In a small temple behind an Outram HDB flat on a Thursday night, a half-dressed man wearing floral-patterned bright pink trousers is ejecting a thick stream of bile from his body as his face contorts in pain. Afterwards, he dons a lime-green bib and a dummy as he rocks, prostrates himself, paws at the floor and lets his head roll around on his shoulders like someone suffering a particularly disturbing acid trip.
This is Jacky Tan, the Taoist spirit medium at the Xuanjiang Temple on Silat Road, and he’s going through the complex process of readying his body to be occupied by the child god Shan Cai Tong Zi, just one of a bewildering number of Taoist deities. Tan’s spitting and vomiting is meant to purify his body before the rest of the process, which involves lying face down in front of an altar of the Jade Emperor, whom Taoists consider highest in the pantheon of gods. When the process is completed, Shan Cai Tong Zi will speak through him, and he’ll be ready to offer consultations to the crowd of 50 or so who have gathered to seek advice on every topic imaginable, from cancer treatment to marital problems, sore legs and – in my case – the meaning of life.
Though such rituals are getting less common and less visible, the act of consulting Taoist spirit mediums is still just about alive and well in Singapore, where nearly 9 per cent of the population are said to be adherents. Victor Yue, the founder and moderator of the online Taoism-Singapore interest group, says that there are more than 500 Chinese Taoist/Buddhist temples in Singapore (the two belief systems share much in common), and that some have regular spirit-medium consultations.
Beyond these ‘official’ consultations in temples, Yue says that many spirit mediums practise in private homes across the city. ‘In the days of the kampongs, there used to be spirit mediums in every village,’ he says. ‘Their house could be a place for consultations, and there were few tensions because it was an accepted part of village life. When people were pushed together into modern housing estates, you still had a lot of the same people practising, but you’d have people complaining about the disturbance. It still happens, but it’s under the radar.’
Yue remembers going to a Taoist temple on Duxton Road with his mother as a child, but his interest was re-ignited when he met a Canadian professor studying Taoist temples in 2005. He found that there was very little information on the set of beliefs, except in classical Chinese – leading him to set up his own online group, an offshoot of the Singapore Heritage online collective. The website has attracted more than 500 members from all walks of life, from students and devotees to spirit mediums, researchers and professors. Members join to learn and to share their knowledge and experience.
As to how a person becomes a Taoist spirit medium, Yue says that it’s believed to be a ‘calling’. Many spirit mediums report that the gods speak to them in dreams. As for Tan at the Xuanjiang Temple, his father was a medium and he was a ‘chosen one’. It all seems mystically obtuse, and Yue admits that there’s no way of really knowing whether a spirit medium is real or not. Reiki experts claim to be able to feel a medium’s energies when in trance (Tan has been verified), but mostly people believe in them because of what they’ve seen and heard themselves.
Says Yue: ‘There have been instances of “miracles”, where doctors have said there’s no hope, though obviously there’s no way to prove it. We also had a group of postgrads from the US come here [to the temple] – after they had a consultation, they were in tears because they said it was so accurate.’
At this particular Thursday night consultation, Tan, in a state of trance as the god Shan Cai Tong Zi, sits at a table as people come to hear his advice – sometimes they’re alone, sometimes as couples or small families. There’s no set price for a consultation, though devotees will put money into a red envelope, or a hongbao. Yue tells me that when I come to write the piece, I should refer to Tan in trance not as a man but as Shan Cai Tong Zi, or ‘Zaizai’ as he’s known by his followers.
One young boy has a sore leg, so Zaizai massages his toes and lower legs – which is impressive, as his eyes remain closed throughout. We don’t quite catch what his advice to the boy’s family is, as he speaks in Hokkien and we’re relying on sporadic translations. As part of the spiritual treatment, the medium draws in red ink on yellow strips of paper, which is said to create power to protect the devotee.
Another woman is getting treated for cancer, and the medium/god tells her that he will ‘take care of her’ during her treatment and help her find a good doctor. Spirit mediums like Tan don’t just help temple-goers during consultations, but help in the community outside ‘office hours’. Tan has also set up a free Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic session at the temple every Sunday afternoon for the devotees and the neighbourhood, all of which is on top of his day job as a feng shui consultant (he’s also a trained fortune-teller).
After giving my name, address and date of birth, I jump the queue for my consultation, though no one seems to mind. Asking my questions through a translator, under the gaze of five temple assistants, I get stage fright. I want to ask him specific questions, to test him, but don’t want to be disrespectful – and I don’t want to be disappointed, either. I’m also too terrified to ask about my future happiness.
My question, then, ultimately boils down to a rather generic one: what should I do with my life? Zaizai, eyes closed, tells me that I like to travel, that I like new experiences, and that I find it hard to commit. He senses my relationship status – ‘It’s complicated’, in Facebook terms – and tells me that I need to make a decision. A steady relationship and a family would make me happy, he says – but I have to make some compromises, and to communicate better. Though his advice is all quite general, it’s hard to deny much of it.
I leave still curious, and come back the next Tuesday for the birthday of Shan Cai Tong Zi. At around lunchtime the temple has become, literally, a feast for the gods. On the top floor, outside the main area of worship, there’s a table with a whole roast pig, fruit and candles. Another, smaller table is perfectly set with appetising, freshly-cooked meat and vegetable dishes, bottles of orange soda and – intriguingly – cans of Carlsberg. When I ask who’s going to eat there, I’m told it’s been prepared solely for the gods – presumably, there are no laws precluding underage drinkers when it comes to child gods. In one corner, a traditional puppet show is taking place to the sound of clashing, repetitive cymbals.
There’s a slightly bigger, and older, crowd this time – most have come to be blessed by Tan, who at 2pm goes through the same process of entering the trance and becoming Zaizai. People of all ages, from babies to retirees (the latter make up most of the attendees), come up and kneel facing the Jade Emperor as Tan enacts a complicated ritual behind them, which involves spitting holy water and stamping an item of their clothing with the god’s seal. They leave with red-painted hard-boiled eggs, noodles and spring onions, which they will cook later for good luck.
Aside from the sheer colour of it all, what is most striking is how accommodating people are to the ignorant foreigner wandering around with a camera. People don’t just tolerate me, but smile at me, talk to me – and are eager for me to photograph whatever I want. Yue’s wife Doris, who’s helping at the temple, helpfully explains what’s going on, though I don’t understand a lot of it. No one makes me feel small for being a non-believer who has barely any idea what’s going on.
As I find out later, it is indeed hard to find good information about Taoism in English, even online. A belief system based on an obscure metaphysical force (the Tao), with too many gods to count, is in some ways not an easy sell, especially to a younger generation with access to quicker fixes. And yet in Singapore, at various times of the year, you can watch Taoist spirit mediums go into trance en masse, or pierce themselves with swords. It’s a rich, complex cultural tradition that’s been alive since the first Chinese settlers arrived here in the early 19th century, and one that the likes of Yue are desperate to keep alive. Go along and see for yourself – you’ll almost certainly be welcomed.
Spirit-medium consultations are held at the Xuanjiang Temple, 85A Silat Rd, at 7.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.