It’s not every day that you walk home from school and find yourself being offered three lollipops by the embodiment of a 3-year-old-messenger to the gods. But that’s the sort of thing that just might happen if you live in Singapore.
I had been wondering all week why there was an enormous tent — truly enormous, big enough to hold a seated dinner for 700, as I learned — in the field not far from my bus stop near school.
There was a huge banner out on the lawn in front:
As I walked toward the big tent, I passed the back of this smaller puppet show venue …
… and found this puppet show being performed …
… for an audience of exactly zero people.
This is not the first time I’ve seen a puppet show on a moveable stage being acted out for no one; I ran across a similar performance during one of my first weeks in Singapore. I am starting to wonder whether these performances are necessarily meant to be staged for the living; from what I’ve read, puppet shows are often performed for the ghosts. Indeed, Chinese puppet shows have deep connections with ancient temples; they are a form of temple theater, created to teach stories and to give thanks to the deities. If you look at the stage in the photo above, you’ll note some oranges and candles in front of the puppets — a sure sign of a sacrifice.
When I made my way across the field to the big tent, I found myself in front of a tall makeshift altar:
It soon became clear that the tent housed multiple altars, as though someone had created a temple inside of a wedding pavilion. I wasn’t sure whether I should be wandering around — I had no idea if this was a public space — so I walked over to a group of largely elderly Chinese people sitting at a table and asked what was going on. In broken English, they communicated that they were celebrating the birthday of a god. Further conversation, combined with a cheerful game of charades, led me to understand that the god in question was one of the gods of hell. (A subsequent pantomime suggested that this god had a long tongue, which would likely make him Heibai Wuchang, the god — or twin gods — of escorting people to the underworld. But I’m still not clear on whether Heibai Wuchang’s birthday lines up with where we are right now on the lunar calendar, so I might have the wrong god altogether).
Eventually a younger man came over to act as my very unofficial tour guide. He explained that they were on the final eve of five days’ celebration of the god’s birthday and asked if I wanted to see inside hell. This isn’t an offer that a girl gets every day, so I agreed to walk in through this curtain:
The only light inside the small room beyond came from sun peeking through the edges of the curtains and the burning ends of incense sticks. My guide explained the trappings all around us: clothes worn by the gods of hell, statues related to the ten levels of hell, and a broad range of sacrifices to the gods of hell. It was all quite remarkable and beautiful — and, appropriately, dripping hot.
Back outside, we visited altars to the gods in heaven. My guide showed me the many things that will be burned on the last night for the gods, including these paper horses that the celestial generals will ride.
For the highlight of my tour, I was introduced the resident “medium.” His spirit is three years old — if you look closely at the seated figure, you’ll see that he has pacifier in his mouth — and he has a lot of work to do.
Here, the medium is busy stamping joss paper so that the gods and ancestors who receive it will know that he has, in essence, approved it as an intermediary. With the medium there, the people who have made these sacrifices can ensure that the gods know of their provenance.
When the medium was done stamping the paper goods, he went on to “sign” the food, dotting the contents of each bowl and dish with red ink:
When he didn’t have a pacifier, he held a baby bottle:
For reasons I didn’t understand, the medium next went over to a jar of lollipops and presented me proudly with three of them, all the while “talking” in the high pitched, sing-song voice of a child. I’m not sure whether to eat the lollipops or not — it seems strange to eat candy given to you by a messenger from the gods.
I left wishing that I knew Chinese (I’m guessing that Hokkien or another dialect from southern China would have been particularly handy), because I really appreciated this friendly group of worshippers and would have liked to have had a richer conversation with them. But I am glad that they shared even this limited experience.