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A deity ‘instructs’ a Chinese temple’s devotees to build a boat and load evil spirits on it. Why?
IF predictions for the year of the Black Water Dragon are to be believed, we may have to brace ourselves for calamaties such as earthquakes and tsunamis. In light of this, the grand Wangkang (Royal Barge) festival which will take place in Malacca tomorrow could not be more timely.
This time-honoured Chinese festival will see a majestic wooden barge sweep on board all the bad luck and evil spirits from the city’s historic streets before the boat is dragged to the seafront and burnt off ... into the great beyond.
The ceremonial sedan chair that will carry the Tee Ong Yah deity during the Wangkang procession.
The name Wangkang itself is a unique Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya mix of Chinese and Malay words – wang (emperor or royal) and kang (short fortongkang or barge).
“The year is said to be beset by calamities. Moreover, this is a leap lunar year with a double fourth month, which is considered less auspicious,” explains Lai Poon Ken, 59, the festival’s organising chairman.
“By sending away all evil forces, we believe this ceremony will benefit Malacca and the whole country as well. We were told by our temple’s deity, Tee Ong Yah, that we should hold it this year,” adds this chartered accountant and businessman who once worked in England.
A deity directly giving instructions to its devotees? This is not the only revelation about the Wangkang event. Another surprise is that many of the organisers are English-educated Chinese Malaysians.
Before getting into that, more on the festival tomorrow, which is Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of Chinese New Year. This may be the best time to visit this heritage city, as a piece of history comes alive in all its glory. To get an idea of its historical pedigree, the Wangkang of 1933 had an estimated 100,000 people of all races coming in steamer ships, trains, cars and bullock carts to witness the procession in Malacca. As noted in the (Singapore) Straits Times then, every available bed in town was taken and hundreds slept in the open, while all Chinese houses were decorated with red lanterns/cloths.
The festival was held to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and whether by coincidence or otherwise, there was a subsequent rise in rubber prices.
Huge crowds were in Malacca to witness the Wangkang festival of 1919.
According to the late Dr Tan Seng Tee, as recorded in the Malacca Guardian newspaper (Nov 26, 1933), Wangkangs have been organised during troubled times such as in 1905 (the Russian-Japanese war and the Chinese boycott of American goods) and 1919 (when a global flu epidemic broke out after World War I).
Dr Tan took part in the rituals himself in 1905 and remembered how the costumes were decorated with gold and diamonds, and cost from 500 to 10,000 Straits dollars – princely sums in those days.
In Malacca, the festival was first held, as far as Dr Tan could trace, in 1846, and then took place every five or eight years. It was stopped in 1880 but revived in 1891 during an outbreak of virulent cholera. After Dr Tan’s time, the festival was dormant for 68 years before it was revived in 2001 during the height of the SARS epidemic which jeopardised tourism in Malacca.
According to Dr Soo Khin Wah from the Department of Chinese Studies, Universiti Malaya, the Wangkang customs were brought to Malacca by Hokkien migrants who were fleeing persecution during the Qing or Manchu Dynasty (1644 to 1911)in China. In the Chiang Chew and Chuan Chew districts of Fujianprovince, China, five deities or Ong Yahs with the surnames Choo, Hoon, Tee, Lee and Pek (in order of seniority) were worshipped.
When the Hokkiens brought their deities to Malacca, the locals came to regard them as their patron saints.
“In dire times when pestilences or other calamities threatened, they invoked the help of the Ong Yahs,” Soo explains. The fact that the deities have surnames indicates that they were once human.
“The term Ong Yah can also mean the Emperor’s district representative,” explains Lai. “Sometimes people will scold: Lu si Ong Yah meh? It’s like saying: Are you a Little Napoleon?”
One legendary origin of the Ong Yahs, as recounted by Dr Tan in theMalacca Guardian, has it that during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), the emperor wanted to test the powers of a Taoist high priest. And so, as 360 scholars were playing music in his palace, the priest sprinkled some rice and salt on the floor and struck it with his magic sword, severing all the scholars’ heads.
That very night, the indignant souls appeared before the emperor and demanded their lives back from him. Following the intervention of the Heavenly Jade Emperor, the earthly ruler canonised the restless souls as Ong Yahs, declaring that wherever they went, they would be worshipped. And, as fable has it, five of the 360 went to the two aforementioned districts of Fujian province where they became deities.
After sifting through the myths, what is real to the devotees in Malacca are the deities’ (supposed) supernatural powers. The Wangkang organising committee is based at the Yong Chuan Tian temple in Bandar Hilir (now known as Jalan Parameswara) which houses Tee Ong Yah. This is the third of the five deities, but he is considered to be the leader who sits in the middle.
The temple’s official name means “the court of perfect bravery” but the feats of the deity are such that the place is more commonly known in Malacca as Ong Yah Kong, or simply, Ong Yah’s temple.
Three times a week, people come to consult the deity about their problems. And how does the deity answer? An Astro documentary on the temple shows a strange force seemingly “possessing” a small sacred chair (which is held by two people) and moving it all over a special table with a rubberised surface.
The chair’s movements mimic the strokes of Chinese characters which are promptly deciphered by a dou tau (table chief). At times, the chair hits the table so violently that the assistants’ hands are injured. Ah, so the rubber makes sense.
“We’ve replaced a few broken chairs,” says Lai.
Soh Boon Chye, 40, the tua ching or temple’s chief of ceremonial rites, explains: “Those holding the chairs do not go into a trance; the deity moves the chair and the holders just follow the force.”
The spiritual army protecting the Royal Barge in its shipyard are represented by these horses which are ‘fed’ with live grass.
And so, this is how the deity directed the temple committee to organise the Wangkang.
Lai relates: “Ong Yah told us not just the date for the festival but everything else too, like when to start work, how big the boat should be, and where to set up the shipyard.”
When the deity is not busy “writing”, he will be directing his healing energy – via gentle movements of the chair – to the temple’s supplicants.
Dr Soo from Universiti Malaya says that Tee Ong Yah, a deity distinguished by his distinct black face, has been remarkably successful in curing people, thus making the temple increasingly popular among worshippers.
Surprisingly, the spirit-inspired chair was a lost tradition at the temple until Soh was contacted by some people from Brunei out of the blue.
“There is a temple there with the same Ong Yah who told the Brunei devotees to come to the Malacca temple to look for someone with my surname,” recalls this sales manager.
When they met, Soh was told that he had been “chosen” to revive the Ong Yah’s ancient customs.
“Some people may think we are putting on an act. When I went to Brunei in 2001, I also had doubts. When I first held the chair, it didn’t move at all for an hour. Instead, some kind of force caused my head, arms and legs to move uncontrollably until I was sweating all over and almost had cramps. Later, when the force moved the chair, I tried to stop my hands from following it, but couldn’t.”
The gilted entrance of the main hall of the Yong Chuan Tian temple.
Blessings and taboos
As I was taken around Malacca by the committee members to the other deities’ temples, I came to realise how history was so near, yet so far, for the average visitor. Of the five Ong Yahs, two of them (with the surnames Hoon and Lee) have temples at Malacca’s central artery of Jonker Walk, yet all the tourist action is at the pasar malam selling cheap handicrafts from Bali and Thailand.
In this sense, the celebration of the Wangkang is a reaffirmation that there is much more depth to Malacca’s heritage than just food and shopping.
The Royal Barge itself is 6m long with a 7.6m high mast. Made of merbau timber and five-layered plywood, it took three months to build at a cost of RM80,000.
“The man who led the team was a mosaic layer with no experience in building boats,” says Lai. “He could do it, thanks to inspiration from the Ong Yah.”
Every step was instructed by the deity. For instance, between 7am and 9am on the 14th day of the 8th lunar month of the last Rabbit Year, they were to begin construction with the erection of a koh teng (high lamp) on a 15.8m high bamboo pole, and install the koon chong and ngoh hong, the generals and armies guarding the Wangkang shipyard, which lies behind the main Ong Yah temple.
On the 23rd day of the 11th lunar month, a ritual sampan was used to collect water from the legendary Hang Li Po well at the Poh San Teng temple next to Bukit Cina.
“The water was put in a pail; half of it was for devotees to drink while the other half was placed on the boat,” says Soh.
On the same day, a gold nail was fixed to the boat by two unmarried devotees born in the year of the Dragon and the Tiger. In a nod to modernity, Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam officially launched the festival website (www.yongchuantian.com) on Dec 11 last year.
On Chap Goh Meh tomorrow, teams of devotees will put their hands on a special 108-foot (32.9m) long rope and pull the boat (on a wheeled platform) all over the city. “Everybody can help out to share in the merits,” notes Soh.
The plans for the procession seem more like a majestic flotilla, as the Royal Barge will be accompanied by five smaller boats, as well as cultural troupes such as dragon and lion dancers, stilt walkers, aChingay group (which will carry huge flags acrobatically) and over 100 musicians from various temples.
The five Ong Yahs will be the focus of attention, as they are carried around in elaborate sedan chairs by devotees. The black-faced statue of Tee Ong Yah from the Yong Chuan Tian temple, will be joined by the eldest of the five deities, the Choo Ong Yah from the Kandang Temple (on the outskirts of town) and three more Ong Yahs from other temples.
“The procession will start at 7.30am from our temple and go around town the whole day, stopping at 15 key junctions,” explains Lai. “We will perform ceremonies where all evil spirits and influences will be ordered to get on the boat, upon the command of the san junn hau lin or the spiritual warriors of heaven, earth and sea.”
Under the force: Soh Boon Chye (left), chief of ceremonial rites, and Chua Sek Tiong demonstrating how the Tee Ong Yah deity communicates by causing a sacred chair to move and form Chinese characters.
In the Wangkangs of 1933 and earlier, the boat was accompanied through town by a barefooted crew called the Chai Lian, who would sing a sacred song while making paddling motions with ornamental oars. However, this tradition could not be revived.
“We know the words of the song,” says Lai. “But we are not sure of the tune and the exact rites. Nobody dares to try it out for fear of getting it wrong.”
Instead, five Taoist high priests from Muar will be leading the cleansing rites. They will also be accompanied by mediums, some of whom may have their cheeks or tongues pierced with metal rods, in a manner similar to the rites of Thaipusam (which falls the very next day on Feb 7).
Daniel Ang, 42, a Baba businessman whose ancestors were actively involved in the festival, recalls a traditional pantang (taboo).
“If anyone were to mock or make fun of the boat as it goes through the streets, he may become mute. I was brought up to respect the Wangkang. It’s a very sacred event and we should not play the fool with it.”
The climax will see the boat – and its load of evils – being hauled to the sea at Pulau Melaka where it will be set alight and perish in a huge bonfire.
Lai advises: “When the boat is burning, people are advised to go away and not look back.”
Whatever our beliefs may be, turning our backs on bad luck and evil must surely be the right thing to do in 2012.