Ancient temple steeped in history

Entrance to Johor Old Chinese Temple,
located at Jalan Trus, Johor Baru

PEGGY LOH tells us about a temple built in the 1800s that united not only the Chinese community but also the rulers of Johor

THE Johor Old Chinese Temple stands out among the modern office towers, a shopping mall and a 5-star hotel.  Surrounded by high walls, the temple courtyard exudes calm far removed from the downtown traffic of Johor Baru.

Unlike other Chinese temples that usually bear the name of deities or clans, the Johor Old Temple is believed to be the first Chinese temple in Malaysia to be named after a state.

Its rich history dates back to the 1800s when Johor's ruler, Temenggong Ibrahim, adopted the Kangchu system introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore.  

Early settlers arrived by boat up the Sungai Segget in the heart of Johor Baru and chose a strategic spot overlooking the city to build their temple.  

As the number of Chinese immigrants grew in Johor Baru, pepper and gambier cultivation became widespread. These settlers from various clans brought with them their own brand of justice, gangsterism and vice that resulted in a period of anarchy.

Intricate carving on temple wall
A glass showcase in one of the temple's pavilions has the ancient blades from the swords used during the bloody clashes. 

The clans finally stopped their secret society activities and the Ngee Heng Kongsi was legalised as an association assigned by royal favour to take charge of Chinese community affairs.

The strong relationship between Temenggong Ibrahim and the Chinese community is the underpinning reason for the Chinese immigrant community incorporating the word "Johor" into their temple's name.  

As a benevolent ruler, Sultan Abu Bakar encouraged the Chinese community to live in peace and continued the goodwill started by Temenggong Ibrahim.

In the late 19th century, a group of Chinese community leaders, led by Tan Hiok Nee, a famous Teochew Kangchu (River Lord) and well-known pepper and gambier planter in Johor, built the present temple. 

Renovation works in 1996 revealed that the existing temple had been expanded at least three times. Although there are no early records about the building of this temple, two pieces of antiques in the temple gave some clues to its origins.

The bronze bell
in the temple
The words: "The Geng Wu year of the Tong Zhi Emperor of Qing dynasty", which is equivalent to 1870 AD, is engraved on a wooden tablet hanging in the inner sanctuary while the words: "The Yi Hai year of the Tong Zhi Emperor" is engraved on a bronze bell situated in a side pavilion which dates back to 1875 AD. 

The unique Johor Old Temple represents Chinese solidarity in Johor Baru.

It houses five deities worshipped by five Chinese dialect groups -- the "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).

The unity of the Johor Baru Chinese community is reflected in how they also share one school (Foon Yew School) and one cemetery.  

This unity of the various Chinese dialect groups in Johor Baru is further expressed in the temple's annual tradition of a three-day religious ceremony that starts on the 20th day of the first Lunar month. 

Two days prior to that, a group of devotees will celebrate in the streets while hitting the gong in a symbolic "Street Washing" ceremony in preparation for the gods' annual city tour. 

Somehow, this symbolic gesture, had over the years, mysteriously brought about rain as Nature cooperates to "wash" the streets with refreshing showers.

A deity being carried out of temple
for the annual street parade
To the clash of cymbals and deafening drums for lion and dragon dances, devotees will carry the deities out of the temple, seated on sedan chairs, to Xing Gong, a temporary shrine at Jalan Ulu Air Molek. 

For the next three days, throngs of pilgrims and devotees will converge on at Xing Gong for prayers.  

Lunar New Year festivities in Johor Baru culminate with a colourful Chingay street parade on the evening of the 21st day of the first Lunar month when the deities go on a tour to bless the city with peace, prosperity and harmony. Roads will be closed for the street parade.

Deities are returned to
the temple in a grand parade

This pulsating parade is an annual tradition that has been kept alive since the 1800s without any interruption except once, during the Japanese Occupation in the early 1940s. 

Temple deities will be accompanied by close to 300 people including Chinese Association members and devotees, lion dancers, dragon dancers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, cultural dancers and brass bands. 

On the morning of the 22nd day, the deities will return to the temple.

Steeped in history, the beauty and grandeur of Johor Baru's old temple is open to visitors daily from 7.30am to 5.30pm. It is open from 6am to 6pm on religious festive days and the first and 15th day of the Lunar months.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz on 2 February 2009

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