Tucked away in a corner of the ground floor of Block 450 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10 is a neighbourhood Taoist shrine.
Block 450 is a four-storey building in Chong Boon Centre, an old part of Ang Mo Kio town completed in 1979.
The shrine is called Chang Qing She in Mandarin, or Tng Cheng Sia in Hokkien; it roughly means “the Altar of Eternal Youth”.
According to a genial old man relaxing and smoking on a chair next to the shrine, who gave his name as Mr Teo (sharing the same family name as me), the shrine’s host temple is Chin Fook Temple, also known as Chin Fook Meow, a Taoist temple at 16 Hougang Street 11. The temple pays for the upkeep of the shrine.
Like other neighbourhood shrines, this one has numerous deities sharing the same sacred space. There is an attempt at a distinct separation between the nether realm (yin jian) on the left, and the mortal realm (yang jian) on the right.
What I find unique is the presence of plastic labels providing instructions for how to pay respects - each altar or figure is helpfully labelled with a number and a name, so devotees just need to follow the numbers 1 to 9. The recommended number of joss sticks to be offered is also given - one joss stick recommended per altar or figure.
This way, visitors like me can easily identify who’s who in the shrine. Whoever curated the shrine is interested in educating visitors, which is great - providing useful information is the first step towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of Taoism, an oft-misunderstood religion.
The altar labelled “1” - the first figure devotees are advised to pay respects to - is Tian Gong, a popular name for the Jade Emperor, or Yu Huang Da Di. After all, in Taoism, he is the chief administrator and sovereign in Heaven.
Number 2 is Da Bo Gong, or Tua Pek Kong (“Grand Uncle”), whom I believe is the chief deity of the shrine. He is worshipped for protection and good fortune. Mr Teo let on that periodically, Tua Pek Kong goes for “a walk” - devotees take him to the host temple at Hougang Street 11 for prayers and performances.
Number 3 is Da Shi Guan Yin (below, middle). “Da Shi” refers to Da Shi Ye (“Great Soldier Grandfather”), a disciplinarian of the Chinese netherworld, ensuring spirits keep in line and do not harm the living when they emerge in the mortal realm.
In syncretic Chinese religion, people believe Da Shi Ye is a fierce manifestation of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion in Buddhism. When paper effigies of Da Shi Ye are made for 7th Lunar Month festivals, small figures of Guan Yin are placed atop their heads, reflecting the popular belief in the relationship between Da Shi Ye and Guan Yin.
Below is a 2017 photo of a 7-metre Da Shi Ye on display at Jurong Fishery Port; a small figure of Guan Yin is placed on top of his head.
At the end of the festival, Da Shi Ye will be burned to return him to the netherworld; Guan Yin will be retained for a year. In the case of the Ang Mo Kio shrine, she will sit in the shrine until the following 7th Lunar Month (this August), when she will be burned together with the new Da Shi Ye effigy.
Number 4 is Di Zhu Gong, usually known as the Earth Deity, or Tu Di Gong. His wife, the Earth Grandmother, or Tu Di Po, is seated next to him.
Number 5 is Hao Xiong Di Gong (“Good Brothers”, below, left). This refers to the spirits allowed to roam the mortal realm during the 7th Lunar Month in syncretic Chinese religion.
Number 6, which lies next to Number 5, is Fa Cai Lu (“Urn of Prosperity”). I assume offering a joss stick here is akin to paying respects to the God of Fortune.
Number 7 is Zhu Jun (“Bamboo Army”), a reference to bamboo spirits. I assume it is believed that the bamboo in the pot below - sitting in front of the shrine, next to a row of parking lots - is inhabited by such a spirit, or host of spirits.
Number 8 is Xiao Zi Ye, which means “Filial Grandfather”. He is the deified form of Ding Lan, a main character in one of the stories in The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, a classical text of Confucian filial piety attributed to scholar Guo Jujing during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368).
In the story Ke Mu Shi Qin, translated as “Carving Wooden Figures of Parents to Honour Them”, Ding Lan was an orphan during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 to 220 CE). He missed his parents so much, he carved wooden figures in their likeness and treated them as if they were alive.
One day, when Ding was away, his wife pricked one of the figures out of curiosity. To her horror, the figure started bleeding, and tears flowed out of its eyes. When Ding found out, he was so angry he divorced his wife. I guess his deified form is worshipped now as an exemplar of filial piety.
Number 9 is Wu Zhu Gu Hun, referring to wandering spirits with no one to pay respects to them. Real estate (pun intended) is reserved for them in the bottom left of the shrine - there is a paper mansion next to a curtained recess.
I gently pushed aside the curtain to reveal a doll next to a tablet with the characters “Wu Zhu Gu Hun” on it. My guess is that the doll was left there by a well-meaning visitor for child spirits to play with.
I wonder how many neighbourhood shrines like this exist all over the island. Almost all will never be upgraded to a proper temple. Instead, as Taoism and syncretic Chinese religion continue their decline in Singapore, many of these shrines will become defunct and close in the coming decades.