Category Archives: Festival Highlights

It’s that time again!!

The evening of September 23rd marks the start of the Nine Emperor Gods festival 2014. I have moved all of the new posts about this festival to my website, so you will have to click on to see what we are up to this year!

Worshipping the Sky Gods, Photography Exhibition, Hong Kong Street Georgetown Penang

The lantern pole on Jln Cheong Fatt Tze.

A special exhibit of my photos of the Nine Emperor Gods festival is part of Georgetown Festival 2013.  The photos are exhibited along Jalan Cheong Fatt Tze, Georgetown, Penang between June 15 and July 15.  Using the heritage buildings as a canvas, the exhibit highlights the transformation of everyday space into devotional arena as it occurs here each year. If you would like to know more about the exhibit, go to my website page.  You can also look back at earlier Nine Emperor Gods festival posts on my blog and browse back to some informational posts from Hong Kong Street Tow Boh Keong and Ampang Kow Ong Yah.  You can follow my website posts by clicking on the FOLLOW button at

Here are a few more photos of the exhibit  It’s big and beautiful and has made the community proud!  Congratulations to the community on Hong Kong Street for making this happen!  If you can get to Penang please go by and see the exhibit. It’s open 24 hrs a day, on the street, and free for all.  Let me know what you think of it!ImageImageImageImageImage

New Nine (5) The Culmination – Balance in Fire and Water

The send off for the Emperor has long been one of my favourite parts of the Nine Emperor Gods festival.  I am used to the Ampang style of send off and the Hong Kong St rituals were very different.  I really enjoyed experiencing the Penang tradition of taking the Emperor back to the sea.

The Yeoh jetty was gracious in undertaking some repairs, so we did not have to slog through the muck, or wade through water.  I was grateful.  (I certainly prayed for personal balance as I walked down the ramp of the jetty!)  The photography conditions were challenging but the aura was good.  Balance.  That is what this is all about.  Yin and Yang, hanging in the balance.

1. Here is the Emperor’s Urn being respectfully and carefully brought down the jetty.2. The yellow boat arrived from the procession route and was set on the dock.
3. Then the urn was placed gently in the boat and was covered with sandalwood powder, joss sticks, candles and joss papers.Careful attention was paid to ensuring that the contents of the boat were evenly distributed.  The boat maker “guarantees” that the little boat is sea worthy so it is up to the temple to ensure that it isn’t lopsided when it is lowered in to the water.

4. With the boat secured by human strength to the side of our fishing boat, off we headed to the open channel.  On the jetty well-wishers watched and took photos as we headed out.  I would have thought that they would have been on their knees, heads bowed, but only a few showed that level of reverence.5. No post here would be complete without something a bit more esoteric to reflect my state of mind.  In fact, due to the fact that we were tossing about on the seas, this effect was a bit too prevalent in my photos!6. Once we had reached open water, at some place out there in the darkness that was known only to the seafarers in our group, the small boat was set alight.7. Slowly it was released to its own devices.  We held our communal breaths as it listed a bit, then settled in to the waves.8. We circled the boat three times. It was a protective act to ensure that the fire burned well in the cradle of the sea.  This is the last shot that I took of the boat. The buildings of the port at Butterworth can be seen in the distance.I was surprised that we didn’t stay until the boat became one with the water.   I was looking for that finish, the moment of “poof” when Fire and Water merged and balanced.  But perhaps I need a little more wu wei – knowing when to act and not to act and allowing things to happen.  My motherly instincts wanted us to stay with the boat until it was gone, until the Emperor was in the heavens again.  But, of course, tradition prevailed and the rest lit a cigarette, left the Emperor to do what Emperors do at sea in a small burning yellow boat, and we headed quietly back to shore. 9. Nary a glance back, minds already on something else. Next year isn’t too far off, is it?

New Nine (4) Trances and Pierces Penang-Style

As one moves north in Malaysia, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival becomes synonymous with the antics of mediums possessed by the Chinese gods.  Many of you will think of Phuket, Thailand, where the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is known as the Vegetarian Festival, famous for the bicycle-through-the-cheek stunt.  It’s all quite sensational and although I respect its traditional roots, it is not my favourite part of the festival.  However, a blog about the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Penang would not be complete without showing the experience of this ritual.  At Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St., the 12 ft long skewers hang on the wall of the temple throughout the year and are taken down on the Ninth Day and readied for who ever might show up that night. 1. A volunteer sharpens the point of the skewer in preparation for the ritual piercings.  The temple is very careful to ensure that the instruments are sharp and clean so as not to hurt the mediums.  After sharpening, the skewers are cleansed with oranges and Chinese tea.2. A medium arrived at the front of the temple and went into trance with an uplift motion that actually made his hair stand on end!  At this point on the Ninth Night, the crowds outside the temple were huge – thousands of onlookers, hundreds with cameras, and the press of people was concerning.  I had a good spot, thanks to my friends at the temple, but almost too close for comfort!3. There is one man in the family who has the job of piercing.  He learned from his father, who was a skilled piercer, and is passing the tradition on to his son.  Very intense work.  There were about 12 piercings on the ninth night.  He blows water on to the cheek of the medium at the exact moment that he pushes the skewer through.  The water is the only lubricant used.  It’s a matter of community spirit, as you can see from the faces of the men behind.4. There is no blood involved when the skewer goes through. That’s part of the mystique.  I sense some discomfort, but the mediums tell me that they feel no pain, just revelation.5. When the 12 ft skewer is properly placed, the mediums bow three times to the Emperor in the temple and then walk carefully sideways through the crowd out to the procession route.6. The mediums seem to be fine, despite the appendages, and most manage to perform for the crowds by scraping the ends of the skewers on the pavement while they spin.  Some can produce sparks.7. Here are the gods looking very regal and keeping very still as they move along the procession route while seated on the chair of swords – well one is seated and the medium on top stands on the swords.  This float is the highlight of the procession to the jetty.
8. When the procession reaches the jetty, the skewers are removed, again with the help of water.  A piece of joss paper is used to cover the hole in the cheek.  Little or no bleeding.  I’ve heard that they are protected by their vegetarian fast and “clean” living during the festival. 9. It may be hard for some of you to believe, but these acts of self mutilation are not repulsive.  They are a way of worship (not one that I would embrace!) and show respect for the Emperor within the pantheon of Chinese Gods.  As this photo shows, there are, within this ritual, moments of peaceful reflection amidst the chaos.

Schedule and Procession Route for Ninth Day at Hong Kong St Tow Boh Keong

Here is what I have heard the schedule is like for the Ninth Day, October 6th.

There will be quiet prayers to the Emperor tonight, Day 8, with special offerings of fruit and food that the Aunties are preparing right now.

Tomorrow (Day 9) the day will be busy with preparations for the evening rituals – cleaning and sharpening the swords and skewers that the mediums will use, moving the float out to the middle of the street, building the Passageway of Safekeeping.  Many devotees will come to Hong Kong St to pay their respects to the Emperor and pray for the health and prosperity of their families.At about 7pm, the Passage of Safekeeping will be ready in front of the temple and devotees will be invited to cross through the doors, as a cleansing ritual.  At about this time, the god (most likely Tiong Tua Guan Suai) will be invited to the temple and, all going well, the other gods will follow.  At this point (8pm?), the mediums from other temples will start arriving and pay their respects to the Emperor, before entering trance and calling the gods.  We can expect somewhere around 15 mediums at Hong Kong St temple.At the same time, floats from other temples in the area begin assembling on Lebuh Chulia, at the end of Hong Kong St for the procession.  These are non-Nine Emperor God temples that are showing their respect and support for Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St.  At latest count there are 18 temples joining the procession.

At 10pm the procession will start to move.  It takes about an hour and a half for the procession to follow the 2.5 km route and arrive at the Yeoh Jetty.  Here is the route:Hong Kong St (also known as Jln Cheong Fatt Tze) to Lebuh Carnarvon, where they make a big u-turn and come back past the temple.  Then they turn left of Lebuh Dr Lim Chwee Long for a short distance.  The next turn is left onto Lebuh Pantai, for a few blocks, then right on Gat Lebuh Chulia, then right on Pengkalan Weld and along to Yeoh Jetty.

The Tow Boh Keong banner and the VIPs will lead the procession, followed by the participating temples, and finishing with the Tow Boh Keong contributions, including Tow Pek Gong, the ceremonial boat, the yellow boat and the large float carrying the urn of the Emperor.

Things to watch for:

On Lebuh Carnarvon, there will be a time when the procession is on both sides of the street – double the excitement!

At the intersection of Lebuh Dr LChL, there is potential to intersect with the procession of the McCallum Rd temple as they head down to the jetty.

Along Lebuh Pantai there will be altars set up by families and businesses along the sides of the road and the mediums often pause there.  As we cross Lebuh Melayu a medium from the temple comes out to pay respects to the Emperor and the other gods as they pass.

As the procession turns on to Pengkalan Weld from Gat Lebuh Chulia there is the potential to meet the procession from the Burma Rd temple as they move to the jetty.

It has been suggested that the  Monkey god could help us be everywhere and do everything as he can split and become many – a whole army in fact!  Good guy to know.

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.

The Nine Emperors Arrive in Penang, 2011

Wow to Penang and the way they celebrate the Nine Emperor Gods festival! There are several Nine Emperor God temples in Penang and last night they invited the Emperor with panache. Lamps were raised, mediums went in to trance, yellow curtains were closed and the energy was awesome as the community upheld traditions. Hard to sleep at all.

I spent the evening at the lovely Tow Boh Keong temple on Hong Kong St. Their invitation ceremony is a quiet ceremony, steeped in tradition. This temple is regarded as the oldest Nine Emperor God Temple in Malaysia. The power of the temple comes from their determination to preserve the ancient rituals. The preparations are fastidious. Family members have their tasks throughout the day and in the evening they assist in setting up the altar outside the temple. Just before midnight, there was a buzz of activity as all of the old temple artifacts were put in to place, ready to invite the Emperor.
The oil lamps were filled.20110927-141258.jpg

The lantern was lit and raised.


The urn for the god was placed on the altar table.

In the early hours of the morning (Day 1), a Taoist priest recited prayers from a very old manuscript. For almost an hour, his melodic voice mesmerized the small group gathered at the temple. My favorite moment came at the end, when his voice dropped to a whisper and he spoke directly to the god.

Then he tossed the Puah and the Emperor answered positively on the first request.


With a Holah! and many smiles, the urn into which the Emperor had descended, was ceremoniously carried in to the temple. The urn was placed in the inner altar and as the curtains closed prayers for health, prosperity and balance of yin and yang began.

Day 1 is here.
Now off to see what is happening today at the other temples around town.

A Day of Preparations at the Nine Emperor Gods Festival


Saturday was the day that devotees could come to the Ampang temple and get their rooms and beds for this year’s festival dates. It was great to see some friends, observe the temple cleaned up and ready to go, and feel the energy as we get ready to invite the Emperor and his entourage on Monday night.


There was quite a crowd gathered as the organizing committee worked hard to get the devotees their preferred spaces.



Meanwhile, the vendors’ supplies were arriving and the mood was jovial.

Here are members of the organizing committee and some volunteers discussing how it all happens, a little politics, and the value of a good cup of Chinese tea.

See you from the Hong Kong St Temple in Penang!

A Splendid Send Off for the Emperor – the final day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Ampang

The rains finally came to Ampang today and, poetically, it’s nice to think of it as the Emperor saying goodbye.  The cosmos has regained an order, yin and yang are properly in balance and prayers for peace and prosperity have been carried to the heavens in clouds of sandalwood smoke.

The festival days have gone by in a blur of activity.   Yesterday, the ninth day, was incredibly busy with no time to rest.  At one point I even asked the Red Cross for water as I couldn’t get through the crowds to get it myself and the heat was making me dizzy.  I took many photos, some of them through impenetrable smoke, so we’ll see what’s sharable.

It was a great day of events.  At midday, there were special prayers by a group of officials from the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Sibu who donated a beautiful table of food and flowers for the Emperor.

In the afternoon, the spirit mediums helped devotees pray to and “feed” the soldiers of the Emperor, for the third and final time.  Then the temple grounds and buildings were inspected and blessed by Kau Ong Yah, who made the rounds to the genuflections and reverence of the devotees.

The firepit was prepared in the late afternoon inside a large fenced off area in front of the temple, making for quite a dramatic photo – black and white, yin and yang… 

At 8:15pm, the male devotees walked across some very hot burning coals to substantiate the forces of Yang for all of the Emperor’s followers.

In the midst of all of that, throughout the day, the devotees found time for private prayer, a final few games of cards and majong, and plenty of laughter and talk of plans for next year’s festival.

Over the course of the day, thousands of worshipers came to the temple to pay their respects to the Emperor, creating an eye-stinging haze inside and out.

After the Firewalking, the ceremony was held, for the third and final time, so that the temple volunteers could pay respects to each of the main altars.  One of my favourite parts of the closing evening happened around 10pm when the opera troupe performed a ritual in front of the main altar.

Over on the opera stage, there were performances at 8pm and again at 1:30am, before the sending off ceremony for the Emperor.

Then at 3:00AM devotees held their final devotional prayers and we walked the spirit Emperor back through the village of Ampang and sent him off in the back of a truck, to the river.

When we returned to the temple, the vendors were taking down their stalls, the coals from the firepit were still smoldering, and the devotees were slowly moving out of the dormitories.  It seems that I was too weary to take any photos of the clean up, which means that I must have been pretty tired.   I’ve taken photos of just about everything else! Home before light, but barely.

Lots of stories to tell and I will keep this up while I share what I have learned.  I will continue to post links here if you send me online galleries and facebook albums.  Let’s make this a place to share information and photos as a source for next year’s festival.  Thanks to all for a great couple of weeks!

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!