SANDWICHED between commercial shop lots, the small Taoist temple is unassumingly quiet on a regular day.
The occasional tourist would stop by to snap some photos before moving along to other parts of the historic Carpenter Street in downtown Kuching.
Most locals would walk right past it without a second glance.
The Hiang Tiang Siang Ti (Xuangtian Shangdi) Temple is anything but ordinary though. It enshrines Xuangtian Shangdi, the patron deity of the Teochew community, otherwise known as Da Lao Ye (Toa Lao Ya) or the Great Lord. He is the North Star personified, one of the most important deities in Chinese Taoist pantheon.
Popping by the temple in the middle of August, if one were observant enough, one would spot a basketful of brushes and paint supplies at a corner of the temple’s curved roof. The unexpected sight was merely a sign of restoration works in progress.
Local artist Gerald Goh, who was engaged by the Kuching Teochew Association to assist in the restoration of the temple, informed thesundaypost there had been several renovations done over the years but mainly by craftsmen from China.
The last one was a minor touch-up in 2009, done by local craftsmen.
When approached by the association for the current major works, Goh took it as a challenge and an honour – to restore the temple with glorious colours.
“There are seven pieces of statues up on the roof that particularly need restoration. In fact, 70 per cent of the works is on these statues which have discoloured over the years. Some even suffer from bacterial corrosion that caused the cement to turn into soil,” he said.
Goh, who is president of Sarawak Handicraft and Souvenir Association and Sarawak Art Society vice-president, explained that the first thing he did was to patch up what was lost to corrosion. After that, it was paintworks to restore the statues to their former glory.
He pointed out that it was important to restore the statues as they represent a very unique form of ceramic art from Teochew in Guangdong province.
“These statues were made of ceramic pieces from Teochew. They show characters from Chinese traditional opera which immortalised the culture and tradition of the Teochew people.
“In the Teochew region, broken ceramic plates were usually repurposed for other things. Eventually it became a signature art form to incorporate these broken pieces as decorations. This temple features statues and wall sculptures that use these broken pieces of ceramics.”
Goh painstakingly repainted the statues on the roof as well as other design motifs on beams and walls inside and outside the temple.
For two months since June 14, most of the works were done on the roof – a risky job as the roof tiles can get slippery under the hot sun.
Temple and Kuching Teochew
For 156 years and counting, the temple has been the most valuable historical cultural building for the Teochew community, having served as the focal point of worship and community activities for generations.
However, its history is said to have gone further back in time. Before its current site at Carpenter Street, which was built in 1863, the temple was originally located at what was known as Soon Hong Street, now a part of Main Bazaar.
It was built by Teochew traders who were part of the second wave of Chinese immigrants to Sarawak sometime before the arrival of James Brooke.
These traders brought with them their Taoist practices and traditional customs from their homeland to Kuching.
Being so far away from home, having a place of spiritual support among their own must have provided comfort to these people. In fact, the temple was pivotal in uniting the Teochew community.
Hiang Tiang Siang Ti Temple was razed by fire in 1884 and in a show of solidarity, the Teochew community came together to reconstruct the temple in 1889.
The temple played a significant part in the development of the Kuching Teochew Association.
An epigraphic record at the temple mentions that the association began with the temple, which is still managed by the former.
In the old days, an annual election was held to pick the temple management committee called Ngee Ann Kiun (Yi An Jun) Management Committee. Ngee Ann was the old name of the Teochew province in China.
This committee was later renamed Soon Hong Kongsi, which became a registered society when the Sarawak government introduced the Registration of Societies Ordinance in 1914.
In 1921, the Teo Kiaw Club was formed to complement the role of Soon Hong Kongsi for the growing Teochew community.
The Soon Hong Kongsi was renamed Teo Kiaw Association in 1933 and subsequently changed to Kuching Teochew Association in 1937.
In 1968, a major renovation of the temple was carried out and the statues of the deities were completely refurbished with gold foils.
Hub of cultural activities
Goh, of Teochew descent himself, noted that the Hiang Tiang Siang Ti Temple is constantly attracting the community to its premises with various activities.
A major temple event is held on the fourth day of the 12th month of the Lunar Calendar every year and Carpenter Street comes alive with activities such as stage shows with the colourful procession as the main highlight.
The crowd is usually rewarded with a skilful display of talents by the lion and dragon dance troupes amidst the thunderous beatings of gongs and drums while singers and dancers in colourful costumes perform on beautifully-decorated floats.
Another major event is the Hungry Ghosts Festival on the 15th day of the Seventh Lunar month.
For the temple, this is the oldest festival attracting a lot of attention – with Astro AEC Channel having featured it in one of its programmes before.
Other important events include the patron deity’s birthday on the Third Day of the Third Lunar Month and the deity’s ascension to heaven on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Lunar Month.
In all the major events at the temple, a stage is often set up for the Chinese traditional opera. The stage is known as Yang Chun Tai, and located directly opposite the temple. It is commonly known as Lao Ya Keng (Chamber of the Great Lord).
According to Goh, there is also another event which is meaningful to the Teochew community specifically.
“The traditional Teochew rite of passage for adulthood is celebrated at the age of 15. The temple here has a prayer ceremony for children who turn 15 to mark this special occasion,” he said, adding that this year it was held on Aug 25.
This coming-of-age event is known as Chu Hua Yuan (literally, leaving the garden) which means that the children have grown up and no longer play in the garden.
The ancient ritual may vary slightly from region to region but mainly involves the parents preparing offerings for their child to pray to Huagong and Huama, an elderly couple of guardians.
After that the child wears a new shirt and puts on a new pair of red clogs. The ritual ends with the biting of cooked chicken heads.
Being a Roman Catholic, Goh said he had his share of questions from curious folks about undertaking the project.
He explained that he took on the restoration project with the strong belief in the importance of preserving old cultures and traditions for future generations.
“The restoration and conservation of this temple has the same purpose as any other heritage site – which is to ensure the next generation will still be able to see it.
“It goes beyond religion but more of being in touch with one’s cultural roots. If you don’t preserve it now, the future generations will not know it,” he reasoned.
It is even stated on an epigraph in the temple, written in the 15th year of Emperor Guangxu’s reign during the Qing Dynasty (circa 1889), that any work that needs to be done relating to the temple must be done by the Teochew.
Goh thought that based on this historical piece of information that has been inscribed for posterity, it was only appropriate for him to agree to take on the challenge.
He added that while he was working at the temple, there were tourists who dropped by to have a look.
“As they expressed their interest in knowing about the temple, I provided them with some information on its history and so on. They asked me if I prayed at the temple every day and were surprised to learn I am a Christian, doing restoration works for the temple.
“To them, it is something unusual. To me, this is something possible only in Sarawak,” he said.
The restoration project is expected to be completed by Sept 14.