The Nine Emperor Gods Festival: Community and Communitas

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is a nine-day festival, held annually from the last week of the eighth lunar month to the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. This festival is one of the most important religious events for the Taoist community in Southeast Asia, and is widely celebrated in countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. The festival is celebrated by more than fifteen temples in Singapore each year. One of these temples is the Charn Mao Hern Kiu Huang Keng. Every year, the former residents of the old village of Charn Mao Hern, their descendants, as well as new devotees and helpers, will gather to celebrate the festival, and the temple will visit the praying stations in eastern Singapore. 

 

On the first day of the festival, the devotees gather along the shores of East Coast Park to wait for the arrival of the palanquins and the temple entourage from Charn Mao Hern Kiu Huang Keng –for the commencement of the receiving ceremony (“请水仪式 qing shui yi shi” in Mandarin). 

 

“Stand-by!” rallied one of the temple volunteers as the lorries carrying the sedan chairs and the receiving contingent from the temple arrives in the carpark. 

 

The drummers signal for the lion dancers and musicians to start. Accompanied by the rhythmic and deafening clashing of gongs, the entourage enters the designated ritual area at the beach, usually demarcated by yellow strings tied around coconut trees or bamboo poles. The ceremony is initiated by a priest who calls upon the Nine Emperor Gods to bestow his presence while devotees pray fervently with a joss stick in their hands. When the priest gives the signal, the designated team will carry the sacred urn into the sea until about waist-deep to conduct the inviting ritual, before making their way back to the main ritual area. After the initiation and invitation ceremony, the palanquins carrying the holy artefact (usually an urn) containing the Nine Emperor Gods continue to sway vigorously while the carriers attempt to depart from the coast, and back to the temple. 

 

“In the past, the palanquin bearers will run all the way back to the temple!” remarks one member of the temple committee. 

 

 

Back in the old kampong (“village” in Malay) days, palanquin bearers would run on foot to transport the palanquins back to the temple located at Lemongrass kampong (Charn Mao Hern, near present-day Paya Lebar). However, with road safety concerns and regulations, palanquins and the entourage are now transported to and from the temple via lorries and chartered buses. 

Fast-forward to the sixth day of the festival. In the past, devotees would set up a simple altar outside their houses, awaiting the Nine Emperor Gods’ arrival while the palanquins paraded (yew keng in Mandarin) around the kampong. Times have changed since the 1980s with urban redevelopment and the construction of high-rise public housing, and the relocation of the kampong inhabitants to the new estates. 

Now, Charn Mao Hern Kiu Huang Keng continues this tradition of kampong yew keng with a twist. The yew keng entourage and the Nine Emperor Gods will tour participating neighbourhoods in palanquins carried by the palanquin bearers to bless his devotees. 

This is a collaborative effort between the temple and the guardians of the incense vessels (organizers of the praying stations, also known as “迎神站 ying shen zhan” in Mandarin) to ensure the continuity of this tradition. The ingenious adaptation of the tradition, now colloquially known as yew HDB, draws curious devotees, observers and old kampong residents together. Yew HDB originally included visitations to Bedok, Eunos, Sims Drive, and Haig Road. Through these tours of the HDB heartlands, the temple reconnects with the ex-kampong residents while expanding its support base. 

Over the years, Singapore’s policies have made it increasingly challenging for the temple committee and respective vessel guardians to set up praying stations and organize yew HDB. As the stations are led by individuals and their households or a group of small families and organizations, the bureaucratic paperwork required to obtain permits, the difficulty in raising funds and the lack of volunteers can be very challenging. They all contribute to the uncertainty of the continuity of these praying stations in the future. Nevertheless, the temple has been working with these stations to ensure the involvement of younger members of the community. 

 

The festival is manifested through a welter of cultural, economic, and social forces. Through the transformation of the praying stations, one can infer the limitations and constraints that the community faces in preserving this tradition. There is also an additional challenge presented by the deteriorating knowledge of dialects (and even of Mandarin), as well as Chinese culture, among the young. The participation of youth and young adults to expose them to the festival and their understanding of the culture and traditions underlying these practices will be important for the future preservation of the festival. 

While the state believes that religious practices are important to Singapore’s development, state policies continue to shape the spaces, practices and materiality of Chinese religion, and consequently, affect the continuity of religious festivals that lay at the heart of these beliefs and practices. Through promoting an understanding of these festivals and their significance for building community, history, and culture and national identity, the hope is that the festival continues to be an important segment of Singapore’s diverse cultural and social landscape. 

This photo-essay is written by Charis Cho from Nanyang Technological University. 

About the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore 

This photo essay is based on research done by students from the History Programme based in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. With aims to be one of the leading centres of historical scholarship on modern and contemporary Asia, NTU History is dedicated to understanding and teaching modern history from a global perspective. Comprising young, dynamic scholars within the School of Humanities, the faculty is committed to training students to not only think critically but also to apply interdisciplinary methods to identify and address contemporary problems from historical perspectives. Visit https://soh.ntu.edu.sg/Programmes/history for more information.

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Nine Emperor Gods Festival

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is an annual nine-day Taoist festival that involves a personal regime of abstinence for the devotees and practitioners alike.

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