Category Archives: Background Information

Sharing the fun and the blogs and the photo tips!

Today is a sharing day.  The joy in this photo has to bring a smile to your face!  Was everyone having as much fun as we were?

I haven’t been to the Ampang temple for two days but I can tell by the posts out there that a few of you have been!

Blogger Sean Liew shot some video at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple yesterday.  Day 2 is a very fun day that includes an evening procession to invite the Finance Minister to the temple.  Check out the post here:

I was in JB yesterday at the Sam Sieng Keng Temple for their Nine Emperor Gods celebration. Check out their Facebook Page here.  I will post some photos from my visit there soon.  Meanwhile you can check out Nat Geo photographer Justin Guariglia’s photo of the lovely Taoist priestess at the Sam Sieng Temple.  Then you can see mine tomorrow!

If you are looking for more info on the festival and some good photo tips from a pro, TV Smith shares his wisdom on his blog

And here is another good photographer (Tennyson) posting some photos.  You should have a look.

A young photographer, Oh Bengkooi just sent me two face book albums, so have a look here and here.

And please send me a link to your photos and stories.  It’s like the lucky money in the ang pow – use it to buy rice, share the rice with friends, and your luck will grow.


Travelling with Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong Street, Penang


Let’s start with a photo of the Hong Kong St Temple leaving for the procession in Air Hitam (Farlim Temple) on Saturday evening. It’s been a goal/dream of mine to ride in a lion dance truck at Chinese New Year.  But this might be better.  I got to ride with Tow Pek Gong (can you see his beard blowing in the wind?), the beating drums and symbols, two awakened lions up front, and a group of guys who wanted to look very serious when I took their photo.  Here’s the view out the front, with the yellow boat in the truck leading the way along Lebuh Kimberly.The procession was great fun too.  Farlim temple sits up on a hill and I slogged up there when we first arrived to see some mediums being skewered with what I like to call “the Penang-style” implements.  Could they be a little longer!?  These guys are brave.  Later on the parade route, this guy was actually trying to smile for the camera.At one point during the procession, one of these mediums was doing a twirling action with firecrackers on the end of the skewer, like the one pictured here, and the string of firecrackers flew off and in to the crowd!  That’s crazy!I also wanted to share this photo of Kow Ong Yah, whom I hadn’t encountered in Penang in the first few days of the festival.  There is a lot more of the Tow Boh/Duo Mou worship in Penang along with the gods that I am learning come with that.  I was pleased as punch to see him and it reminded me of my good friends in Ampang and all the fun they must be having.  This really is how I like to see him!  An apparition.The procession was a good hike for the team from Hong Kong St who carried the Emperor’s yellow boat for the 8 km procession route.  We were all pretty tired by the time we got back into the trucks, and the ride home was almost surreal.  One of the lions even decided to sleep.There are so many events happening for the Nine Emperor Gods festival in Penang that I can’t possibly come close to providing a schedule for all of the temples. We are getting ready for the send off on Wednesday evening, that much I know.  Many of the temples will be making their way to the sea to send off the Emperor in a joyous mingling of fire and water.  There will be a lot of rituals and prayers at the Hong Kong St temple for the last few days of the festival, mainly in the evening.  Stay tuned.

Visits to Jelutong and Noordin St Nine Emperor God Temples

I visited two nearby temples yesterday to note some similarities and differences from the Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St temple. First off, I noticed that both of these temples use the Chinese Junk as their symbol. This of course conjures up images of Fujian sea farers and their migration to the Malay penninsula, religious traditions in tow.

Both temples were having their popular “show” -blaring music and bright lights that contrasted strongly with the Amoy opera that I am used to in Ampang and the quiet and perhaps more reverent setting of Hong Kong St (so far).  One of the groups performing at Jelutong was called Dee Boss!  Here is the scene from upstairs at the altar in Jelutong. Note the ornate boat on the left that is new and will be part of the upcoming processions.  Jelutong temple will have its procession on Sunday evening and then will take this float out again on the last night to send off the Emperor.

And while we are on the topic of boats – here is the float from the Noordin St temple and in front of it, the small yellow boat that will be towed out to sea and set aflame when it is time to send the Emperor off.This small boat is on wheels and will be pulled, whereas the Hong Kong St boat is carried, palaquin style.  Have I shown you the Hong Kong St boat yet?  Here it is just after the lights were installed on it.The Jelutong boat is a bit larger than these two, but all are seaworthy and will float even when heavily laden with rice, sandalwood, joss sticks, candles and the Emperor’s urn.The Noordin St Temple, officially named Tow Moo Keong, is undergoing renovations and so this year the arrangement of the altars is a bit haphazard.  However, the artifacts and deities are really impressive.  Check out this huge urn.In contrast, the Tow Moo is very tiny and encased in a rather secretive dark altar (making it very difficult to photograph).I especially liked the symbols for the five Taoist directions on the Generals altar and the brocaded yellow curtain.  I think this is the first I have seen that is so ornate.I also really like the three pronged plaque in behind the deity.The model of the Junk is a nice touch.

The Jelutong temple, officially the Tow Boe Keong Kew Ong Tai Tay, has a different geography.  To begin with, the inner altar is upstairs from the main temple.  From a distance it appears to hang in mid air above the temple.The altar upstairs includes a large Tow Boe and, to my delight, statues of the Nine Emperor Gods themselves, lined up in three columns of three, with the other deities on the main altar.  The yellow curtain, in this case, was actually two curtains, one of each side of the altar.  The heavy smoke from the joss sticks gave the deities an aura of mystery.  Quite lovely.  Here is a sample…I want to finish my post today with one of my favorite shots from the last few days.  When we arrived at the Jelutong Temple, there was a medium in trance, providing advice to the temple on how to proceed with the festival.  I caught these people in an intense moment of communication with the gods – asking and listening.

Firewalking Ceremony at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival Ampang

The firewalking ceremony at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Ampang is the culmination of the festival and brings the world into balance.  Huge crowds turn out to witness hundreds of men cross the firepit as this is the most mystical of the festival rituals. This year (2010) the firewalking will take place on the evening of October 16th and marks the ninth day of the ninth moon and the end of the festival.  Firewalking symbolizes the acceptance of Yang and is closely associated with the bridge crossing ceremony (Yin) of the eighth day.  It has been explained to me that this ritual signifies “sending off the bad luck and ushering in the good luck”.  The power of Fire keeps away evil and helps us to overcome our impurities.

The men (Note: no women allowed) have kept a strict vegetarian diet for the nine days of the festival, wear white clothing (no metal or leather) and yellow head scarves, and each carries a pennant of the Nine Emperor Gods to protect him from harm.  The men walk barefoot across the pit, carrying the temple deities and other ritual paraphernalia, as well as bundles of garments, dried tea leaves, and other precious objects that will benefit from the uplifting power of Yang.  The men act on behalf of all worshipers of the Nine Emperor Gods to bring Yin and Yang into balance.

The bed of coals is prepared beginning in the afternoon of the ninth day and is lit at dusk.  As the flames burn down to coals, the men pray individually to the Emperor and then form an orderly line between the altar and the firepit to await the order to begin walking quickly across the coals.  The procession across the firepit is led by the Taoist priests.  The spirit mediums, in trance, follow to open the way for the others. The crowd seems to get most excited when the chariots are carried quickly across the fire.

When all of the men have crossed the fire pit, the coals are doused with water and then bits of coal are passed out to worshipers.  Believers understand that this coal has been blessed by the emperor and has power to bring luck when taken home.

It is a real honor for these temple workers to represent the wider community.  It takes years of volunteering to be chosen to do this.  Below is a fun photo taken in the office at the temple.  The photo, which was shown to me, is of two organizing committee members crossing the firepit some years ago.  There was much story telling and camaraderie as the men anticipated this year’s ceremony.

If you plan to watch the event you must get there early to get a place along the fence from where you can see.  If you want to photograph the event, you must go earlier than early.  There are a limited number of press passes this year which can be obtained from the office for entry inside the fence.  Sorry ladies – it brings ill-luck to have our fertile “yin” presence inside the sacred area.

If you are early you can watch the spirit mediums bless the area of the firepit before the fire is lit.  As well, there are special ceremonies after the firewalking, including a special tribute to the Nine Emperor Gods by the opera troupe in front of the main altar. The temple is cleared out just before midnight and a final ceremony that I call the “Round and Round” is enacted by the male temple volunteers in which they pass ritual objects from person to person along lines formed between the main altars of the temple.

If you are still full of energy after a night of rejuvenating ritual, you can watch the procession to send off the Emperor.  It leaves the temple about 3AM on the morning of the tenth day – October 17, 2010.  See you there!


Yellow is the colour of sunshine.  And, more importantly for us here, it is the colour of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.  Yellow is the oldest sacred colour of China and therefore appropriate for a ritual festival, steeped in secrets and mystery, to have a colour so associated with ancient traditions and beliefs.

The first Emperor of China was known as the Yellow Emperor and it is
said that a yellow dragon appeared on this death to guide him to
heaven.  There are yellow dragons in the most wonderful locations in the
Nine Emperor Gods temple in Ampang, placed to guard the worshipers.

Yellow is the center of the 5 directional points.  The temple, at the center of the grounds is therefore yellow, while the corners are represented by White (west), Red (south), Green (east) and Black (north)  In the five colors of the elements, Yellow represents the Earth.  According to Taoist tradition, Yellow generates Yin and Yang and is therefore the color of everything.  For a festival charged with balancing Yin and Yang, the use of Yellow is unquestionably the perfect choice.

There are other factors as well.  Yellow is also the color of status and power and is thought to bring the energy of fire.  In Chinese the concept of the Yellow Earth ties the color Yellow to the practice of farming and agrarian traditions.

In Buddhism, yellow represents freedom from worldly cares and according to Feng Shui principles, yellow is thought to increase self-esteem and strengthen health and well-being.  At the Nine Emperor Gods temple, yellow is used in many shades, from orange-yellow to gold to lemon yellow and everything in between.



Water and Fire on Oct 15 and 16, 2010

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Ampang is well underway – today is the 5th Day of the Ninth Moon.  Last evening the festival seemed quiet, but that is compared to the crowds and chaos of the weekend. It was still plenty smoky and there were special prayers all evening as well as a spirit medium in a state of possession who provided advice and answers to those who approached him to “ask for peace”.

On Day 6 (Wednesday Oct 13) there will be another ritual celebration to feed the soldiers of the Emperor at 2pm.  This was one moment at the scene on Day 3 during the same ceremony.

On Days 8 (Friday) and 9 (Saturday) we come to the community highlights of the festival.  Yin and Yang, Water and Fire, Finding Balance – that’s what these final ceremonies of the festival are about.  There will be a bridge crossing ceremony on Oct 15th that will help those worshiping the Nine Emperor Gods to rid themselves of the Yin forces in their lives.  Then the ultimate ritual of the festival takes place on October 16th when the forces of Yang are reaffirmed by the firewalking devotees carrying the deities, the chariots and other temple paraphenalia.  Being Friday and Saturday events this year, the crowds will be big.

You can read some info about the Yin and the Yang ceremonies on the Nine Facts blog that I did last week or keep reading here…

The Bridge Crossing ceremony symbolizes surmounting the forces of Yin (Water is high yin).  The ceremony takes place in front of the main temple.  The vendors, currently set up there, are moved out to make space for a wooden bridge  that is 6.5 meters long, 1 meter high and 1.2 meters wide.  The bridge is then decorated with flags and bouquets of yellow and white flowers.

Buckets of water and tiny oil lamps are placed under the bridge on top of ritual papers that protect the bridge from evil forces.  The 7 small lamps represent the 7 star deities that protect devotees and are worshiped in the Southern Altar.

The Trance Master, in a state of possession by the Emperor himself, sits at the end of the bridge on the chair of nails and as devotees walk over the bridge he beckons them to come forward and receive a blessing. 

The ceremony is open to everyone.  As devotees cross the bridge they receive a red stamp on their head scarves to indicate that they have crossed the bridge with the blessing of the Nine Emperors.  Some carry clothing and personal belongings of family members, that are also stamped, to bring good fortune for the year ahead to the whole family.

When all devotees have crossed the bridge, the Spirit Mediums cross ceremoniously to block any evil that might be trying to follow.  Here is a shot that I took last year that I just missed.  I’m going to be there again on Friday evening and I will nail it this time!  Remember that if you are trying to photograph this event, it all happens very fast.

Firewalking – That’s enough blogging for now – I will discuss the firewalking ceremony in my blog tomorrow.  I’m looking for links to some good photos so send me a link to what you have and I’ll include them in the post!

The Yellow Curtain

I dreamt last night of yellow and streaks of light in the night sky and so am glad of a day of distraction from the temple to give my imagination a rest!  A couple of things happened yesterday to prompt my thoughts and give rise to this morning’s blog. Someone showed me some photos of the evening sky on October 3rd with clouds reflecting a brilliant light in the low sun.  I was told that the lines across the sky were the heavenly spirits coming to the festival.  Interesting.  It reminded me of the light last week when I was alone at the temple in the rain at sunset.  Here’s the photo I took then.  Now you know why I need a day off!

And then yesterday again, a young man in the temple asked me if I knew the story of the Festival.  I listened carefully as he told me the tale, according to his mother, of nine special humans (maybe brothers) who did good deeds and were so popular with the people that the jealous Emperor (of a long time ago) had them decapitated.  Their death so upset the people that they began worshiping the nine brothers as if they were Emperors.   When I asked him if he knew what was behind the yellow curtain he told me that he had no idea, but it must be the Emperor Gods.

I have asked a lot of visitors to the temple about the story behind the festival and there are so many variations – from blank stares, shrugs, and “We Pray to the God”, to more elaborate stories of headless heroes, magic musicians, sons of the Mother of Heaven, and of the stars in the sky.  It really doesn’t matter what people believe, just that they believe.  Their purpose in the temple is the pursuit of health, happiness and prosperity and it is personal and with good intentions.

Here is the myth that suits me best, probably because it is based on the geographical dissemination of popular culture.  It comes from research by Cheu Hock Tong at the National University in Singapore.  There is a link to the whole article in the sidebar, left.   According to Cheu, the Ampang mythology  ties in to the existence of a Hong Secret Society formed to overthrow the Qing and restore the Ming. Cheu writes “A Hong member by the name of Wan Yunlong was killed in battle…on the ninth day of the ninth month, 1783.  His followers fled to Thailand, where, rebuffed by the Thai authorities, they moved south to the Penang area.  Some Hong members settled in Ampang where they worked as planters and farmers and organized a clandestine movement to overthrow the Qing…”

I like this interpretation because it helps me understand the connections between the important Nine Emperor Gods Temples in Thailand and Penang and Ampang.  But here’s where it gets really good and ties back to the yellow curtain.  In Ampang, apparently, when the secret society was meeting (must have been in the 1860’s) the police arrived to investigate the gathering.  This is what Cheu writes, “The group replied that it was praying for peace and protection.  Seeing that there was only an incense urn and not image of any sort, the police said, ‘There is not deity here – what are you worshiping?’  One quick-witted soul pointed at the incense urn and replied ‘This is the god we worship!’…This accounts for the use of an incense urn to represent the Nine Emperor Gods during the festival.”   Now, that’s a good story!!

Sooooooo, that MIGHT explain what’s behind the curtain!  It’s all part of the secret and the wonderful aura of mystery that surrounds the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.  Worshipers pray in the direction of the curtain and give joss sticks to the guardians of the altar to place in the urn.  Worshipers never see the Emperor but they believe he is there.  Blind faith and it works for them.

Next blog – let’s think about more yellow at the festival.  Here’s a teaser.




It Begs the Question

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Ampang is a cacophony of visual stimuli.  That’s why I enjoy it so much – the combination of the sacred and profane, the commercial and the spiritual, the dark and the light, and, I suppose, the yin and the yang.  There is so much to think about.And that brings me to one element of the festival that must not be ignored – the beggars.  We all understand that beggars are by no means exclusive to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.  And we know that they are most attracted to religious occasions when their customers can gain “merit” by giving them cash.

Last year I was impressed with the number of beggars that lined every pathway at the festival.    This year, the beggars were in place before the stalls for the vendors were even erected.

I noticed that the early arrivals were the ones with serious physical disabilities.  The others, the women with babies and the orphaned children didn’t arrive until Day 1, today.

In their pleading, there is an alertness to our need to donate at a time of devotion.  For recognizing that and providing us with an opportunity for charity, I give them kudos (and all my small bills and coins!)

Here is a moment that speaks of the need and the generosity that surrounds this aspect of the festival.

The needy are acknowledged and their presence is accepted graciously.

I sense a level of syndication in the presence of the beggars at the festival and it isn’t just because I watched Slumdog Millionaire.  Last year, there were numerous disadvantaged “foreigners” at the other end of the extended cups.  Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that they aren’t needy and my heart goes out to them in the difficult circumstances they are in.  I’m raising this because it makes me think about the ways that the underprivileged are victimized and that their plight is even more distressing than at first glance.  I suspect that many of the beggars are brought to the site by facilitators who monitor their business and don’t leave too much money in the pockets of those to whom we give it. I spent one evening at last year’s festival observing.  It reminded me of “Oliver” without the musical accompaniment and the fairy tale ending.  A couple of times I tried to help in a way other than throwing coins in a cup and my attempts were met with disdain.  Silly me, I thought a child might like a drink – but her mother brushed it away nervously and asked for money.  It appeared that she was being watched and that makes it all the more disturbing.

One last photo that does beg the question – What is really going on here?

Lim of the Lanterns

Mr Lim has been painting lanterns at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Ampang since he was 19 years old – more than 50 years!  He has seen a lot of changes and is proud to be part of the team that undertook the renovations and preparations for the 2010 festival.  Lim has been a busy man for the past couple of weeks.  He had extra lanterns to make for the processions this year, as well as helping with the big dragon heads on one of the temple floats. (Why don’t I have a photo of those??)

It takes Lim about 2 days to make a lantern – he starts with the wire frames and adds the canvas in a process that is similar to the way Chinese umbrellas are made.  The paint (probably toxic) is a high gloss, with a shellac that hardens on the canvas.  He then paints Taoist symbols – dragons, tigers and scenes from the “life of the Emperor” on the lanterns.  If you would like to commission a lantern, it will cost you a bit – RM1,000 – negotiable, I’m sure.  Otherwise you can have your name put on a lantern for RM50 and it will hang in the temple for a year.

Stop by and see Lim when you visit the temple. He is stationed behind the lantern altar, towards the dormitories, stage left of the main temple building.

Festival Starts October 3rd!

Late afternoon at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple today was a flurry of last minute preparations.  The “Masters” were there, a few devotees were arriving, and there were quite a number of curious onlookers.  The flagpole goes up tomorrow, October 3rd and the procession to receive the Emperor starts at 7pm from the temple.

The three chariots being readied for the procession

Each chariot is adorned with 10 windings of strong, white ribbon on both sides.  I was told that this pattern has a secret significance that was apparently not going to be shared with the curious crowd gathered around.  I expect that its significance is mired in myth and it is likely, as well, that it provides much needed extra support to the chariot during the procession.  In fact, the chariots go in to a real shake, rattle and roll when the Gods are placed in them – a real crowd pleaser.  (Photos of that to come later)

The protective and secretive X pattern

Over at the opera house, the yellow curtains have been hung so that the Emperor can be placed there for one night.

The new statue of Tua Pek Gong has now been empowered and boasts the tiny red dots that indicate that it has been “opened”/blessed by a ceremonial act of a Taoist priest.  This statue was made in China and flown to KL in its own seat on the airplane – you can’t put a god in the cargo hold!

Dusk fell quickly and the workers were still preparing the chariots as I left the grounds.  You can see the flagpole on the left, in the photo below, ready for tomorrow’s raising ceremony.

The quiet of the scene tonight is like the calm before the storm.  I’ll try to take a photo from in front of the gate tomorrow to show you the difference 24 hrs makes.