph at the doorway of Nan Tian Gong to commemorate the occasion.
The kengzu of Sam Siang Keng leaves the compound of Nan Tian Gong with the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense censer at daybreak.
Within moments, the entire temple was filled with the sounds of ringing bells and the drumming of ceremonial instruments initiated by the Nan Tian Gong’s caretakers. As the ritual in the inner chamber ended, the first to emerge from the chamber was Sam Siang Keng’s kengzu, who wielded an incense censer that was filled with smouldering sandalwood shavings. This incense censer, now the physical embodiment of the Second Emperor God on this earthly plane, was now the charge of three censer-masters, who will be tasked with the care of the incense-censer throughout the Festival. Accompanied by his ritual specialists and three designated censer-masters, the kengzu and his companions marched into the light of the rising sun that was just beginning to shine into the inner recesses of Nan Tian Gong. The task of escorting the Second Emperor God back to Johor Bahru had just began.
The head censer-master with his charge en route to Sam Siang Keng, alongside one of Sam Siang Keng’s senior ritual specialists.
Despite the logistical difficulties posed by slippery surfaces in the aftermath of a rainstorm, the palanquin bearers diligently moved the Nine Emperor Gods’ palanquin to the temple’s compound.
The rain did nothing to dampen the awaiting congregation’s enthusiasm.
Once the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense censer was safely fastened onto its designated table in the waiting coach, the contingent began making their way back to Sam Siang Keng. En route to Johor Bahru, the returning contingent was informed that heavy rain was expected in Sam Siang Keng’s vicinity. Fortunately, by the time the Second Emperor God was welcomed at the temple’s compound, the once-heavy downpour had softened to a drizzle. This was a good sign, for the rain ritualistically cleansed the temple grounds before the deity was invited into Sam Siang Keng’s premises. The temple’s leadership arranged for the Nine Emperor Gods’ palanquin to be brought to the temple’s gates to receive the Nine Emperor Gods. Following the palanquin was a waiting group of devotees and volunteers from Sam Siang Keng, some of whom were charged with brandishing the ceremonial instruments and tablets that exhibited the authority of the Nine Emperor Gods.
The kengzu of Sam Siang Keng invites the Nine Emperor Gods to take their seat in the awaiting palanquin.
Carrying the palanquin of the Nine Emperor Gods up the stairs, and through the drizzle.
Despite the pouring rain, the enthusiasm and energy of the devotees who awaited the Second Emperor God’s arrival was not diminished in the slightest. As the escorting coach came to a halt, the first to leave the coach was Sam Siang Keng’s kengzu and ritual specialists, who proceeded to ensconce the incense-censer into a niche within the awaiting palanquin. This palanquin was then carried on the shoulders of many volunteers up the staircase that led into the main hall of Sam Siang Keng. Led by a devotee who wielded a massive command flag inscribed with the title of the Nine Emperor Gods, the snaking procession slowly, but steadily, made its way up the slippery stairway. At the top of the stairs were a pair of lion dancers who excitedly greeted the approaching entourage, before stepping aside to allow the procession to pass through the archway of Sam Siang Keng.
Lion dancers welcome the Second Emperor God into the main entrance of Sam Siang Keng.
The Second Emperor God arrives in Sam Siang Keng. Here, the palanquin charges in the temple’s direction thrice. This action symbolically represents three bows from the visiting deity.
Inviting the Second Emperor God into the main altar of Sam Siang Keng.
Sam Siang Keng’s contingent of devotees and volunteers present their thanks to the deities of the temple for ensuring the event’s success.
Once in Sam Siang Keng’s main compound and away from the beating rain, the Second Emperor God was invited to take a tour of the temple’s compound escorted by the kengzu and the three censer-masters. When this was complete, the Second Emperor God was invited to rest in an inner altar. He would remain in the chamber, hidden from the public’s sight, until the ninth day of the occasion, where the deity would be escorted back to his heavenly abode. Devotees, nevertheless, can gaze upon the nine visages of the Nine Emperor Gods through nine images enshrined in front of the inner altar itself. Unlike many other temples of the Nine Emperor Gods where the deities were only worshipped by proxy (that is, through an incense censer), Sam Siang Keng commissioned the nine images of the said-deities in 2010. The Shanghainese sculptor who was coaxed out of retirement was said to be no ordinary person, but one who possessed a means of visualising the Nine Emperor Gods in splendid detail.
Although the temple’s grounds were relatively quiet for the next few days, the number of devotees who arrived to worship the Nine Emperor Gods picked up in the wee hours of the first day of the ninth lunar month. By 4 A.M., a snaking queue of devotees who wished to obtain a command flag from the Nine Emperor Gods had begun to form right in front of the inner altar. An hour later, the queue extended to one of Sam Siang Keng’s side doorways, and the devotee who was first in-line was allowed into the hall to request for a command flag. This starts at 5 A.M. and ends at 10 P.M. daily. To obtain a command flag, one needs to toss a pair of divination blocks before the inner altar. Should an affirmative answer be obtained, a devotee would have the honour of receiving the Nine Emperor Gods’ blessing for the next twelve months, a promise that takes the form of a command flag that was to be hung on the doorframe of one’s home.
Filling an incense censer before the Nine Emperor Gods with sandalwood shavings before devotees were allowed into the compound to request for command flags.
4500 command flags were issued under the authority of the Nine Emperor Gods annually. By the third day of the Festival, the supply of the flags had run out.
Devotees requesting a command flag from the Nine Emperor Gods.
The line of devotees does not stop until all 4500 command flags have been invited home.
Volunteers staffing the counter where command flags were distributed.
These command flags issued by the Nine Emperor Gods were especially valued for their protective powers. There are several stories told relating to the power and efficacy of these flags. In the 1990s, there was a Penangite who volunteered his services at Sam Siang Keng during the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. Unfortunately, his car was stolen, and he lost his only means of transport. He was then soothed by the words of the Nine Emperor Gods, who spoke through their then-spirit medium in Sam Siang Keng. The Nine Emperor Gods promised him that his piety would be rewarded. This Penangite then returned home with one of the Nine Emperor Gods’ command flag after purchasing a second-hand car. Sometime later, the flag fell from its place and landed on the bonnet on his vehicle. He bought a lottery ticket using the license plate number of his car and he became wealthy enough to buy a new car. In gratitude, this Penangite custom-made longevity turtles in his hometown, which he delivered personally to Sam Siang Keng to thank the Nine Emperor Gods’ for their generosity in the following Festival. Till today, the command flags have demonstrated their ability to protect its devotees. During my stint in Sam Siang Keng, I was informed that a devotee’s home was protected from a spate of burglaries that plagued her entire neighbourhood. Like the (un)lucky Penangite, the command flag fell from its place on the night that a robbery was supposed to happen. Miraculously, her home escaped unscathed, even though all of her other neighbours’ homes were broken into.
Concurrent with the requests for command flags from the Nine Emperor Gods was the Bridge Crossing Ceremony. Like the command flags, this ritual secured spiritual protection for its practitioners. Thus, the bridge was positioned directly under the Matriarch of the Dipper’s nine lamps. Just as the Matriarch was informed by the lamps about Sam Siang Keng’s observation of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, her devotees hoped that she could protect them when they crossed the bridge under her ever-watchful eye. The bridge-crossing ritual was thus a ritual of renewal: Devotees entered the bridge at one end, but halted in the middle of the bridge to worship the Matriarch of the Dipper. While they fixed their eyes of the nine lamps and their palms clasped in prayer, one of Sam Siang Keng’s many volunteers would sweep their bodies with joss paper seven times. After descending from the bridge, a seal imprint of the Nine Emperor Gods was pressed into their clothes before the joss paper was burnt. This ink seal symbolises the Nine Emperor Gods’ assurance of future protection, whereas the incinerated joss paper represented the abolition of previous misdeeds and future misfortunes.
Late spirit-medium officiating the Bridge Crossing Ceremony, undated (possibly 1980s-1990s). Photographs courtesy of two anonymous devotees.
The Bridge of Peace and Harmony in Sam Siang Keng.
Devotees ascend the Bridge of Peace and Harmony and getting their bodies swept with joss paper seven times.
Sealing the back of devotees with the Nine Emperor Gods’ seal imprint at the Bridge’s exit.
Pit for incinerating josspaper used during the Bridge Crossing Ceremony.
Packages of joss paper prepared for the Matriarch of the Dipper lamp.
Although the Bridge Crossing Ceremony occurred since the wee hours of the morning, most devotees awaited the consecration ceremony that took place before noon on the first day of the ninth lunar month. Led by a chanting troupe from a Teochew Benevolence Hall, this ritual began with the temple’s leaders and volunteers paying their respects to the Jade Emperor of Heaven and the deities worshipped within Sam Siang Keng.
Lighting the nine oil lamps that would be used for the consecration ceremony on the first day of the Festival.
Bridge Crossing Ceremony led by the kengzu, who wields the command flag of the Matriarch of the Dipper.
Volunteers taking a rest after a long day of conducting the Bridge Crossing Ceremony.
Closing the Bridge after 10 P.M. The Bridge’s opening and closing to participants of the Bridge Crossing Ceremony coincides with the periods when the Matriarch of Dippers’ oil lamps are refilled.
As the pantheon of deities were invited to bear witness on how the temple’s leadership remained committed to meeting the needs of its devotees, Sam Siang Keng’s kengzu and committee members were called to the main hall. There, alongside a few select volunteers, they were presented with nine oil lamps and nine pots of flower water. Led by the kengzu, who heads the procession wielding a command flag issued under the Matriarch of the Dipper’s authority, the congregation repeats a mantra that calls for the absolution of its devotees’ sins for the next thirty minutes. This winding line of devotees and volunteers then moves throughout the whole of Sam Siang Keng, before culminating at the bridge located under the Matriarch of the Dipper’s lamps.
The main censer-master of the year presents offerings to the divinities of Sam Siang Keng during the chanting ceremony on the fifth and sixth days of the Festival.
Altar prepared for the yankou ritual that was held in the evening of the sixth day of the Festival.
Food offerings prepared for the yankou ritual held on the evening of the sixth day of the Festival.
Distributing food offerings and coins at the end of the yankou ritual.
Onlookers await the scattering of coins and foodstuff at the climax of the yankou ritual.
The next few days passed in a blur as devotees from all walks of life worshipped the Nine Emperor Gods hosted in the heart of Sam Siang Keng. From the fifth to sixth days, a Teochew Benevolence Hall was engaged to perform the jiao and salvation rituals on the temple’s behalf. Now that Sam Siang Keng is no longer home to spirit-medium practice, the leaders of this troupe were charged with initiating and concluding the Festival’s key events through the recitation of various sacred texts. Throughout the Festival, these ritual specialists led the year’s censer-masters throughout the already crowded temple to report the day’s happenings to the many divinities that were hosted in Sam Siang Keng. Occasionally, when the presentation of a variety of food and religious ornaments required a larger share of manpower, a select few of Sam Siang Keng’s volunteers and devotees volunteered their help to complete the ritual. On the night of the sixth day of the Festival, the Benevolence Hall’s chanting specialists initiated and led a salvation, where the restless deceased were invited to partake their fill of food offerings specially prepared for them during this occasion. To the delight of children and various onlookers, food offerings and small change were scattered among the (living) audience at the ritual’s climax, which led to a brief rummaging of the temple’s compound for these goodies.
Teochew opera troupe presenting their respects to the divinities of Sam Siang Keng.
Drum performance by Nanfang Daxue’s own troupe of student performers.
In the evenings of the Festival, Sam Siang Keng’s grounds also played host to cultural activities of a mixed variety. Some of these events trace back to the temple’s founding as a site of worship. Since three to four decades ago, a Teochew opera troupe had been engaged annually to perform at the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. Other performances – such as a coordinated drum dance item led by the Nanfang Daxue – were of a relatively recent origin, but they were readily welcomed by Sam Siang Keng on the fourth day of the Festival, another testament to the temple’s willingness to provide an opportunity for young talents to present the fruit of their efforts to the public. They also reflect the willingness of both Sam Siang Keng and schools in Johor Bahru to connect and interact with each other in the preservation of tradition.
Dragon dance performances organised throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods.
Northern lion dance performing under the stars.
Qilin dance troupe performing for the deities on the eighth evening of the Festival.
Performances, to be sure, take on more ritualistic elements as well. Lion dances were essential components to the successful hosting of any Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, and Sam Siang Keng was no exception. These lions would remain a common feature of Sam Siang Keng’s landscape for the duration of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, and their presence remains well-loved by volunteers and devotees alike. Besides lion dances, the temple was also visited by dragon and qilin dance troupes. This year, the dragon dance troupe that performed before the deities hosted in Sam Siang Keng had clinched an international award, and they wowed onlookers with a spectacular display of moves throughout the evening.
Given the scale of feeding many devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods, it is unsurprising that many new friendships were made by the volunteers who staff the kitchens of Sam Siang Keng.
Preparing packages of incense, josspaper and sandalwood powder for the many devotees who throng Sam Siang Keng for the duration of the Festival.
A family of volunteers helps to seal sandalwood powder into little packets.
Age is just a number. During my stay in Sam Siang Keng, I have spoken to many senior devotees who have volunteered their time and effort at the temple for over four decades.
Having said all that, where does all the labour and effort in making the Festival a success come from? Most of the temple’s volunteers come from all walks of life, and they have readily taken time off their busy schedules in order to contribute their labour into making the occasion a success. Some of these devotees were long-time volunteers who had spent over two to three decades at the temple, helping out with the flurry of activities that take place across the two weeks. Others were introduced to the temple by family members and friends. Thus, it is not surprising to see entire families spanning over three generations volunteering at Sam Siang Keng throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. Husbands have been known to drop off their wives at the doorstep of the temple in the morning, before returning to help after office hours in the early evening.
The number of devotees who contribute to the Festival and temple’s upkeep throughout these nine days are staggering. These volunteers had meticulously documented the temple’s funds and donations throughout the occasion.
Volunteers helping to light the many incense sticks that would be lit outside the temple’s compound every night.
‘Fifth Aunty’ (seated right) and fellow volunteers in Sam Siang Keng.
Many happy faces, many happy memories. The author is grateful to the volunteers of Sam Siang Keng for hosting him throughout the entire Festival.
The evening of the sixth day of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods marked one of the Festival’s climaxes. As the Benevolence Hall was performing a salvation ritual in Sam Siang Keng’s compound, two other key rituals were underway in the main hall and the outer edge of the Nine Emperor Gods’ inner altar. The first ritual unique to Sam Siang Keng – which took place in the main hall of the temple – was the placement of paper talismans onto a nail-throne that Sam Siang Keng’s late spirit-mediums once sat upon. Previously, when the Nine Emperor Gods and the temple’s other divinities dictated their advice through spirit-mediums, each spirit-medium would take their turn at resting upon the nail-throne.
Late spirit-medium of the Grand Duke descending from a nail throne impaled with paper talismans, undated. Photograph courtesy of two anonymous devotees.
Impaling paper talismans onto the nail throne during the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, undated. Photograph courtesy of two anonymous devotees.
Assembling the Nail Throne. This was a task that required the cooperation of many long-time volunteers.
Impaling prepared talismans onto the armrests of the Nail Throne.
Impaling paper talismans onto the nail throne in the main hall of Sam Siang Keng. Volunteers who undertake this task must summon their full concentration to avoid scratching themselves by these razor-sharp nails.
The Kengzu installs a Dipper Lamp onto the seat of the nail throne.
The completed nail throne, with paper talismans impaled onto its seat and rests.
To the untrained eye, the nail-throne’s spiked edges marked danger. Yet, to the many divinities who graced Sam Siang Keng, the exposed nails were no different from the embrace of a lotus blossom. By successfully ascending and leaving these nail-thrones without as much as a scratch, these spirit-mediums inspired witnesses to keep their faith in the Nine Emperor Gods’ powers. In the process, the impaled paper talismans were also imbued with these seated divinities’ protective powers. Since Sam Siang Keng no longer hosts spirit-medium practice, the talismans were empowered with protective properties through a different means. Instead of having spirit-mediums physically manifest a deity’s imprint upon the impaled talismans, a dipper lamp was used instead. The entire nail-throne was then moved to a place of honour in the heart of Sam Siang Keng’s main hall, where it would remain until the end of the Festival.
All three censer-masters were charged with the presentation (and selection by proxy) of their successors’ names for the next Festival.
The first vice censer-master takes his turn before the Nine Emperor Gods.
The second vice censer-master tosses a pair of divination blocks before the Nine Emperor Gods.
Concurrent with the impalement of talismans upon the nail-throne was the selection of the censer-masters who would be charged with the Nine Emperor Gods’ care in the upcoming year. This ritual was concurrent with the selection of a hundred toujias (‘bosses’) who would be responsible for volunteering at the temple during the subsequent Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods. To make their decisions known to the temple’s leadership, the Nine Emperor Gods made their selection through the tossing of divination blocks after the name of each aspiring censer-master or toujia was recited. Aspirants who received the largest number of consecutive ‘affirmative’ responses by the Nine Emperor Gods at the conclusion of this ritual were then informed of their positions – and duties – in the coming year.
While the censer-masters and ritual specialists remained occupied within the temple, the Nine Emperor Gods’ boat was assembled by another team of devotees. Photograph courtesy of Tan Wing Cheong.
The finished boat was left just outside of Sam Siang Keng’s main hall for all to worship.
The last two days of the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods climax with a flurry of activity. The eighth day of the Festival observes the birthday of the Matriarch of the Dipper, who, as noted earlier in this essay, is honoured for being the maternal parent of the Nine Emperor Gods and worshipped by devotees for peace and harmony in their lives. To commemorate the occasion, another round of lion and dragon dances were arranged – to the delight of devotees and onlookers – to entertain the temple’s divinities.
Lion dances in the main hall of Sam Siang Keng to commemorate the birthday of the Matriarch of the Dipper.
108 command flags issued under the authority of the Matriarch of the Dipper. Those fortunate enough to receive such flags are allowed to keep them for their lifetime.
The ninth day of the Festival signals the beginning of the Festival’s end. Unlike most temples who perform the sending-off ceremonies for the Nine Emperor Gods after sundown, Sam Siang Keng undertakes the endeavour at noon. To mark the end of the occasion, the entire contingent of devotees and volunteers were invited to participate in a massive disaster-absolving ceremony led by the temple’s leadership and ritual specialists from the visiting Benevolence Hall. Once everyone was gathered in the main hall of the temple, the temple’s leadership presents a penultimate round of compliments to the attending divinities and deities worshipped in the temple. After this round of initiation was complete, nine oil lamps were presented to nine members drawn from the year’s toujia and censer-masters. Together, alongside the kengzu, they will lead the temple’s congregation of devotees and volunteers throughout the entire temple to report the commencement of the disaster-absolving ritual.
The kengzu leads a congregation of devotees in the Disaster Absolving Ritual.
A large crowd was present for the Disaster Absolving Ritual on the ninth day of the Festival.
Installing one of the nine oil lamps into a specially prepared post in the temple’s compound.
Accompanied by the Benevolence Hall’s chanting masters, this was no simple endeavour for the temple was packed to the brim with devotees and volunteers who wished to participate in this final ritual. Thus, the kengzu led a snaking line of worshippers clad in white and yellow throughout the entire temple, where a solemn bow and request for peace and harmony on the behalf of Sam Siang Keng’s devotees were made at different altars. The line eventually extends to outside of the temple’s premises, where the nine oil lamps were installed into waiting steel stands located at different intersections of the compound. Eventually, the line of devotees and worshippers were brought to the metal bridge before undertaking the bridge crossing ceremony under the auspices and protective gaze of the Matriarch of the Dipper and her nine children.
Devotees requesting a talisman from the Nine Emperor Gods.
After everyone was blessed, the heart of activity moved back to the main hall of Sam Siang Keng. Here, the kengzu signalled for the removal of impaled talismans from the nail-throne to begin. Attendees and devotees who happened to be at Sam Siang Keng during this time were given an opportunity to request one of these talismans from the Nine Emperor Gods’ nail throne. Within a tight window of an hour, devotees who managed to make their way to the head of a sinuous queue that weaved itself around the temple reported their addresses, names and age to the Nine Emperor Gods. To those fortunate enough to have secured the Nine Emperor Gods’ approval, an ‘affirmative’ answer was given after a pair of divination blocks were tossed. Like the command flags issued under the authority of the Nine Emperor Gods, these talismans were known for tiding their owners across various crises, be it from unfair court hearings to those who were living at the brink of death.
Returning the Nail Throne into the inner chamber of the temple before the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods officially came to an end.
After a short lunch break, the highlight of the day – the sending-off of the Nine Emperor Gods back to their heavenly abodes – began. First, a life-sized model boat constructed for this purpose was moved by an army of devotees to the open space outside of Sam Siang Keng. Here, the final touches to the vessel were made, where a netting was specially draped over an offering of joss papers were lashed over the boat. Because a short drizzle and windy conditions were expected en route to the coast, the joss papers were painstakingly covered with multiple layers of cling wrap in order to preserve the offerings’ integrity.
With the boat in the background, the devotees and volunteers of Sam Siang Keng align themselves for a final commemorative photograph of the occasion.
Securing the josspaper offerings onto the boat with cling wrap.
Through sheer force of manpower alone, the entire boat was lifted halfway across the temple’s compound and attached to a prepared chain.
Devotees ready themselves for the departure of the Nine Emperor Gods.
Final preparations for the Nine Emperor Gods’ departure were made.
Assembling the palanquin bearers charged with transporting the Nine Emperor Gods from Sam Siang Keng to the coast of Johor Bahru.
Following the boat’s departure from Sam Siang Keng’s compound, the palanquin that would house the Nine Emperor Gods’ return to the coast was moved to the open space outside of Sam Siang Keng. As the assigned time for the Nine Emperor Gods’ departure drew close, the entire temple took on a decidedly-more subdued and solemn tone. By 2 P.M., chatter and idle talk ceased as the temple’s leadership and devotees prepared for the sending-off ceremony. Eventually, the Nine Emperor Gods were invited to leave their inner chamber, an event accompanied by the sounding of bells and gongs to mark the deities’ departure. To mark the end of Sam Siang Keng’s hosting of the divinities, the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense-censer was accompanied by the temples’ kengzu and censer-masters for a final tour of the premises, before the deities were invited to take a seat in the waiting palanquin.
The temple’s leadership ready themselves outside of the inner chamber.
The chairman of Sam Siang Keng pays his respects to the temple’s deities with the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense-censer.
The Nine Emperor Gods leave Sam Siang Keng through the temple’s main archway.
A waiting convoy of lorries, cars and motorcycles belonging to devotees and volunteers alike escorted the Nine Emperor Gods to the beach.
With much fanfare, the Nine Emperor Gods marked the end of their stay in Sam Siang Keng with a final tour of the compound under the leadership of the Matriarch of the Dipper, who was represented by her command flag. Accompanied by ceremonial brass gongs, embroidered canopies and various ritual paraphernalia, the palanquin was loaded up a truck, and the journey seaward began.
Devotees and volunteers arrive at the coast of Johor Bahru.
Devotees and volunteers fall to their knees as the kengzu invites the Nine Emperor Gods to disembark from their palanquin.
Under the lead of the Matriarch of the Dipper’s command flag, the Nine Emperor Gods were led on a final tour around the beach.
Devotees waiting at the pier to send the Nine Emperor Gods back to their heavenly abodes.
At the coast of Johor Bahru overlooking Danga Bay was a waiting congregation of devotees and volunteers. The Nine Emperor Gods – still seated within their covered palanquin – toured the vicinity under the command flag of the Matriarch of the Dipper. After three circuits around the beach, the Nine Emperor Gods were bid farewell by Sam Siang Keng’s leadership and devotees. As the temple’s leadership and attending opera troupe made a final petition to the Nine Emperor Gods for gracing Sam Siang Keng for their presence throughout the entire Festival, the rest of the temple’s volunteers prepared to push the awaiting ritual boat into the sea. In no time, the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense-censer was installed into a specially prepared niche within the boat, and the ship was towed into open waters, accompanied by the temple’s leadership and censer-masters. Have the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense censer been found after the deities were returned to their heavenly planes? Rarely, but yes. Many years back, a devotee found one such censer off the coast of Johor Bahru. After he verified its provenance with Sam Siang Keng, he enshrined it within his shop and his business subsequently boomed.
Preparing to push the boat for the Nine Emperor Gods’ incense-censer into the sea.
Towing the boat into the open sea.
Sending the Nine Emperor Gods back to their heavenly abodes.
Group photograph at the beach of Johor Bahru to mark the occasion’s completion.
Once the boat had reached the open sea, the boat’s many paper offerings were set alight. Within a short span of time, the conflagration built up, and flames began licking the sides of the boat from within. Within half an hour, what was left of the burning boat was a charred frame. This signalled the end of the Festival, for the Nine Emperor Gods have returned home. As devotees and volunteers left the coast for home, they carry with them mixed sentiments. On the one hand, they were reluctant to leave behind newly-forged and/or rekindled friendships throughout the occasion. On the other hand, they know that the Nine Emperor Gods – when reciprocated with the same amount of sincerity and faith lavished upon them this year – would return to grace Sam Siang Keng with their presence once again. In slightly-less than a year, the cycle of activity would repeat itself, where Sam Siang Keng would bustle with activity and worshippers from all walks of life once again.
The author with some of Sam Siang Keng’s volunteers and devotees. Photograph courtesy of Tan Chuan Chong.
First and foremost, I would like to thank the committee, volunteers and devotees of Sam Siang Keng for hosting me throughout the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods in 2019. This photo essay would not have been possible without their invaluable assistance and willingness to initiate me into countless oral histories, photographs and artefacts in their possession. Special thanks go to two anonymous devotees, Ms. Connie Tay, Mr. Tan Wing Cheong and Mr. Tan Chuan Chong for allowing me to archive and use their personal collection of photographs to compile this photo essay. Similarly, I am thankful to Mr. Tan Wing Cheong for proofreading an earlier draft of this manuscript, and Mr. Lau Heng Choon for introducing me to Sam Siang Keng’s community. Likewise, I am grateful to Professor Koh Keng We, who encouraged me to undertake this project while supporting my research with his valuable insights. Also, I wish to thank Siah Jin Kim and Sung Chang Da for assisting me with this manuscript’s translation. Finally, I am grateful to Ernest Koh for taking the time to format and upload this photo essay within such short notice.