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2020

Across the Seas and Ethnicity: Tua Pek Kong and Datok Kong Worship in Contemporary Singapore

Across the Seas and Ethnicity: Tua Pek Kong and Datok Kong Worship in Contemporary Singapore

In both Singapore and the broader maritime world of Southeast Asia, the worship of two deities – Tua Pek Kong and Datok Gong – among devotees of popular Chinese religion remains ubiquitous. From splendid temples to humble roadside shrines devoted to these two divinities, the worship and history of these two deities grew alongside the wider history of the Chinese diaspora in maritime Southeast Asia. Separate from the mass Chinese migration into Southeast Asia in the 19th century, animism as a spiritual practice was commonplace in the maritime Malay world. Sacred sites, objects, animals and people were not foreign to indigenous Malay practitioners, and such phenomena were typically grouped under the catch-all umbrella phrase: keramat. A keramat, which broadly refers to a “sacred object” in Malay, can be used to designate a living person, animal or naturally occurring landforms, such as waterfalls and rock formations.

When the Chinese came to Southeast Asia, they brought their own spiritual systems with them. Among many other deities that followed them to the region was the Earth Deity, a deity whose worship met the needs and requests for protection within a very specific locality. The Earth Deity went by many names, but among the Southeast Asian Chinese, he is typically referred to as Tua Pek Kong. The evidence as to where, or who was the first Tua Pek Kong in Southeast Asia remains fragmentary, although inscriptions from the northern tip of Penang island may point to one possible Chinese pioneer, who was deified as a Tua Pek Kong after death.

Datok Gong worship was thus the meeting point between the Malay practice of honouring keramats and the Chinese’s practice of paying worship to Tua Pek Kongs in a once-foreign land. In our project, we examined how, and why, this relationship between the Datok Gong and the Tua Pek Kong came to be. We argue that both deities conferred upon their devotees a semblance of much needed protection against the elements and wild animals indigenous to the forests of Southeast Asia. Threats associated with a foreign and unknown environment – such as tigers and snakes – formed the bulk of Chinese labourer casualties during the earlier phase of pepper and gambier cash cropping in the region. These were dangers that Chinese labourers had to contend with on a daily basis. Moreover, since maritime Southeast Asia was situated at the crossroads of various ethno-cultural belief systems, there was much room for inter-cultural borrowing and syncretism. We suggest that this environment allowed for the negotiation of the Datok Gong cult, which branched out from, but consequently shared a degree of independence from the wider pantheon of Chinese deities in the region. As the name of the Datok Gong suggests, the deity remains worshipped by a body of predominantly Chinese devotees. Although the Datok Gong shares the same uncle-like image with his Tua Pek Kong counterpart, pertinent differences exist. Instead of donning the garb of a Chinese bureaucrat, the Datok Gong is typically represented with sarongs and songkok headdresses. In other instances where natural phenomena, such as trees or stones, were given human characteristics, yellow and green are the colours of choice when designing the homes of the Datok. Food offerings like betel nut are offered, while devotees are expected to avoid pork out of respect for the Datok.

This research documentation project and video would not have been possible without the help of many individuals. Above all else, we would like to express our thanks to our previous teammates Shawn Tham and Vincent Teoh, Victor Yue, Toh Da Jun, David Lim, “The Uncle in the White Shirt [pseudonym],” Mason Lee, Eric Soh, Mr Qiu, Sung Chang Da, Ang Yik Han and Lee Chih Hsien, “Ah Nam [pseudonym],” Ishak Shamsuddin and Sherman Tham for their time and assistance.

A Dance of Lions

A Dance of Lions

Join us for a live dialogue and learn more about the history and various styles of lion dance in Singapore.

A Dance with my Father: An Era Dance Theatre Showcase

A Dance with my Father: An Era Dance Theatre Showcase

Watch a dance performance unique to Hari Raya and hear about Era Dance Theatre’s founder Osman Abdul Hamid! Journey from his beginnings as a dancer in 1979, to starting Era in 1992, and to how his son Dinie is still carrying on the dance legacy.

A Love for Kueh: Preserving Teochew Delights with Yoon' Traditional Teochew Kueh

A Love for Kueh: Preserving Teochew Delights with Yoon' Traditional Teochew Kueh

Yoon’s Traditional Teochew Kueh was started by a mother-daughter duo who endeavour to preserve Teochew delights. In this talk, learn how tiam tor (traditional sweet kueh) and kueh dousha (Teochew version of ang ku kueh) are made, starting with an introduction on kueh heritage, to making the filling, cooking the skin, “kupping” techniques, and steaming. The first 40 viewers to submit all correct answers to a quiz at the end will receive a doorstep delivery of a special goodie bag* containing 5 pieces of tiam tor, 1 traditional kueh mould, and a recipe sheet!

*Food items used are safe for vegetarians and will be made fresh on delivery day. Limited to 1 goodie bag per address. Kueh is best consumed within 2 hours of delivery. Details of delivery will be provided closer to the date. Terms and conditions apply

Animated Storytelling: Origins of Dumpling Festival

Animated Storytelling: Origins of Dumpling Festival

Do you know why we eat yummy rice dumplings during the Dumpling Festival, or how the practice of dragon boat racing came to be? Uncover the legends and myths behind the Dumpling Festival through an animated short story and learn more about this much-loved Chinese festival!

A Tale of Two Communities in Chinatown

A Tale of Two Communities in Chinatown

Although predominantly occupied by Chinese immigrants, Chinatown saw the harmonious coexistence between the different ethnic groups since the early colonial years. A Tale of Two Communities in Chinatown explores the stories of the early Muslim and Hindu immigrants from South India through our two National Monuments – Jamae Mosque and Sri Mariamman Temple. A journey through time awaits you!

A Tradition in Making Zongzi (Dumpling) with Chef Shih

A Tradition in Making Zongzi (Dumpling) with Chef Shih

Join Chef Shih from Palate Sensations as she shares the history of bak zhang (dumplings) and demonstrates the making and art of wrapping this delicacy, which is usually eaten during Duan Wu Jie (dragon boat festival). The first 20 viewers who provide all correct answers to the quiz at the end will win a set of 3 zhangs* (Hokkien, Nyonya, and Kee with gula melaka dip) delivered fresh to their homes!

*Items contain no pork or lard. Limited to 1 set per address. Details of delivery will be provided closer to the date. Terms and conditions apply.

A Walk Through Our Mangroves

A Walk Through Our Mangroves

The mangroves are an exciting place to be! From the cackling kingfisher to the elusive shore pit viper, there is nothing better than spending an afternoon walking in this swampy habitat. Join us on this nature walk through the Pasir Ris mangrove boardwalk. We'll bring you closer to some of the important mangrove plants and animals that have shaped our environment and even our diet through our podcast!

Cantonese Confectionaries with Tong Heng

Cantonese Confectionaries with Tong Heng

Get a peek into how the iconic Tong Heng egg tarts are made in this sharing session.

Celebrating Hari Raya with Chef Bob!

Celebrating Hari Raya with Chef Bob!

Join celebrity chef Sharizal Salleh, better known as Chef Bob, as he shares his unique rendang recipe, and recounts his memories of celebrating Hari Raya growing up and how his family rings in the festive day. Participate in the quiz at the end of the video and the first 40 correct answers will receive his delicious rendang* sent right to your doorstep!