CHINESE LUNAR CALENDAR
22ND DAY OF THE SECOND MONTH
WAYANG STREET, KUCHING
Sarawak lore says that it always rains on Kueh Seng Onn’s birthday. After two weeks of blazing hot weather burning the grass verges brown, the heavens opened on the evening of 27 March 2019, almost drowning out the opening night of the Hokkien opera held at Old Bazaar in this deity’s honour. His actual birthday on the next day, the 22nd day of the 2nd month of the Chinese lunar calendar, was no different with a tropical downpour sending devotees scurrying into surrounding coffeeshops to seek shelter, briefly halting preparations for the largest procession of the Kuching calendar. With over 130 floats, this is a mammoth parade involving a huge proportion of the city’s Hokkien Chinese community and a little rain would not stop them. In fact, it is considered lucky and as soon as the clouds cleared, everyone returned to their stations and preparations, damp but undeterred.
Kueh Seng Onn, also known as Kong Teck Choon Ong, is the patron saint of the Hong San Si temple, sited on Wayang Street since
1848 at the heart of the Hokkien community of Kuching as a place of worship, a social space and a centre for their culture. The devotees, who number in the thousands, come to pay respects to several deities from the Chinese pantheon – the Goddess of Birth, the God of Hell or, perhaps the most well-known, the Goddess Guan Yin. But Kueh Seng Onn is the host deity and his birthday is the biggest, celebrated in traditional Chinese style with a bang.
Once a year, this Taoist deity is taken out of the temple in his distinctive, rocking sedan chair for a tour around the city, attended by leaping lions and swirling dragons and hundreds of floats sponsored by community members, local businesses, associations and other temples around Sarawak and beyond. This year, a delegation from the sister temple in Sabah was in attendance to pay their respects for the deity’s birthday. It is not to be missed by tourist or local alike.
Kueh Seng Onn’s story started in Ann Che district in the Southern Fujian province of China. Highly regarded for his filial piety, he studied under a great master of geomancy, gaining enlightenment at the age of 16 on the 22nd day of the 8th month of the Chinese calendar in the year 938. On that day, he is said to have sat cross-legged on top of a tree and silently passed away. When his mother came to see him, she pulled down his left leg and he has been immortalized in this pose ever since.
His place in the Taoist pantheon was confirmed posthumously by a series of miracles in his area: curing epidemics, averting flood and fire, healing the sick. One legend tells of his appearance during a great fire in China, mirrored in the more local stories of sightings of the boy god on the roof of the temple during the great fire of Kuching in 1884, alerting the residents and eventually causing it to rain and extinguish the flames. Devotees pray to him for peace in Kuching, for good weather, for safety, security and prosperity. As Sarawak folk are proud of their freedom from natural disasters, it would seem that the state is very much under his influence.
Dato Tan Jit Kee is the Chairman of the temple committee, which he has served for thirty years, and he has been worshipping at this temple since he was a child. Mr Ho Ho Boon grew up in one of the now demolished shophouses across the street in Lau Pasat (Old Bazaar) and the temple is in his blood. A prayer leader, he has followed his grandfather and his uncle into service. They both come to the temple several days a week and are there almost daily in the month leading up to the procession. It is a huge commitment but they both say they love this place. “People mix around here,” says Mr Ho. “A lot of relatives used to come and visit in the old days when there were no clinics in the rural areas. So when they came to Kuching, they would come to the temple to pray.” Dato Tan tells that the popularity of the temple is growing, perhaps as the population grows. The devotees are even getting younger. “The faith is still very strong,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the annual procession is growing too. It has a carnival atmosphere with almost every aspect of traditional Chinese culture on display. It involves a co-ordination of almost every clan and, in fact, participants from practically every ethnic group, just enjoying taking part. Around 5pm on the day, as the sun starts to dip, the first of the floats begins to move out. Each group must stop at the temple entrance – the lions dance, the dragons chase their pearls, marching bands strike up, massed drums beat a loud tattoo. The air fills with the sound of cymbals and firecrackers, the smoke mingling with incense from thousands of joss sticks that make up a twenty-foot dragon brought in from Taiwan.
It is a long line – a wild scene of noise and colour with volunteers barking instructions to giant lorries carrying devotees dressed as characters from Chinese legend as they manoeuvre through narrow junctions packed with onlookers. Every lion dance troupe is in action, transported by every truck in town. It is a kaleidoscope of colourful costumes – the Monkey God flies past followed by maidens and immortals, stilt walkers stride by and phoenixes fill the sky. Hundreds of volunteers pass the temple entrance, wearing t-shirts stamped with the names of the local businesses that sponsored them. In fact, there are more taking part than looking on.
This is the reality. Despite the appearance of a parade, this is not public entertainment, as entertaining as it is. This procession is for the deity first and for the devotees second. Tourists and visitors are welcome but they come a long way down the list. The sponsors take part to seek prosperity and to pray for peace and luck in the coming year and many of the onlookers hold their hands in prayer position, waiting patiently for the deity to make his exit.
PETER JOHN JABAN
It is inside the temple, away from the observers, that this becomes clear. Here, the ritual to prepare the deity for his public appearance begins as the end of the line of floats draws near. Both Dato Tan and Mr Ho have their duties. The Dato forms part of a group of dignitaries who move to the various stations in the temple to offer prayers, giant joss sticks clasped in their hands. As the moment approaches, they congregate before the altar. Two statues of Kueh Seng Onn reside in this temple – one for war and one for peace – and it is Mr Ho’s responsibility to see which one will dominate the year ahead. With a studied sense of drama, he burns folded bundles of paper money, one for each statue, to determine which will go out, the decision confirmed by throwing two kidney-shaped wooden blocks into the air. As one falls
upward and the other downward, the reading is deemed correct and Mr Ho’s voice booms the choice into the cavernous space, competing with the rapid sound of a drumbeat and the ringing of a bell. War will go out, signaling a challenging year ahead.
Now the correct deity must be taken to his sedan chair. These statues were carved in Singapore, replacements for the originals that were brought direct from China so many years ago. They are blessed by a Taoist priest and therefore believed to be imbued with the essence of Kueh Seng Onn so they must be handled carefully and treated with reverence. Mr Ho’s helper washes his hands in the incense from the altar before they carefully lift the deity from his seat. He is carried by many hands to his chair – some just touch his robe for luck – and prepared for his trip round town.
This deity, it turns out, has a special request. A boy god, he clearly has a sense of fun and wants to be rocked as he travels. The devotees jostle into position, each eager to be the ones allowed to carry him out of the temple. As they hoist the sedan chair onto their shoulders, its swings from one side to the other – a rollercoaster ride for the deity inside. Outside, the last float heads out along the route, and his entourage brings up the rear. Mazu, the goddess of the sea and the resident deity from the temple of Che Sua at Muara Tebas goes ahead, backed up by Kueh Seng Onn’s bodyguards, and finally, with a joyful rush forwards, the boy god himself goes out to greet the crowd.
He is held aloft on several shoulders who race him along the route. They travel up Ban Hock road until their first stop – the Hindu temple. The deity must pay his respects here and the devotees reappear with red tilaka on their foreheads – multicultural Malaysia at its best. From there, another temple on Jalan Padungan is followed by a climb up and over Bukit Mata Kuching to a third stop at Tua Pek Kong at its base. Down Main Bazaar, past Brooke Dockyard, the procession stops again at the Teo Chew temple on Carpenter Street and in front of the Hainanese Association, which houses another temple to Mazu. This is a gathering of the clans and a matter of respect. In fact, along the route, many shop owners put up altars and the procession must perform at each one.
Despite the distance, there is no shortage of volunteers to take the weight of the chair. It is a great honour and both Mr Ho and Dato Tan have done it many times, though they now leave it to the younger men. They say that anyone is allowed to take a turn. Some prepare by eating vegetarian food in the preceding days but even that is not a requirement. The reward, says Mr Ho, is an amazing feeling of peace, a cleansing of the spirit for the year ahead. So great is the honour, in fact, that there is sometimes a ‘scuffle’, as Mr Ho gently puts it, especially for the right to be part of the last team, bringing the deity back home.
By the time the procession makes its full round, it is an entirely different experience. The sun has set and the lights are out. Fireworks fill the air and each float is ablaze in flashing neon. Old Bazaar is full of drinkers, watching the proceedings and enjoying the opera behind them. The joss stick dragon glows menacingly, breathing smoke and fire. Finally, the rocking god returns, racing back into the temple grounds before being replaced in his seat on the altar. The procession is complete and the last round of celebrations and reunions can begin. With a final flourish, the joss stick dragon is coiled on a bed of paper money and set alight, the blaze releasing every wish from each of the joss sticks into the atmosphere.
There is no doubt that this is a spectacle. It demands enjoyment and allows for genuine fun, just as the deity would want. But the reverence is a real thing. The Hokkien opera needs no human audience and the devotees dance for the deity. This is not a tourism product but an authentic experience that a traveller can appreciate as a celebration of culture, a religious event, a gathering of clan and community. Next year’s procession is likely to be a grand affair, possibly the biggest one yet. Mr Ho tells that the team from the Hong San Si temple are in negotiations with the original temple to Kueh Seng Onn in Nan’an, China to bring their deity here for a holiday.
The links between the two have been maintained over the many years since emigration. When the Nan’an temple was rebuilt in 1979, it even included a stone tablet, number 23 out of 24, that tells the story of its sister temple far south in the Nanyang. Here, the legend of the Rajah of Sarawak lives on in stone, depicting the moment when the Rajah saw a young boy taking his bath from a tap across the road from the temple. Struck by the boy’s unusual appearance, he enquired after him with the local residents who, recognizing the description, came to the conclusion that the Rajah had met with the boy god himself. The tablet further shows that the Rajah’s horse, knowing its own place in the pantheon, would refuse to ride past the temple without rearing, forcing the Rajah to dismount and pass more respectfully on foot.
A visit by the Nan’an statue would be a massive celebration indeed. Falling on the 15th of March 2020, this birthday would most likely be marked in a style never before seen in Sarawak. Of course, Mr Ho is deep in discussions about how to get the deity through immigration – after all, he can’t just put him in the hold. But should Kueh Seng Onn get the chance to fly, it will be time to book your tickets to Kuching for the most rocking procession the town has ever seen.