Tua Pek Kong is a Chinese Taoist deity popularly worshipped by the Chinese community in Singapore. Pulau Ubin (or Ubin Island), located just a few minutes from Singapore’s state-of-the-art international airport, is said to be last village in Singapore that’s reminiscent of the quintessential island life of the early 1900s.
Text and pictures by Debby Ng
(Left) The name of the Chinese Taoist deity, Tua Pek Kong, is carried in the salty ocean winds along Pulau Ubin’s jetty.
A temple located in the centre of the village town is dedicated to the Tua Pek Kong. Since 2008, the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple began celebrating Tua Pek Kong’s birthday with massive week-long festivities. The dates follow the lunar calendar, and this year, celebrations were held from May 16 to May 21.
(Left) A devotee raises her joss sticks at the entrance of the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. In the background, members of a Teochew street opera (or wayang) troupe play a game of majong as they wait for nightfall and the performance to begin.
A devotee requests for her wishes to be written by a Chinese calligraphist at a desk set outside the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple. These services are installed specially for the duration of these celebrations.
Wishes by devotees are borne on red slips of paper that are pinned within a joss stick spiral and hung around the Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple.
A devotee offers joss sticks to Hu Ye or Tiger God. Hu Ye is typically enshrined in a cave upon a hill behind Pulau Ubin’s village town, but the idol is brought down to the village centre in a ritual procession during special occasions such as these.
Devotees leave offering of joss sticks, and candles shaped like pineapples, at the altar of Tua Pek Kong, which is believed to bring good luck and prosperity. Tua Pek Kong is considered by Pulau Ubin residents as the guardian of the island. Although Pulau Ubin was invaded by the Japanese in World War II, the population was spared the massacres and atrocities of the occupation.
The week-long celebrations comprise traditional Teochew opera (also known by the locals as wayang) and modern getai (meaning “singing on stage” in Mandarin) performances with bright lights and flamboyant singers in colourful costumes.
(Left) Qin Yifung is the manager and lead performer of this Teochew opera troupe that has been performing at Pulau Ubin for a decade. Next to her make-up chest are idols of three “baby gods” believed to ensure the well-being of the troupe members.
Glarence Pang, 24, is the youngest professional member of the troupe. There are also two children that perform in the troupe, but they “do it for fun”. Pang, whose grandmother was the founder of this troupe, began performing since he was eight years old.
Joey Yeo, 10, gets some help from her mother to reapply makeup after she returns from snacking on some chips. Members of the troupe remember the first year they began performing at Pulau Ubin, because it is the same year Joey was born.
Qin Yifung steals a moment to check the messages on her mobile phone, as other performers prepare for their turn onstage. The opera stage at Pulau Ubin is a permanent fixture in the village centre but is only used during such occasions. It is built in the traditional kampung or Malayan village style, with stilts and louvered windows near the ceiling for ventilation.
Joey Yeo watches from backstage as her mother and other performers play out their roles.
While there has been renewed interest in Chinese street opera because it has become such a novelty, the performances draw few genuine audiences because the stories performed are typically ancient, metaphorical, and in Chinese dialects that few can understand or relate to in these modern times. The performers are unfazed by this, as it is believed that the spirits of ancestors return to be entertained during these festivals, and the performers continue to put their best act on in respect.
Unlike the Teochew opera held the night before, modern getai acts do the job of raking in large numbers of supporters. While most getai performed on Singapore’s mainland feature modern pop and techno acts, the performances on Ubin island, though modern, retain a folk essence that made audiences feel they were at least in the ’80s. A strong audience at festivals mean more offerings and donations for the temple.
While the performers of the opera troupe played majong on the main stage before their show began, the crew that accompanies the getai performers maintain this tradition backstage. Playing majong is a part of keeping the mood active and lively, which is important during these celebrations. No one should be solemn.
It is unusual for any regular visitor at Pulau Ubin so see the island in such buzz. All shops were open, lots of beer was spilled, and even more shells of crabs and other popular seafood were cracked to celebrate this island festival. Visiting during these occasions offers the visitor a unique opportunity to witness what life might have been like during Pulau Ubin’s heydays before the 1950s.