Celebrating Jade Emperor's birthday, Bagan Sungai Lima-style

A Bagan Sungai Lima resident who only wanted to be known as Sun, 68, preparing the offerings for the Jade Emperor. - Photo: Bernama

KLANG: The tiny backwater fishing village of Bagan Sungai Lima on the eastern side of Pulau Ketam here comes alive in the wee hours of the ninth day of Chinese New Year when its predominantly Hokkien community celebrates the birthday of the Jade Emperor.

In fact, in this village, the celebrations on the first two days of the lunar calendar are relatively quiet. For the Hokkien community in general, "Ti Gong Dan" or the birthday of the Jade Emperor is the most significant event during the 15-day Chinese New Year festivities.

In Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor is the supreme ruler of the deities and beings dwelling in the realms of heaven, earth and hell.

The buzz of excitement preceding "Ti Gong Dan" was evident recently at the Pulau Ketam jetty, a 25-minute ferry ride from the jetty at Port Klang.

As early as 7am on the eighth day of Chinese New Year on Saturday (Feb 17), "outstation” family members and relatives of the 350-odd Bagan Sungai Lima villagers were seen making their way back home to celebrate the birthday of their revered deity.

It was a really hot day but the heat did not deter their families from turning up at the jetty to welcome them and ferry them home on their bicycles - their main mode of transportation - together with prayer paraphernalia such as fruits, sugar cane stalks and incense papers they had brought along from the mainland.

Eighth Day

The centre stage of the Jade Emperor’s birthday celebration is the special prayers, known as "Bai Ti Gong", which start at midnight on the dot and spill into the early hours of the ninth day of Chinese New Year.

As Oscar Lee, 45, a homestay operator and third-generation resident of Bagan Sungai Lima, related to Bernama, the Chinese New Year festivities in his village usually peak on the eighth day when families reunite to make preparations for "Bai Ti Gong".

"Typically, we don’t celebrate that much on the first and second days... we just have a feast on the eve (of the first day).

"In fact, most heads of families here (who are fishermen) would venture out to the sea on the third day and return home only on the seventh or eighth day,” he said.

Describing Bagan Sungai Lima as a quiet fishing village populated mainly by senior citizens, Lee said it becomes vibrant on the eve of the Jade Emperor’s birthday celebration as well as when the two main Taoist temples in the village hold festivals in honour of their respective deities during the fifth and 10th month of the lunar calendar.

"We’ve some 18 Taoist temples and shrines here and we believe the deities have been protecting us since the establishment of our village 50 years ago,” he added.

Special Dishes

Meanwhile, for Bagan Sungai Lima resident retired logistics manager Ng Aik Foo, 62, his wife and their five children, "Ti Gong Dan" is an obligatory event during Chinese New Year.

He said they make the necessary preparations for the Jade Emperor’s birthday a day in advance, buying various prayer items and preparing special dishes such as roast pork, boiled chicken, roast duck and seafood as offerings during the midnight prayers.

He said Hokkien families are willing to spend generously on "Ti Gong Dan" as it holds special significance for them, besides serving as an occasion for them to strengthen familial bonds and pray for their well-being.

Narrating the history of the celebration, Ng said conducting special prayers to mark the birthday of the Jade Emperor is their way of expressing their gratitude to the deity for protecting the Hokkien community that lived in the Fujian region of China from pirate attacks during the Ming Dynasty.

"The incidents occurred in the new year of the lunar calendar and the frightened villagers would hide in the sugar cane fields for nine days to escape the pirate attacks.

"On the ninth day, the pirates would have dispersed and the people would feel safe. Coincidentally, the ninth day was also the birthday of the Jade Emperor. Since then, the Hokkien Chinese community believed that they were protected by the Jade Emperor who allowed them to seek refuge in the sugar cane fields.

"That’s why it’s mandatory for us to have sugar cane stalks for the birthday celebration,” he said.

According to historical records, the Hokkien community from Fujian formed part of the early Chinese immigrants in Malaya who established settlements in coastal areas including Pulau Ketam.

Bagan Sungai Lima is one of the largest Hokkien settlements on the island.

The midnight prayers held in conjunction with "Ti Gong Dan" last for 30 minutes to an hour.

"Before participating in the prayers, we would bathe and wear new clothes. We would also place various food and prayer items on a table in front of the house, with sugar cane stalks tied to the left and right sides of the table,” Ng explained.

Lee, meanwhile, said the Jade Emperor’s birthday celebration observed by the Bagan Sungai Lima community is slightly different from that of the Hokkien Chinese communities in Klang (Selangor), Johor, Kedah and Penang.

"In Penang, particularly at Chew Jetty, "Ti Gong Dan" has become more commercial. Over there, the celebration is held on a large scale with many families joining in, with the aim of promoting the event as a tourist attraction in the state,” he said.

Tourist Attraction

In Bagan Sungai Lima, it is more of a family affair, with each family observing the celebration in their own home.

Said Ng: "Over here, a small pavilion made of paper symbolising the Jade Emperor is displayed in the fore part of the table (in front of their home) filled with offerings such as fruits and vegetables as well as five types of meat including pork, chicken, duck, fish and other seafood like crab or shrimp.

"The five types of meat dishes are must-haves and here in this village, we refer to them as the ‘Five Stars’.”

Ng said as head of the family, he would lead the rituals to pay homage to the Jade Emperor, which include burning incense.

The ceremony concludes with the family burning a stack of paper money folded in the form of an ancient currency called "Yuan Bao", followed by the lighting of firecrackers and fireworks until 4am.

"Once the prayers are over, we will enjoy the offerings as we believe that partaking in the food brings us blessings,” he added.

He also said family members who are menstruating, pregnant or in confinement are not allowed to participate in the prayers, adding that families are also prohibited from observing "Ti Gong Dan" for three years following the demise of a family member.

Lee said as a homestay operator in Bagan Sungai Lima, he would take his guests, comprising domestic and foreign tourists, on a tour of the village during the "Ti Gong Dan" celebration so that they can savour the joyous atmosphere.

"Each (Hokkien) family here still adheres to the tradition of celebrating the Jade Emperor’s birthday... I can say that for the last 50 years, we have been preserving the cultural traditions of our ancestors,” he said.

He added the tourists concerned are not only taken in by the carnival-like atmosphere but also get an insight into how the Chinese fishing community in Bagan Sungai Lima celebrate Chinese New Year in comparison with the Chinese communities in other parts of the country. - Bernama

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