Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods, Singapore: 

The Gods & Their Magical Wild Rocking Chairs 

one of Singapore's most unusual religious festivals

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore   weecheng.com

This website is dedicated to T.E.T., whose patience, resourcefulness and enthusiasm, enabled me to witness this spectacular festival & many others in this wonderful year.




The Prelude

The Ceremony

The Send-Off

The Opera


“Tian Gong Wan Sui! Wan! Tian Gong Wan Sui! Wan!” the men in white t-shirts shouted at the top of their voices, “Long Live The Heavenly Lords! Ten Thousand Years To The Heavenly Lords!  Long Live Prosperity!”  The huge red, richly ornamented sedan chairs they were carrying rocked and jerked wildly, sideways, forward and backwards, as though a giant was jumping inside to crazy heavy metal music.  But all everyone could see in each sedan was the serene statue of a Chinese god, complete with joss sticks and sacred inscriptions.  The followers of the Taoist Jiu Huang Ye Sect (or Sect of the Nine Emperor Gods) believe that these sedan chairs were possessed by the Nine Emperor Gods on their annual birthday visits to Earth, and the unusually massive swings could not be anything but the manifestations of the powers of these deities who, through their extraordinary capabilities, had possessed the sedan chairs and their carriers.  Indeed, I was amazed by these dramatic swings and movements of the rather heavy sedan chairs, which although carried by four men, were heavy enough to discourage any activity of the type one sees at a rock concert.

The Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods is one of the most exotic folk festivals in Singapore, and yet one that is hardly publicised and known even to most Singaporeans.  Although 50% of Singaporeans are followers of Taoism and Buddhism, this festival is mostly celebrated by devotees of the Jiu Wang Yeh Sect at a few suburban temples, the more popular of which is the Kiu Ong Yiah Temple (“Nine Emperor Gods Temple”; also known as "Dou Mu Gong" in pinyin Chinese) on Upper Serangoon Road.   

Taoism is the ancient indigenous religion of China, its ideas first propagated and written down by Zhou Dynasty philosopher, Laozhi, 2500 years ago.  Taoism gave the world concepts of ying and yang, and Taoists believe in the importance of harmony between people, and between human and nature.  In addition to the philosophy of life and death as well as morality and nature, an extensive pantheon of gods and demigods exists in Taoism.  The Sect of the Jiu Huang Ye is dedicated to the nine sons of Tien Hou or Queen of Heaven (also known as Tou Mu, the Goddess of the North Star), believed to be in control of the Books of Life and Death.  Her nine sons, known as the Nine Emperor Gods, are worshipped as patrons of prosperity, wealth and good health on their own right, especially in Fujian and Guangdong Provinces in southern China, a region also known for its ancient sacred rites of spirit mediumship.   

Southern China was once the land of the Min and Yue tribal kingdoms, whose inhabitants were experts in magic, spells, and the art of communication with the dead, spirits and Gods.  Fujian and Guangdong were incorporated into the Chinese Empire during the Qin and Han dynasties 2000 years ago, and in the following millennia, its indigenous culture combined with that of the Taoist Han Chinese settlers from the North.  The result is a hybrid, exuberant mix with a rich spiritual as well as architectural and gastronomical heritage that is evident in southern China today.  With the emigration of the Fujian (or Hokkien) and Guangdong (also known as Cantonese) peoples to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world during the last three hundred years, these mystical manifestation of communication between the man and the mysterious divine spread with the Diaspora to other parts of the world. 

Here in modern Singapore where 80% of the ethnic Chinese population is of Fujian and Guangdong descent, these ancient traditions lurk behind the jungle of skyscrapers and state-of-the-art automated subway systems.  Away from the glass towers of investment banks and endless miles of shopping malls, in the relaxed suburb of Upper Serangoon where locals still drink traditional Singapore style coffee on marble tables under old turning fans, a small crumbling temple built over a century ago is the Mecca of the Jiu Huang Ye Sect in Singapore.  Brightly embroidered banners proclaimed the miraculous powers of the Nine Emperor Gods and their Mother, Dou Mu, amongst scared icons of these Taoist saints.  On an average day, however, the temple was quiet, with an occasional worshipper or two, praying for a better fortune in the next lottery bet, or swift recovery from illness.  

The Kiu Ong Yiah Temple came alive the first week of October, on the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, when it was transformed into a carnival ground of colourful folk culture and religious piety.  Nine days before that, on the supposed birthday of the Nine Emperor Gods, the deities were received by temple elders and devout worshippers with great pomp and ceremony on the banks of a river that flows into the South China Sea.  Worshippers of Jiu Huang Ye Sect believe that the Nine Emperor Gods visit the worshippers every year on this day for nine days, and during the duration of the visit, the Gods have to be entertained with traditional opera and dances.  It was also an occasion to declare one’s religious devotion and piety so that wishes and favours would be granted for the coming year.  

As such, the temple becomes the site of this almost mediaeval and spectacular display of traditional arts and religious affirmation.  For nine days, traditional Hokkien opera was staged, with ancient classical tales of old China performed by actors and actresses dressed in the most colourful costumes and ornamentation.  Devotees visited the temple in droves, countless joss sticks large and small lit up, and the smell of incense pervaded the entire compound.  The climax was reached on the ninth day, when the Gods were to be entertained for the final time around the temple, with proper tribute made by the worshippers, before being sent off at the river where they first “arrived”.  Hundreds of worshippers – most of them had become vegetarians for nine days in a row - packed the small temple grounds.  Only vegetarians were allowed into the inner compound, and for the privilege, we became vegetarian for the day, as a half-way measure, which a joss stick seller at the temple said was good enough.  Brightly coloured banners, red lanterns, joss sticks, and giant candles were seen everywhere.  These were tough times in Singapore.  SARS, global terrorism, job instability and rising costs of living probably weighed heavy in the worshippers’ minds.  Perhaps the Nine Emperor Gods would bring a better year to come, or better luck at work or in love.  Whatever it was, the Gods needed to be entertained so that wishes would be fulfilled.  

Loud drums and gongs beat while ancient Taoist texts were read.  The yellow robed Taoist priest asked the Gods for permission to bring them to the sedan chairs.  “Invite” is the word, they said.  The Gods gave their permission through secret signs only recognised by priests and those with the privileged sight.  One by one, the idols of the Gods were brought out of the temple and placed in the sedan chairs, to the beat of blue-dressed musicians with their bizarre mix of traditional Chinese and Western instruments.  The devotees knelt and prayed fervently with their joss ticks.  Some even kowtowed as the sacred statues were carried out.  

Then the heavy sedan chairs were each lifted by four devotees in white t-shirts.  The worshippers shouted “Tian Gong Wan Sui! Tian Gong Wan Sui!” as the sedan chairs were carried around the temple compound.  As sudden as it was bizarre, the sedan chairs began to jerk and rock wildly in every direction, while the carriers struggled to keep a balance.  It all looked as though it was some superhuman force within the chairs that were manoeuvring around, instead the men carrying the them.  The nine entourages – every set comprising a sedan chair and four men carrying it – charged round the compound stopping at the opera stage and every altar, with the chairs rocking madly, sometimes charging forward, sometimes backward or even sideways.  The pilgrims chanted loudly and bowed with joss sticks.  Even the opera artists appeared in their magnificent costumes and joss sticks on hand, bowing to the Gods.  Dragon and lion dancers performed their glorious tributes to the Gods, to the deafening beats of drums, crashing of the gongs and smashing of the cymbals, added to the already vibrating, electrifying atmosphere.  It was pure madness!   To the believers, the Gods were merely displaying their powerful ability to “possess” the sedan chairs as well as their carriers.  And more importantly, the Gods needed to be entertained!

After the hour long “tour” around the temple compound, the Gods made it known (again in mysterious ways that I neither witness nor comprehend) that they were ready to set off for home.  The temple was emptied and everybody began a procession along Upper Serangoon Road northwards Sengkang on the northern coast.  The “possessed” sedan chairs continued their wild rocking on the procession while hundreds of devotees marched behind with joss sticks raised high, accompanied by traditional musical bands as well as Chinese lion and dragon dancers, the latter winding down the road with their bamboo-and-cloth dragon more than twenty meters long.  Other worshippers drove along in their car windows wound-down, joss sticks raised high.  The group continued for a kilometre or so before they got on buses and trucks for an express transit to Sengkang. 

The final send-off ceremony was held at Sengkang, by the grassy banks of Sungei Serangoon, a river winding like a dragon towards South China Sea.  Here, a few thousand have gathered for an ancient ritual with its roots stretching back to more than 2000 years in a distant China, while the bright lights of modern Singapore’s endless sprawl of skyscrapers provided an amazing contrast.  The boisterous sounds of the drums and gongs as well as the roaring horns welcomed the arrival of the Gods in their sedan chairs.  Once again, the Gods were carried in their sedan chairs around the grounds in the usual way, although it might well looked as though the Gods were actually carrying the men than the other way around, given the mad rocking and swinging that have continued unabated for the last three hours.  One by one, the sacred statues were dismounted from the chairs (which suddenly became strangely still for this ritual) and placed onto an altar on a huge raised platform. 

I got onto the platform to have a closer shot of the statue, but was stopped by a temple elder, “Are you vegetarian?”  

“Yes, for today.” 

“But I can’t let you up anyway… official safety regulations.  We can’t allow more than twenty men up here.”  Well, this is modern Singapore after all.  Public and fire safety regulations count, even for an ancient ceremony. 

Half an hour of prayers were conducted while the devotees knelt and chanted.  The skies paid their tribute through light drizzling and thunder strikes across the horizon, or at least that was what the devotees believed.  It was said that thunderstorms occurred every year without fail, during these ceremonies, although the more sceptical ones would say the rainy season was approaching anyway. 

The auspicious hour came around midnight, as huge candles lit up the compound.  As the rain became heavier and cold winds howled, a torch of fire representing the Sacred Spirit of the Gods was carried from the altar and down the embankment of the river onto a little raft.  The crowd knelt again, in deep prayers, while the cymbals crashed.  The Taoist priest made the final chant and the horns were blown.  Then the brightly lit raft was released and began its gentle float down the river.  The devoted made their final wishes and watched the raft flowed towards the open seas.  Before long, the torch disappeared on the horizon, either the fire had been extinguished by the rain, or that it was too far to observe its movement down the river.  The skyscraper lights blinked in the rain, now pouring heavier by the second.  Everyone’s getting drenched despite umbrellas.  The Gods have left for now, until the same time, same place, next year.  May all the wishes come true and a better year ahead for all.

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Copyright - Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore, 2003