Preserving Sacred Traditions: Tow Bu Kong Temple of Hong Kong Street

By Hiroshi Yamashita

September 2023 FEATURE
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WALKING ALONG Hong Kong Street in George Town, I stumbled upon a hidden gem that continues to uphold Chinese traditions among the local Chinese community. The Tow Bu Kong Taoist temple stands, anomalously safeguarding religious practices that have all but faded away elsewhere. A decade ago, during a visit to this temple, I met a professor from the National Taiwan University, who informed me of the temple’s enduring worship of Tow Bu, a revered Chinese female deity, and Kew Ong Yeah, the Nine Emperor Gods — rites that have been lost in mainland China. In stark contrast, the same festival in Phuket has been transformed into a commercialised spectacle known as the “Chinese Vegetarian Festival”, aimed at foreign tourists.

While variations in tradition can offer fascinating insights into the adaptations made by migrant communities, it is important that tourism not be the catalyst for these changes. This is why I found the Tow Bu Kong at Hong Kong Street, and its commitment to pre - serve its unique and traditional characteristics, captivating.

The worship of Tow Bu and the Nine Emperor Gods among overseas Chinese communities is fascinating in many ways. Firstly, it serves as a spirited display that unifies these communities across the region. On my first visit to the Tow Bu Kong of Hong Kong Street, I was accompanied by representatives of the Hougang Tow Bu Kong Temple (新加坡后港斗母宮), one of the oldest temples in Singapore. This practice reaffirms the ethno-cultural identity of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, bridging national borders and fortifying their spiritual unity.

At its core, the worship of Tow Bu and the Nine Emperor Gods are also related to the veneration of the Pole Star (北辰 or 北極星) and the Great Bear (北斗星). The prayer, “風調雨順國泰民安”(Let there be enough rain and gentle winds to nurture crops; protect the nation and its people from harm) reflects the plea to Mother Nature to be kind and generous, and acknowledges the helplessness and impotence of humans in the face of nature. Here, the human ego takes a back seat, and the harmonious coexistence of all beings is exalted. Love and compassion for all living things are emphasised.

Throughout the nine-day Nine Emperor Gods festival, sometimes even prior to that, followers rigorously adhere to a vegetarian diet. The practice is supposed to confront followers with the idea that “to live is to kill”, and to acknowledge that human survival relies on the sacrifice of other living beings. Heightening this awareness, I feel, holds the key to addressing the pressing environmental issues that plague us today.

Finally, what strikes me as remarkable, is also that the Indian Hindus who have settled in Southeast Asia put on a grand festival for their goddesses during the first nine days of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, called “Nava Ratri”, or “nine nights”. Over these nine days, they strictly observe vegetarianism, as do their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese and Indian communities celebrate their significant festivals simultaneously, mostly unaware of each other’s observances. These parallel celebrations hold interesting similarities, and I have always thought it would be a beautiful gesture for mutual visits and interactive exchanges to happen between both sides during this festive season.

The Chinese and Indian communities, participating enthusiastically in their respective celebrations, might not realise the synchronisation of their festivities. Yet, both have maintained friendly relations, indelibly contributing to the development of their local communities and the country. This peaceful coexistence is exemplified by the worship of Tow Bu and the Nine Emperor Gods.

Hiroshi Yamashita

is a professor at Tohoku University in Japan.