‘Sailing’ through the streets of Melaka, cleansing the historic city


Devotees pull a special Wangkang ship through a 9km procession route in the historical city of Melaka with 22 stops where priests performed cleansing rituals to command evil spirits and other negative influences to board the boat during Wangkang or 'royal ship' festival on Jan 11. Photo: AP

The Wangkang festival is a rare and spectacular heritage that goes back to more than three centuries when seafaring migrants from Fujian, China, fled persecution during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911) and settled down in Melaka.

One of the grandest Wangkang processions in recent times took place on Jan 11 as thousands of visitors from mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore and tourists from around the world joined devotees from the Hokkien and Baba Nyonya communities in observing the sacred ritual.

They accompanied the Wangkang – a radiantly decorated giant replica of a royal barge – as it made its way along a 9.5km route through the historic Melaka city’s narrow streets.

The procession, steeped in spiritual Taoist rites, is effectively an expedition to collect malignant spirits, unfulfilled souls and other supernatural forces believed to be responsible for disease, scourges and chaos.

The spirits, including those who died at sea, are considered as ho hiah tee (good brothers) who became lonely, wandering souls because of their tragic deaths.

Performances led the procession to clear the way for the Wangkang with votaries carrying ceremonial lanterns, flags and other paraphernalia to guide the spirits onto the ship and deliver them from their torment.

The festival evoked the Hokkien community’s memories of its deceased seafaring ancestors and honours the harmony between man and the ocean and between the real and metaphysical world.

A Wangkang ship is set aflame during the night culminating ceremony so that the collected spirits can symbolically sail into another realm during Wangkang or 'royal ship festival in Melaka on Jan 11. Photo: AP A Wangkang ship is set aflame during the night culminating ceremony so that the collected spirits can symbolically sail into another realm during Wangkang or 'royal ship festival in Melaka on Jan 11. Photo: AP

Though elaborate, the ceremony is episodic.

It is held only when the mediums at the Yong Chuan Tian (Court of Bravery) Temple in Jalan Parameswara (Banda Hilir) receive a command from the five Ong Yah deities of Melaka – Choo Ong Yah, Hoon Ong Yah, Tee Ong Yah, Lee Ong Yah and Pek Ong Yah.

The Ong Yahs are not only worshiped in Melaka and in Fujian but also in Taiwan, in parts of Thailand and the Philippines, in Penang, Kuching and in BaganSiapiapi in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Oral history suggests the first Wangkang ceremony was held in 1846 at the Cheng Wah Keong Temple in Kandang, Melaka, where the presiding deity is Choo Ong Yah.

The earliest documented festival with photographs dates back to 1919.A grand spectacleUntil 1880, a procession took place every five to eight years. When Melaka faced a deadly outbreak of cholera in 1891, the deities summoned a cleansing ceremony that year. Subsequent processions were held every 14 years until 1933.

The Wangkang festival was brought to Melaka by Hokkien traders from China and first took place in 1854. Photo: AP The Wangkang festival was brought to Melaka by Hokkien traders from China and first took place in 1854. Photo: AP

Observance of Wangkang lay dormant for 68 years before the deities commanded its revival in 2001, in the midst of the global SARS epidemic.

Since then the Wangkang has “sailed” through Melaka’s streets, picking up spirits on four occasions – in 2012, 2017, 2020 and on Jan 11 this year.

The latest and grandest spectacle began at 8.30am with dragon and lion dance troupes, a variety of brilliantly hued floats, contingents of devotees from all Taoist temples, cultural performers and musicians and singers of traditional Hokkien hymns.

The presiding deity – Beng Ong Yah – who was sent down from heaven for the occasion, was carried in a horse carriage while the other five resident Ong Yahs in Melaka were borne by temple officials on intricately decorated sedan chairs, in a rocking and bucking motion throughout the journey.

The procession stopped at 22 locations at periodic intervals, where priests dressed in ancestral robes performed rituals to command or cajole the uneasy spirits to board the spirit ship, laden with joss paper, rice, water, wine, stoves, and pots and pans. The items symbolise the balance between heaven, earth and the sea.

Just before sunset at 7pm , the cavalcade following the royal barge, wound its way to six more locations in the final stretch towards its send-off at Pulau Melaka behind Melaka Raya.

The Wangkang crossing the Tan Kim Seng Bridge during the procession in 1910. Photo: Melaka Wangkang MuseumThe Wangkang crossing the Tan Kim Seng Bridge during the procession in 1910. Photo: Melaka Wangkang Museum

When the priests conducted the final rites and prayers, the Wangkang was set ablaze amidst fireworks and firecrackers. No fuel was used in the burning of the royal barge, which was completely engulfed by flames, allegorically sending the spirits back to their own realm.

Incidentally, the instructions to hold the latest procession came from Beng Ong Yah in 2021. The command included the specifications for the Wangkang. The structure was to be made of acacia wood with the barge’s length to be 9.6m, width at 2.7m and the keel extending to 3.6m.

The Ong Yah also stipulates who should take charge of the festival and ceremonies.

For this year as was in 2020, the person picked was Datuk Ronald Gan Yong Hoe, president of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Malaysia.

How does the Ong Wah communicate his wishes?

According to Gan, it is done through three ways. The first is via a medium under trance, the second is by moon blocks (known as shim poei) which are used in pairs and thrown to seek divine guidance in the form of a yes or no question.

Temple committee member Michael Lee Kai Sean tying the idol of Tee Ong Yah in his sedan chair before the procession. Photo: Neo Sau Fong Temple committee member Michael Lee Kai Sean tying the idol of Tee Ong Yah in his sedan chair before the procession. Photo: Neo Sau Fong

The third is through the movements of the deity’s smaller sedan chair held by two devotees. The characters are “written” based on movements of the chair as indicated by the armrests. Another devotee, the tok tau (head of the table) writes it down.

“In 2001, the two persons holding the chair were Babas who do not even know how to write their own names in Chinese. The movements of the chair resulted in a couplet being written, stunning the audience,” said Gan.

He added You Ong Yah, another deity sent down from heaven decreed that the next Wangkang festival would be held in 2031 and he would preside over it.

To dispel negativity

“The years when a Wangkang procession is called for have been significant, like in 1919 when the global Spanish Flu epidemic broke out after World War I and in 1933, when the world faced The Great Depression,” said Gan.

More recently, in 2017, You Ong Yah commanded that a procession be held on Nov 15, 2020.

When the time came, the Covid 19 pandemic had spread around the world and Malaysia was under lockdown.

Visitors taking a look at old photographs of previous Wangkang ceremonies at the newly-opened Melaka Wangkang Museum. Photo: The Star/Daryl Goh Visitors taking a look at old photographs of previous Wangkang ceremonies at the newly-opened Melaka Wangkang Museum. Photo: The Star/Daryl Goh

Although the general feeling was that the festival would not be held because of Covid 19, the deity’s edict was fulfilled, in a rather curious way.

As the worries intensified, officials invited then Chief Minister Datuk Seri Sulaiman Md Ali to the temple to brief him on the preparations. He agreed to come on Nov 13 but told them he could only be there for 15 minutes.

But when he came, he stayed for two hours, even asking others who were scheduled to see him at the office to meet at the temple instead.

Just before he left, when asked if the Wangkang could be sent on its way on Nov 15, his reply was “Hantar lah! (Send it off!)

“Despite the prevalent anxiety that the festival would not be held, the Ong Yah materialised what he had promised,” said Gan.

He added this year’s procession was to dispel the negativity and concerns over food security, as shown by the Chinese characters revealed by the deity.

Devotees pulling the Wangkang past the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (Temple of the Green Cloud) along Jalan Tokong, Melaka. It is the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia. Photo: Hoon Kim Peng Devotees pulling the Wangkang past the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (Temple of the Green Cloud) along Jalan Tokong, Melaka. It is the oldest functioning temple in Malaysia. Photo: Hoon Kim Peng

Melaka’s Baba Nyonya community, which could trace its origins to the Malacca Sultanate, has kept full records of Wangkang processions since 1911.

The Wangkang ceremony was inscribed on the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2020, jointly with Ong Yah temples in Xiamen, China.

This came about largely as a result of the Baba Nyonya Association of Malaysia’s application to Unesco, through the Malaysian Commissioner of Heritage.

Gan, who was recently appointed a committee member of experts on heritage and customs under the National Heritage Council, said this year’s festival was also momentous as it also marked the opening of the Melaka Wangkang Museum located next to the Yong Chuan Tian temple, Jalan Parameswara, (Banda Hilir).

Chief Minister Ab Rauf Jusoh officially opened the museum, a platform to showcase the history of the festival and all activities related to the procession on Jan 8. The CM described it as the latest tourism attraction in the state, three days before the procession.

In Melaka, the Wangkang processions have been held in 1919, 1933, 2001, 2012 and 2021. Photo: APIn Melaka, the Wangkang processions have been held in 1919, 1933, 2001, 2012 and 2021. Photo: AP

Gan said the religious observance also has profound spiritual relevance as it brings back memories of the forefathers who risked their lives by braving the rough seas, relying only on the sun, moon, stars and the wind for navigation.

“The ceremony also teaches us to respect nature and all beings, even the spirits. Although the Chinese have the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ festival, we don’t use that term but refer to the spirits as ‘good brothers’,” pointed out Gan.

“They are invited to board the ship, to serve the navy of the Ong Yahs, so to speak. The spirits are made to feel honoured to be on board to get back to their realm. The belief is, it will help them rejoin the cycle of life and rebirth,” he added.

What is the origin of the Ong Yahs? According to one legend, they were among the Chin Soo (officers who passed the highest level of examinations for administration) under the 13th Ming Emperor Wanli.

The emperor, who was highly skeptical of supernatural belief, wanted to test the powers of his spiritual adviser, Teo Thian Soo – the highest Taoist priest.

He called for a special underground chamber to be built and told the scholars – numbering 360 – to go there and play music.

'The ceremony also teaches us to respect nature and all beings, even the spirits. Although the Chinese have the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ festival, we don’t use that term but refer to the spirits as ‘good brothers’,' says Gan. Photo: AP 'The ceremony also teaches us to respect nature and all beings, even the spirits. Although the Chinese have the ‘Hungry Ghosts’ festival, we don’t use that term but refer to the spirits as ‘good brothers’,' says Gan. Photo: AP

While they were there, he challenged Teo to use his powers to kill them all. It was said that the priest sprinkled salt and rice on the floor, chanted some words before striking with his magic sword, resulting in all of them being beheaded.

The enraged spirits appeared before the emperor that same night and demanded their lives back from him. They continued to pester the ruler, giving him no peace of mind.

The emperor sought the intervention of the Jade Emperor, the Supreme ruler of Heaven, after which the restless souls were sanctified as Ong Yahs (Princes). They were also deified and told that they would be venerated wherever they went.

Worship of the Ong Yahs started in China’s Minnan region between the 15th and 17th centuries. When the Hokkiens from there sailed to Melaka, they brought five of their deities to Melaka.

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!
   

Next In Culture

Weekend for the arts: 'Inventory Of Intimacies' exhibition, Jai draws at Ilham
Does street art belong in a museum?
Mid-year planner: performing arts and more in the Klang Valley
Italian artist Cattelan’s latest satirical work is a bullet-riddled golden wall
US Library of Congress spotlights its American 'treasures'
Reimagining M. Nasir's musical legacy through art
Late author Ursula K. Le Guin's home to become a writers' residency
Oldest privately owned book sells for RM18mil at British auction sale
Miniature diorama project revives 15th century Melaka
Picasso Museum opens vast online archive of works by the iconic artist

Others Also Read