The grand old man of southern seafarers marked his birthday this month with a week that brought rare festivity to the last, sleepy village of Pulau Ubin. Flags in faded green and dull red greeted visitors who arrived at the island's jetty and received the helping hands of temple workers or volunteers who proudly donned polo shirts in fresh orange. The celebrations had begun last Monday, when the villagers and their kin from the mainland marched up a hill by a quarry just beyond the settlement to invite the kindly gentleman and his beastly companions to spend a week in 'town'. A day of ritual then concluded with the sounds of ancient scripts and scraps of voices high and shrill on a stage of creaking wood.
Unlike other incarnations of the ancient mariner, who fete their origin on the second day of the second lunar month, the lord of this local rock prefers to be honoured on the holy day of Buddha, a soul whose greatness, it is said, he hoped to emulate. The next morning, Vesākha, was a day of double joy, as prayers and offerings continue anew to Tua Pek Kong in his seaside abode and the Jade Emperor, who graced the occasion with a brief survey of the rites and rigour of a way of life that seeks harmony between humans and earth.
A hog and fattened goat met their ends, becoming nourishment for devotees and a source of spiritual pleasure to gods still keen on flesh and blood. Trays of braised duck and burnt fowl awaited the faithful, who had journeyed across the straits on a fleet of bumboats that provided free passage in the dying hours of the day. Joss burnt in wholesale volumes, as sticks of fragrant smoke were purchased and stuck in jars of ash for a mere minute or two before busy helpers removed them to make way for more. Those who sought greater favours raised their bids with thicker rods or coils of incense that temple workers hung over the altars using bamboo poles. An old man sat by a wall that separates the worshipers from a seafood restaurant, notating on pieces of red paper the names of those who wished to be remembered for their generosity and faith.
A shrine to a native god lies behind the temple, the remnant of a prettier predecessor in the neighbourhood that vanished in flames. The good lord brandishes a stick and a wavy blade, accepts no offerings of pork and is content to dwell in a lodge with few barriers between his earthly seat and the spiritual realm.
Back in the village square, mythical monsters pranced under the power of men who channel the strength of lions and giant lizards to bless the devotion of followers in search of fortune and a year of good business. The ruler of heaven was then sent packing at teatime and strains of Teochew accompanied an evening of hope, as the temple elders and lords of the netherworld oversaw the crossing of a bridge of peace and prosperity by souls in need of luck and a season of brighter prospects.
The next three days ran a few notches lower, with the temple receiving a mere trickle of knees and a skeletal assembly before the stage at sundown. There were thus fewer spectacles to detract from a superficial study of the world within the walls of a raised, red-roofed platform where the agents of modernity seem a rude transgression into a time that sings a different tune. When we arrived, it was still bright and the troupe were gathered by tables on the set to match tiles and wit before retreating into a theatre of dreams in vivid colour. Mangy curs roamed the surrounding lanes, dipping between the houses to prance on wet sand or tailing the gates of children on stainless steel steeds.
Behind the rear curtain, a long island of chests with drawers, smokes and tiny mirrors served as dressing rooms for the cast, who applied powder and paint to their skin as blue turned black and bright yellow bulbs cast a warm glow over actors whose age and affliation are masked by layers of foundation and rouge. Eyes are enhanced, noses sharpened, brows defined and lips reddened to turn mortal faces into living legends from stories that still come to life to the beat of cymbals and the wail of strings. The stage outside is set with furniture from feudal times, though a bicycle and bumboat intrude on the fringes of a medieval countryside.
A young man, the grandson of the doyenne who founded this troupe, entertains the curiosity of divers as he toys with fancy headgear, his hair in a mesh that hides a tousled crop and protects the twin-finned cap of a Confucian scholar. Undershirts and long-armed gowns are worn with care, beards plastered on smooth chins and ornate assemblies of pearls, sequins and tassels are nudged onto heads and judged before a panel of glass and gazes that regard the creations before them with cold affection.
On an altar by the doorway to the outhouse, a small shrine seats a trio of deities armed with pacifiers. Childlike in feature and articulate in repose, the godlings are pacified by offerings of rice crackers and cream confections. A few members of the troupe, who appear little older than the robed figurines, snacked on extruded corn as fine brushes traced lines of pigment on wrinkle-free cheeks. Their elders sang along to the ensemble in the wings as they continued their preparations and the first stirrings of an ancient scene rang through a village of latter day saints.
Ritual broke the fourth wall as a temple worker brought platters of fruit and sweetmeat to the stage, where an actress in red accepted the gift while her colleagues maintained the integrity of a excerpt that formed the first of three nocturnal dramas. The treachery of courtly justice, a tale of tears and second chances, and the slaying of a ghoul by a company of clowns offer scant entertainment to ears with little comprehension of a melodious dialect and no memory of the myths that engendered this art.
Backstage once more for a final glimpse of vintage glamour, we crave for signs of acknowledgement, a wry smile, a twinkle in a glance, the hint of a frown. Little gets in the way of invisible cues and everything falls apart with each passing minute of airs and recitatives that find echoes from low stools and hinged chambers where mementoes of youth and yore are stored. The end is nigh and there is no way back across this bridge of sighs, a tour de force of head and heart in a sea of song that is fast fading and fewer ford.