Category Archives: Penang Rocks

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.

New Nine (3) The Procession on the Ninth Night

The moon is almost full!  How fast this ninth month is going by. I have a lot of photos to share but it is taking some time to go through them and choose.  It’s a fun exercise to limit a topic to Nine.

We had an excellent send off for the Emperor, last Wednesday evening.  The energy was high, the rains held off and there was a great sense of community spirit.  For this Top Nine, I’ve chosen some photos of the procession from Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St to the Yeoh Jetty.  There were a lot of other things going on as you will see in the next few posts.

1. The crowds began building about 7pm and quietly, the gods were called, and the Pathway of Safekeeping (peng onn) was opened for all to pass through.

2. The boats were moved out, ceremoniously, to the street.  This boat would be burned later out on the sea.

3. Devotees knelt in front of the temple with their joss sticks, while the fireworks filled the skies behind.  This is the moment when the urns are about to be carried from behind the yellow curtain and placed on the float.

4. The mediums were lifted on to the float and the devotees pulled the float through the streets with huge ropes, the full 2 km to the sea.

5. Temple Committee members led the way.  They were more enthusiastic than they appear here!

6. Nine Drummers Druming – well, I was hoping for that!  These are the new drums that we saw consecrated the night before, especially for the send-off.

7. At some of the major intersections the participating temples would show off a bit – these young men were running through fire while carrying the god in a heavy wooden chair.

8. Here’s the Hong Kong St temple taking Tow Pek Gong for a spin.

9. The streets were very crowded for most of the route and as we approached the jetty it got quite raucous with expectation.

More on trances and piercings, and the boat burning in the next posts!

New Nine (2) from the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, Penang, 2011

1. A woman prays to the Emperor while holding paper figures representing her family.  I think this is a Penang idea.  Am I correct?

2. Guan, calling the god to help prepare the talismans.  A short while later, a medium, in trance, was drawing blood from his tongue with a large, sharp sword.

3. Some young people from the temple pose for a photo before heading out to pay their respects to several of the nearby Nine Emperor God temples.

4. I gave my blog address card to some people on the Chew Jetty.  When I went back there a couple of days later, I found my card on the bulletin board, along with the calendar of events for the festival!  Thank you.

5. Uncle Poh Hong has a chat with his friend, before the priests begin the evening prayers on the 6th day.

6. This Taoists priest posed graciously for a photo at the end of the the ritual prayers.  He has been coming to the Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St temple for many years.

7. “And the winner is…”  Choosing the person who will become the caretaker of the Nine flags of the temple until next year’s festival.

8. A priest enters the inner sanctuary where the Emperor is in residence, as part of a ritual on the evening of the 6th day.  The sanctuary is very private and only a selected number of temple members are allowed to enter.  Even having the curtains open slightly, like this, is a rare occurrence during the festival

9. This is the end of the Yeoh Jetty. Hmmmm.  This is jetty from which the Hong Kong St boats leave at midnight on the Ninth day.  Should be an interesting walk in the dark, even if the tide is out!  I am presuming though that the Emperor will provide for the devoted.

Top Nine (1) from the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, Penang

It’s busy and getting busier. So, in the temporary quiet of Monday and the 7th Day, here are some shots from Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St. that you haven’t seen yet.  I had visions of creatively posting by theme, but if I don’t just put these here, you may never see them!

These aren’t in any particular order, but I will start with nine here, go through yesterday’s photos and then post a second nine before heading back to Penang for the grand final days of the festival.  The first one, above, shows the attention and care that go in to making the tiny rice bowls offered at the altars each day.

2. Polishing the brass for the altar of Tow Pek Gong, God of Prosperity (Day 1)

3. Some of the team members before the prayers on the eve of Day 3

4. Included so that Matt believes me that I should be outside for twilight!

5. A young man anxiously seeks advice of the deity through the medium

6. The Aunties in the kitchen are always cooking up something tasty, but this is time to cook special sweet potatoes for offerings at the evening prayers.

7. For many years, this family has had a stall on Lebuh Cintra, selling yummy vegetarian snacks and proudly flying the yellow banner.

8. The priest chants outside the temple on invitation night.

9. Sorting through the talismans just blessed with drops of blood from the medium in trance.

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.

Shots from the Neighbourhood

My introduction to the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Penang has been Hong Kong St. And I’m learning fast that there is a lot going on all around me!
There are hawker stalls selling tastey vegetarian food for the devotees – identifiable by the yellow banner.
The prayer shops are full to overflowing.
There is a small temple called Tiong Sim Thnuah in a shop house across the street from Tow Boh Keong that has a special lure. They are drawing energy from Tow Boh Keong, for sure, but have their own traditional rituals. Late on the evening of invitation, the drums were loud, the trances intense and the energy contagious.
They use this implement called a “yuki” to call the gods. It is held by two men at one time, to create a kind of brotherhood trance. More on this later, I hope, as I spend some time there and talk to them.

A short distance from Hong Kong St is an old temple to Kwan Yin Hood Chor, that opens up a special side altar to the Nine Emperor Gods for the festival dates. Its location on Jalan Burma makes it very accessible and therefore very popular with Penangites and tourists alike. It lights up at night like this…

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.