More than a century ago, J.D. Vaughan was Superintendent of Penang Police from 1851 till 1856. In his book ‘The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements’, he wrote: “The Chinese people, nooks, corner of roads, trees, rocks and sundry other places with fays and fairies and goblins damned innumerable, and do them worship to propitiate them. Incense sticks, slip of paper, tinsel ornaments and other gew gaws may be seen at the most out of the way spots showing that the inhabitants of the neighborhood have discovered an evil spirit there-abouts.”
Vaughan may be excused for his unflattering remarks, for like many colonial officials and westerners, they do not take the intangible seriously, unlike the inhabitants of Asia who experience the spirit world as indeed real.
The apparent Chinese indifference towards religious issues has often been seized upon by Westerners as an unerring mark of their want of spiritual profundity and sophistication.
If Vaughan were to look deeper, he would discover that Chinese mind is also practical and unpretentious and capable of the most abstruse speculation. In both philosophy and religion, what it seeks to do is to interpret life in terms of a monistic principle which will enable them to establish a unity between this worldly and other-worldly existence, between human self and nature, and between the material and the spiritual world.
What Vaughan described over a hundred years ago is still very much alive in Penang today. If he were to probe a little he would discover that the ‘shrines innumerable’ were for the worship of Datuk (Keramat), the local deity or guardian spirit of the land (not goblins or evil spirits). It is indeed ‘damned innumerable’, occupying sundry other places, nooks and corners, trees and rocks all over the island. The worship of Datuk Kong (in Hokkien) is peculiar to Penang, as nowhere else does it in such a scale and intensity.
Every Thursday night (Malam Jumaat, beginning of the Muslim Sabbath) worshippers light up the shrines with incenses, and offerings. Partaking of pork is taboo among the strict devotees.
Recently I chanced upon a grand celebration of a Datuk Kong in the mixed working/middle class suburb of Rervoir Gardden, close to the hills of Ayer Itam. It was the birthday of Datuk Ayer Puteh. It falls on the 6th of the 6th lunar month. Celebrations began on the 5th and went on for 3 days. In a small field a shed was erected to house the altar and paraphernalia, which had been brought down from the shrine at the foot of the hill about 2 km away. There were a white haji cap, a small Kris, seven colour flags, and offerings of flowers, betelnut and sireh, green coconuts, rokok daun (tobacco/palm leaves), malay sweets and cakes like dodol. Betir, kueh kerai and ketupat.
Uncle Tan, a sinewy old man of 75 brightened up when I approached him for some background history. “There are all together seven Datuks,” he enthused. “They are seven brothers, famous warriors of old. ” The oldest is Datuk Kuning, alias Pengulu Pulau Kechil; followed by Datuk Panglima Hitam, Datuk Puteh, Datuk Merah, Datuk Hijau, Datuk Kechil and Datuk Bisu, he rattled off as if the spirits were right there in person. Other names that might crop up are Datuk Musa, Datuk Batu Acheh and Datuk Ali, he added matter-of-factly.
I asked Uncle Tan are they really famous warriors before and how they came to be deified and worshiped with such reverence? Uncle Tan looked at me aghast as if saying, what dumb head!
“These Datuks are very important and control the locality, if you pay respect and appease them, they can help you and solve your problems. If you violate and offend them like simply chopping down any trees or leveling the hills, misfortune will befall you. ‘
“Don’t you know so many bulldozers have overturned and accidents occurred to these violators,” Uncle Tan added, looking at me disappointingly.
Earlier on the Datuk had come down from the hill shrine in a grand procession, preceded by flags and banners beating of drums and wailing Java pipes from the Menora troop. Datuk Ayer Puteh came in the form of a medium in a trance. The medium wearing a sarong had very dark complexion, he was bare-chested and had a white sash across his shoulder. He weaved and danced with silat movements ceaselessly as the procession pass the housing estates.
The procession ended at the shed in the field. Opposite the shed stood an open stage for the menora performance from the Penang Siamese Community.
Many years ago, the committee made a mistake by engaging a Chinese opera for the celebration. That night there was a thunderstorm and the stage was blown away. “The Datuk was angry because he could not understand Chinese opera. We can stage Menora or Ronggeng dance for the Datuk,” said Uncle Aw (uncle Blackie, a popular name among the peranakan Hokkiens), 71, who has been a medium for 60 years.
On the second day, which is the birthday, a kenduri was held in the afternoon. The shed was filled with pots of nasi kunyit, curry chicken, and all kinds of fruits. Before the food were distributed Uncle Aw went into a trance. The Datuk blessed the large crowd with holy water as each came forward kneeling reverently. To those seeking a cure for sickness, he gave pinang and sireh to chew.
On the third night, an air of expectancy pervaded as a large crowd of devotees gathered. The Menora had ended and the troupe were entertaining the crowd with Thai songs and ramvong (folk dance) as a large crowd gathered waiting for the propitious hour. At 11 pm. Uncle Aw sat in front of the altar and went into trance, waving and swaying amidst thick incense (kamenyan) smoke; a cacophony of throbing drums, clashing cymbals and gongs, and wailing java pipes (serunai).
The Datuk swayed and silat-danced as the process:on proceeded with groups of kids holding flags and a huge “Datuk Ayer Puteh” banner leading the way. A large crowd followed with joss sticks, incense urns, and all the paraphernalia of the Datuk. Thick white incense smoke lifted through the dark night, the percussion and pipes intensified, the Datuk swayed and danced with exuberance with each new step as the parade wound through the middle-class housing estate. Residents came out to watch and pray along the dimly lit streets.
Arriving at the shrine at the foot of the hill, the Datuk. leaped into the shrine, the size of a small room, silat danced with renewed intensity while the drums, percussion and pipes reached a crescendo. The Datuk sat down on the floor and slammed his hands on the cement floor, all was quiet – he spoke: “Datuk banyak suka, semua orang sukahati, makanan pun chukup; Datuk minta Tuhan kasi semua orang selamat. Sila chakap sama semua orang. [Datuk is very happy, every body is enjoying, the food is plenty; I will ask God to bless you all! Please tell everyone.] The message was translated into Hokkien as the crowd clapped and cheered.
“Datuk minta empat ekor,” (give us the lottery numbers) someone shouted. Speaking all the time in Malay he said, “Wait, we have to pray to God first” (sembayang Tuhan dulu), he reprimanded. “Please bring the papers.” A piece of white paper and a pen were brought forward. “I mean joss paper for praying,” he scolded in a loud angry voice.
When the ‘gold’ joss papers were brought in, he scribbled three words in Jawi on the back and asked the people to bring it outside as gold offering to Tuhan (God). And then the people worshipped and prayed and the ‘gold’ papers were burnt as he instructed.
This done, the Datuk said: “Now bring the paper. On the white piece of paper, which was eagerly brought forward, he wrote a 4-digit number, which was pasted outside the shrine for the eager crowd to bet on race day.
The Datuk asked for anyone with problems to come forward. A man asked whether he would be successful in his new business. The Datuk took his hands and examined his palm and inquired:
“Do you pray to God? The man confessed that he was so busy he has forgotten to pray. The Datuk reprimanded him and ordered that he pray regularly. Then he would be all right, and be careful of the shoulders and the back of the head; don’t let anyone hit you in those areas, he advised.
Another asked whether he would be okay if he proceeds to Singapore for work. The Datuk took his hands and said: “Boleh, hang boleh pi tapi ta’boleh lama. Hang mesti balek sini sebab bini dan keluarga ada sini, hang mesti balek sini.” (You can go but not for long, because your wife and family are here. You must come back)
The consultation over, the medium swayed, gave a jerk and sprang backwards into the arms of a devotee. For a few minutes he lay still. Some water were sprinkled on his face, a guy tapped him on his chest, the medium awoke as if from a long sleep.
It seemed like a current was being switched off, and we were back to the mundane world. Slowly everyone trooped back home in groups… seemingly happy that they had found unity with the spirit world.