Every year, during the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, devotees of the Nine Emperor Gods celebrate for nine days and nights, creating places of intense worship in parts of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Temples are adorned with yellow curtains, Taoist priests enact ancient rituals, mediums perform feats of transcendence and vegetarian devotees utter prayers for blessings. Using the power of fire and water, the forces of yin and yang are brought into balance, believed to bring health, wealth and prosperity to the adherents. It is a lofty quest, requiring sacrifice and devotion from communities and individuals.
Refugees escaping Imperial atrocities in China appear to have created the tradition of worshipping the Nine Emperor Gods, helping to explain why the practice has followers in South-East Asia and not in China. It is said that nine brothers helped a Ming prince escape the Qing Emperor and, as punishment, were beheaded. In return for their sacrifice, they were deified and now reside in the heavens as the stars of the Big Dipper. It is commonly believed that they are the sons of the Duo Mu, the Goddess of the North Star. Each year, the Emperors are invited to earth for nine days of festivities in their honour.
For several years now I have been photographing and blogging about the Nine Emperor Gods festival in Malaysia. Through friendships with many devotees, I have learned about the Emperor Deities and the various ritual ceremonies. In July, I installed photographs of the celebrations at Tow Boh Keong at Hong Kong Street in Penang as part of the George Town Festival 2013. My aim was to raise awareness of both the festival and the way art can express the values of community activities and beliefs.
There are many popular beliefs regarding the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. In Ampang, devotees at the Kau Ong Yah Lam Thian Kiong understand that an urn representing the nine Qing Dynasty brothers was used by a secret society to camouflage its meetings, making the urn the traditional heart of the festival. In Penang, stories abound about a Fujian fisherman who spoke to the brothers as they ascended to the heavens from the sea. When he brought their advice to Penang, it saved the people from a serious epidemic. There is also a tale originating from Hong Kong Street about how young men used to hide from Japanese soldiers during World War II behind yellow curtains in the temple, where they were protected by the Nine Emperors. No matter what the folklore, devotees respect the Nine Emperors as guardians who have the ability to confer luck, wealth and longevity. By following strict practices of worship throughout the nine days, devotees believe that they will receive the blessings of the Gods.
For more information about the festival, please visit my website: cheryljhoffmann.com
Cheryl J. Hoffmann is a Canadian photographer based in South-East Asia. Approaching photography through the eyes of a historical geographer, she is dedicated to creating images of belief and traditional values. Her current long-term project is about “Datuk” worship in Indian and Chinese communities.