Having been in web design and web marketing for 14 years now, we’ve experienced quite a bit of diversity. Our clients range from solo-preneurs (solo entrepreneurs) to factories in the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone area. They can even be churches or NGOs sometimes.
Once in a while, we get non-business clients. Usually this proves equally fascinating.
This year, we’re working on an interesting client – a Taoist temple in Macallum Street Ghaut here in Penang. The Tow Boo Keong Temple (in Hokkien) or Dou Mu Gong Temple (that’s the Mandarin way of saying it) needed a website to inform not only about its history but also its annual (and highly popular) Nine Emperor Gods Festival which attracts Taoists and Buddhists from all over. Over the years, the temple and its celebration have been attracting tourists too.
The Nine Emperor Gods Festival celebrates the return from heaven to earth of the Nine Emperor spirits, who are worshipped as one deity known as Mazu, the Taoist goddess of the sea and queen of heaven who represents health, wealth and prosperity.
The festival falls on the ninth day of the ninth moon in the Chinese lunar calendar which is usually in September each year. You won’t miss it as many stalls will be set up around Penang with their signature egg yolk yellow cloth banners to advertise their vegetarian fare.
Penang becomes really festive as most people take this opportunity to become temporary vegetarians for all of 9 days. Some adhere to a one-day vegetarian diet if they decide to visit and pray at the temple. Some people take this purification further by using a completely new set of toothbrushes, cutlery and crockery. Dairy products are not allowed to be eaten and some don’t even use leather wallets or purses. It is also well-known that the weather becomes unusually rainy especially towards the end of the 9 days.
Last September, Nic and I decided to experience on our own what the Nine Emperor Gods Festival was all about. We loved the idea of vegetarianism but have never really done a full 9 days of no-meat diet. We decided to try this strict pure vegetarian diet for a few reasons: we wanted to be able to experience the full prayer sessions, accompany the deity’s procession around George Town and be able to access the upper floors of the Dou Mu Gong Temple. (You cannot enter the inner sanctum of the temple if you have not observed vegetarianism.)
Initially I thought it was going to be difficult – would I get hungry all the time? Would I suddenly crave meat? The list of doubts went on. But it was easier than I thought. I felt considerably energized too. Maybe faith and diet can do good things for the soul.
Plus how could we design its website or write about this temple if we didn’t know anything about it? If we didn’t go, we’d miss out on such an amazing opportunity to see the temple mediums in action throughout the full 9 days of the celebration.
It helped that we had friends who have been going to this temple for many years now and could easily explain and describe to us what we were seeing or what the mediums were doing. Every night, the five temple mediums specially chosen would get ready to “lend” their bodies to the deities who descend. Sometimes, the deity will “descend” into a person who is suitable but may not know it. One of those nights, I saw how a youth who was simply near the temple mediums suddenly convulsed and fell when the gongs started. One of the deities had chosen to use this youth’s body as his vehicle to come to earth.
For us, one of the key highlights of the festival was accompanying the 200 or so devotees as they walked alongside the deity’s float procession to “tour” the streets of George Town. The two-hour stroll around the older streets of George Town such as Magazine Road, Beach Street, etc. was not as tiring as we’d expected. Drenched in sweat, yes (after all nights are humid in Penang) but it was an experience to savour as the deity’s procession stopped to visit temples along the way, showing that respect and humility are universal, even if you are a deity!
We were at the temple every night to watch and learn. I have never seen a trance personally so when I did see how these men, some in their 60s and 70s, entered a trance, it was morbidly fascinating. We watched how the deity upon entering the medium’s body could mete out advice regarding the prayers, even mildly chastise the temple folks.
What we experienced those nights was incredibly eye-opening. How the mediums “played” with boiling hot oil heated in woks (later you could buy this oil as ointment for your aches and pains because they’ve been blessed by the deities). How they played with iron balls heated for three nights with burning charcoal like how we play with balls, tossing these balls in the air! How the medium sat on a chair of sharp knives and never cut himself. How the medium could spear his own cheeks without a drop of blood or pain. How the medium could play with lit joss sticks, using his bare feet to stamp them without any fear of fire.
We came away quite amazed and with a deeper appreciation for Taoist beliefs and folklore. We wouldn’t have known about this wonderful smorgasbord of culture, history and art if we didn’t immerse ourselves into this website design project. The project is still ongoing as there are lots of information to research, write and check (as well as the videos to be reviewed) and more.
We leave you with a hint of what’s to come in the Dou Mu Gong website with some photos we took while we were there last year. If there’s anything we learnt (besides getting first hand views of some things we could not explain), the festival made us appreciate the health benefits of following a strict vegetarian diet! Just stay away from the mock meats!