Temple celebrates Teochew Lunar 303 tradition

Chiak muay thoi hee, a phrase in Teochew dialect literally
means, "Eat Teochew porridge while watching a show!"
Since 2002 the Teochew community in JB has been keeping an annual tradition of celebrating the birthday of the Teochew deity, Yuan Tian Shang Di or Tuah Lau Yiah on the third day of the third lunar month, an event simply dubbed Lunar 303.  In the tradition where opera entertainment was found at the place of worship, the temple recently held the Lunar 303 festival with the theme, chiak muay thoi hee, a phrase in Teochew dialect that literally means, “Eat Teochew porridge while watching a show.”

Teochew muay or plain rice porridge, eaten with a variety of dishes that have contrastingly stronger salty, sour or spicy flavours, is a typically Teochew meal.  This rice porridge is virtually a watered-down version of boiled rice where individual grains of fluffy rice remain intact in the rice broth.  Dishes served to savour with the plain porridge are cooked in the Teochew tradition using methods like poaching, steaming and braising in recipes that have been handed down through generations.

A section of Jalan Trus in front of the Gu Miao
was transformed into a banquet hall for the celebration
Guests were literally dining on Jalan Trus in front of the Johor Gu Miao or Ancient Temple that was built in the late 19th century by a group of Chinese community leaders led by the leader of the Ngee Heng kongsi, Tan Hiok Nee (1827 – 1902).  For the Lunar 303 festival, a section of the road was closed to vehicular traffic and transformed into an open-air banquet hall.  Tables were set up on the road in front of the temple with a stage for acts from each of the five clans performed for the audience of about 800 guests as they enjoyed their Teochew porridge meal.

The first course of dishes featured eight items like preserved olives and chopped salted vegetables, braised peanuts, boiled salted egg halves, crunchy preserved lettuce stalks, slices of boiled pork belly with garlic-chilly dip sauce and cubes of fu-yee or pickled beancurd paste.  This was followed by more Teochew favourites like braised duck and popular kway chap ingredients, steamed fish to savour with taucheo sauce and stir-fried leeks with roast pork.

The Johor Gu Miao is dubbed "the temple of unity" because
deities revered by the five main dialect groups are housed
under one roof!
The Gu Miao is dubbed “the temple of unity” because deities revered by the five main clans or dialect groups are housed under one roof.  After the temple was officially declared open by Sultan Abu Bakar in 1870, the early JB Chinese community prospered as they lived together in peace with their worship of the five deities, “Zhao Da Yuan Shuai” (Hainanese), “Hua Guang Da Di” (Cantonese), “Gan Tian Da Di” (Hakka), “Hong Xian Da Di” (Hokkien) and “Yuan Tian Shang Di” (Teochew), united in one temple.  The Johor Baru Chingay, the annual night parade which is a uniquely Johor Baru tradition, is part of the temple’s 3-day religious celebration for the lunar new year.

The JB Chingay parade is an annual tradition that has been kept in this city since the 1800’s without any interruption except during the Japanese invasion in 1942.  This spectacular show has been held on such a grand scale that it has not only become a major tourist attraction in JB with foreign media coverage but was also filmed by the Teochew Broadcasting channel for screening in China.  The JB Chingay was honoured as the Best Domestic Event in the 2009 Johor Tourism Awards and in 2012 it was recognised as a National Cultural Heritage.

To understand why the temple is carefully preserved as a cultural heritage, we must look at the history of the goodwill between the Johor royal family and the JB Chinese community.  In 1844, Tan Kai Soon (1803 – 1957), a Teochew and prominent Ngee Heng kongsi or society leader, arrived with a large group of workers to establish the Tan chu kang in Kangkar Tebrau in the kangchu or river lord system to cultivate pepper and gambier, the first economic crops that brought tremendous wealth to Johor.

When early settlers from the Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Cantonese and Hokkien clans came to JB, they not only brought along their culture and farming skills but also their own brand of justice, gangsterism and vice.  The immigrants, who call JB, Sin Sua (Teochew dialect) or new territory, often had hostile clashes.  But after a period of anarchy, the clans finally agreed to surrender their secret society activities and lived in peace as their worship was united in the Gu Miao.

These sedan chairs were used to carry the deities on their
annual tour of the city during the JB Chingay parade
The Ngee Heng kongsi, led by Tan Kai Soon played a significant role in helping Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim settle the unrest in Muar and in 1873 this society was legalised by Sultan Abu Bakar when he became Temenggong.  Led by Tan Hiok Nee, a trusted friend of Sultan Abu Bakar, who was appointed Major China of Johor as well as a member to the Council of State, the society was also assigned to take charge of Chinese immigrant community affairs.  

When Johor became part of the Unfederated Malay States under the British colonial authority in 1914, the kangchu system was abolished and the Ngee Heng kongsi, disbanded.  As a benevolent ruler, Sultan Abu Bakar encouraged the Chinese community to live in peace and continued the goodwill relationship started by Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim.

Unlike other Chinese temples that traditionally bear the name of a particular deity, the Johor Gu Miao is believed to be the first Chinese temple in Malaysia to be named after a State.  The word “Johor” was incorporated into the temple’s name in honour of the sultan and can be attributed to the strong relationship between the Johor ruler and the Chinese immigrant community. 

Now through opera singing, traditional arts and music to dining on typically Teochew cuisine at the Lunar 303 festival, the Teochew community in JB is keeping traditions alive to strengthen and unify the community as they pass on their proud heritage to the next generation.

A version of this was published in The Malaysian Insider on 25 April 2015

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