A Temple To A New Year

The main gate of the Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The main gate of the Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor.

An tight, expectant buzz hung over Telok Ayer Street this New Year’s afternoon–which also happened to be the eleventh day of the eleventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar and the date on which the newly-refurbished Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple of Heavenly Jade Emperor was to be opened to the public. The 170-year-old monument, having recently been renamed and having completed her facelift in December, seemed to take on a regal demeanour that day as she sat before the crowds above a table laden with offerings to numerous deities. Her door, festooned with an opulent red ribbon, was closed, only to be opened on very special occassions. Taoist priests in their flowing blue and black robes mingled with and slid in between special guests in white Chinese tops as well as ordinary on-lookers, engaged in a frenzy of activity as greetings and signals were exchanged before the start of the temple’s official consecration to the fiftieth anniversary of modern Singapore’s independence.

At the emcees’ announcement of the first phase of the ceremony, there was a collective perking-up of the assembly. Spectators (and some priests) brandishing cameras and smartphones surged towards the other end of the street as a cacophony of cymbals and drums erupted onto the road. Lions in bright hues of yellow, green and orange made a collective series of bows to the side gates before bounding away with wild energy, while a red-and-white dragon followed with vigorous cartwheels in his never-ending chase of his pearl. Soon after, they stilled, to make way for the procession of priests standing at attention to perform the rites that would bestow good luck upon the temple.

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Solemnly, silently, the procession of priests and musicians in their colourful, resplendent garments proceeded to the end of the road where the lion dancers had gone. At an almost imperceptible signal they started their slow march towards the main gate of the temple, each step as measured as the next. Seeing them, next to the on-lookers with all their vestiges of modernity, made me consciously aware of the mingling of old and new, tradition and progress, that underpins the essence of this island and yet continues to give strength to the veins of Chinese tradition that seemed to run through the members of the procession that day.

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Master Lee Zhiwang (left, in maroon) of the Taoist Mission giving the signal for the procession to begin.

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Musicians on the transverse flute and the sheng (vertical pipes).

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Eminent priests bringing wooden ruyi (Chinese sceptres) to the temple’s main gate.

The procession reached the main gate of the temple. A taut silence ensued. With the same wordless grace, the members of the procession spread out as the five most senior priests in purple took their positions before the table of offerings. The musicians intoned a throaty chant to the beat of metal cymbals and a muyu (‘wooden fish’, a Chinese percussion instrument). The crowd watched breathlessly, some with palms placed together before their faces in deep reverence. The most eminent priests, denoted by the golden ornaments on their headpieces, raised long thick joss sticks billowing with smoke before their faces in moments of intense devotion, before leading the others in bowing and standing again in a show of respect to the gods. One of the priests received a rectangular wooden board from an attendant and held it out in front of him, his sleeves billowing on either side of him like the wings of a bird. He then proceeded to bless the temple in circular, waltzing steps. Perhaps, I thought, he was waltzing for the deities themselves.

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A chorus of musicians stood at both ends of the offering table.

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Towards the end of the ceremony, a petition written on yellow paper and wrapped around a metal frame was burnt under the solemn gazes of the senior priests, sending wishes for prosperity skywards. I left that afternoon with the chorus of the procession ringing in my ears, and the pulse of tradition and religion brought alive by the ceremony feeling it was still pounding through my heart.

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