The Significance of the Revival of the Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship Ceremony in Penang

By Tong Wing Cheong

July 2024 FEATURE
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After capturing the evil spirits onto the boat, the Lord of Seven Clans is sent off with them in a blazing fire, restoring peace to the area.

SINCE THE INCLUSION of the Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship ritual (送王船) in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list on 17 December 2020, this ceremony, which originated in the coastal areas of China’s Fujian Province before flowing to Melaka, has been gradually gaining attention. In Melaka, the tourism board promotes these ceremonies at Yong Chuan Tian Temple (勇全殿) and Cheng Wah Keong Temple (清華宮) as a crucial and unique attraction.

Due to its ancient history and widespread influence, the Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship belief has developed into a complex and versatile tradition. It honours a group of deities who are heavenly envoys, with the deities typically having no personal name, except for a title like “Lord of Some Clan”. Although there are Fujianese people too in Penang and other parts of Malaysia, the Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship ritual is not commonly carried out. In Penang, it is the Nine Emperor Gods Festival that remains much more popular and widely celebrated.

The temple prepared a lavish feast during the celebration to welcome the Lord of Seven Clans and various deities.

The Hall of Heaven and Earth

Thean Thay Tong Sum Poh Keong (天地堂 三保宮 or The Hall of Heaven and Earth and the Three Protectors’ Temple) in Seberang Perai is unique because it worships Chit-Hoo-Tai-Jin (七府大人 Lord of Seven Clans), which is not widely seen in Penang. The temple, which was formed by the merger of two temples—Thean Thay Tong and Sum Poh Keong—was registered in 1987.

The statue of the Lord of Seven Clans worshipped in Thean Thay Tong Sum Poh Keong Temple in Seberang Perai.

Originally dedicated to the Jade Emperor, historical records suggest that Thean Thay Tong may have been present at its current location as early as in 1853. The nearby Sum Poh Keong, meanwhile, was built next to a port warehouse during colonial times for traders to pay their respects. The golden statue of the Lord of Seven Clans was brought there in the 1920s or 30s by a Burmese merchant ship, and enshrined in Sum Poh Keong.

After the Japanese Occupation, residents of Teluk Air Tawar, who had evacuated inland, came back to find both Thean Thay Tong and Sum Poh Keong in ruins. The golden statue of the Lord of Seven Clans was salvaged and kept in the homes of devotees by rotation after 1946. In 1966, Sum Poh Keong proposed to Thean Thay Tong that they be merged during reconstruction; since then, Thean Thay Tong has housed the Jade Emperor, the Lord of Seven Clans and Guan Yin.

The Taoist priest using a cinnabar brush to mark various parts of the boat, symbolically transforming it into a “sacred ship” capable of dispelling misfortune.

The Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship Ceremony in Penang

Over 40 years ago, residents of Teluk Air Tawar took to Thean Thay Tong Sum Poh Keong the problem of frequent traffic accidents in the area. Through the temple medium, the Lord of Seven Clans instructed that a ceremonial ship be constructed and burned to dispel evil spirits and restore peace. Obligingly, worshippers made a crude 5ft paper ship, and Taoist priests were invited to gather the evil spirits at the two traffic intersections. The ship was burned on the spot in a simple ritual.

In early 2023, the day after the Jade Emperor’s birthday, the Lord of Seven Clans suddenly communicated through a medium in the temple that due to the long absence of the Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship ceremony, there had been frequent accidents again at intersections along the main road in front of the temple. Temple authorities decided then to reinstate the ceremony at the end of the year.

However, due to the long interval and unfamiliarity with the Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship ceremony, Thean Thay Tong sought advice from Yong Chuan Tian Temple in Melaka, with whom they have a longstanding friendship.

By hoeing the ground and sprinkling water along the way, it symbolises a water path for the royal ship to navigate during the procession.

This time, the ceremonial ship was made of wood and measured 15ft-10in-long, 5ft-10in-wide and 4ft-3in-high. Yong Chuan Tian Temple guided the design and construction of the ship, and skilled craftsmen were commissioned to build it according to the specifications. After the ship was transported to the temple from the furniture factory, authorities from Yong Chuan Tian Temple came to assist with the rituals, including installing the ship and the ship’s keel (安船和安龍骨).

Unlike the Nine Emperor Gods’ ship, this one had compartments for daily necessities and food, a shrine for deities, sails, a rudder and a compass. The lion head at the bow, as well as the weapons and plaques (兵器和執事牌) on both sides of the deck were also provided by Yong Chuan Tian Temple. Inside the ship’s shrine were three papier-mâché figurines: the Lord of Seven Clans in the centre, Mazu on his left and the Tiong-Kun-Hoo (中軍府 Officer of the Central Military Authority) on his right.

For this celebration, the temple used a unique royal boat with a cabin.

The Three-Day Festival

The entire ceremony, unlike the previous one, was observed on a much grander scale, and lasted for three consecutive days. Presided over by Taoist priests from Butterworth's Hean Chin Tua Temple (玄真壇 ) and according to advice provided by Yong Chuan Tian Temple, the whole process, involving not only the construction of the ship but also the logistics and coordination of various rituals, proved arduous. But it marked an extraordinary precedent for such celebrations in Penang.

The ritual started with water drawn from a communal well near the Caltex gas station in Teluk Air Tawar. After the water was brought back to the temple in buckets, Taoist priests chanted prayers over it and it was boiled to make tea to be offered to the deities. After which, the remaining tea was distributed to devotees as protection and blessing. Devotees were also encouraged to take some of this holy water home for protection and harmony. The anchor of the ceremonial ship was then dipped into a bucket of well water, symbolising it being safely anchored and ready for its spiritual voyage.

The ship was provisioned with a list of essentials to ensure that the deities aboard were well-equipped for their journey; they were provided with stoves, cooking utensils, pots, kettles, basins and buckets. Then there were food staples like rice, oil, salt, sauces, vegetables, fruits, chickens and ducks, as well as leisure items like musical instruments and gambling cards. All were consecrated before being placed aboard.

Given that the Lord of Seven Clans serves as an emissary of the heavens, inspecting and patrolling the earthly realm, the local devotees prepared a grand feast to honour and entertain him. This hospitality was extended to seek the deity’s intervention in warding off misfortune and ensuring local peace. Unlike the feast at Yong Chuan Tian Temple in Melaka, which featured 108 Peranakan dishes, this feast comprised 72 traditional delicacies.

Early in the morning, under the guidance of a Taoist priest, they performed a ritual by the well to obtain the water needed for the upcoming ceremony.

On the final day, the ceremonial ship and the deity’s palanquin were taken out for a procession through the streets to drive away evil spirits from the community. Before the procession began, the priests symbolically created a waterway by cutting into the ground with a hoe and pouring water from a teapot, signifying the ship’s journey. Thus, the procession was led by the hoe and teapot to open the way, with the ceremonial ship behind.

The procession stopped at each intersection of the road, and exorcism rituals, where a ritual broom and mat were used to sweep and capture malevolent entities into the ceremonial ship, were performed. Mediums from the Yong Chuan Tian Temple assisted with this, channelling the Lord of Seven Clans to collect the spirits and guide them onto the boat.

The procession route took the whole morning to complete. Once back at the temple, a ceremony was conducted to appease and pacify the captured evil spirits. In the evening, the ceremonial ship was taken to the beach behind the temple and burned, symbolically sending off the Lord of Seven Clans along with the malevolent spirits, and restoring safety and prosperity to the local residents.

The ceremony concluded with the sending of the deities to heaven through a fire ritual at the temple, marking the successful completion of the entire event.

This was one of a handful of instances in Penang where the Sending-of-the-Royal-Ship ritual was performed, and marked a significant cultural revival of this intangible heritage. This effort highlighted the importance of maintaining and revitalising heritage traditions, whose continuity could be ensured through community involvement and documentation.

Tong Wing Cheong

graduated from the National University of Tainan in Taiwan and enjoys observing and documenting local Chinese folk beliefs, customs and traditional crafts.