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.

This photo-essay is written by Esmond Soh, Tsang Yuk Tim, and Harold Teo from Nanyang Technological University.

 

About the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore


This programme is based on research done by students from the History Programme based in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. With aims to be one of the leading centres of historical scholarship on modern and contemporary Asia, NTU History is dedicated to understanding and teaching modern history from a global perspective. Comprising young, dynamic scholars within the School of Humanities, the faculty is committed to training students to not only think critically but also to apply interdisciplinary methods to identify and address contemporary problems from historical perspectives. Visit https://soh.ntu.edu.sg/Programmes/history for more information.

 

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