Historical Origin

The Kew Ong Yah Temple (Upper Serangoon) is the oldest temple in Singapore that is dedicated to the worship of the 9 Emperor Gods (九皇爷 or Jiuhuang Ye). Throughout its history, the temple has been popularly known as Kew Ong Yah temple among the Hokkien and Teochew communities. According to anecdotal accounts and temple inscriptions, the founders of Hougang Tao Mu Temple invited the incense of the 9 Emperor Gods from Tow Boe Keong Kew Ong Tai Tay Temple (槟城香港巷九皇大帝庙) in Penang – an old temple that was established in 1842. During the mid-19th century, tin-mining industry bloomed in Southeast Asia. Many Chinese who lived in the coastal regions in Southeast China left for Penang to make a living.

A majority of them were from Fujian province. According to Khoo Poh Ong, the fourth generation caretaker of Tow Boe Keong, the incense of the 9 Emperor Gods was brought to Penang by a Fujian captain and his crew on their voyage to Penang. Back then, medical conditions were poor, and epidemics were common. It was said that practicing Jiuhuang retreat (九皇斋) could help eliminate disasters and relief diseases. Naturally, people started to pray to the Nine Emperor Gods for protection. As time passed, the worship of the 9 Emperor Gods took rooted and spread far and wide.

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Beliefs of the Nine Emperor Gods

The worship of the Nine Emperor Gods or Jiuhuang Ye stemmed from the worship of the Northern Dipper (北斗) – the asterism that consists of seven bright stars of the constellation Ursa Major (i.e. Dubhe 天枢, Merak 天璇, Phecda 天玑, Megrez 天权, Alioth 玉衡, Mizar 开阳, Alkaid 瑶光), and two other stars that were not visible to the naked eye. Together, these nine stars form the Celestial Net (天罡 or Tiangang), which was used in ancient China for celestial navigation and the formulation of the calendar. Following the spread of Taoism, the stars that form the Celestial Net were anthropomorphized as Astral Lords of the Northern Dipper (北斗星君 or Beidou Xingjun).

Due to the widespread belief that the Southern Dipper watches over the living while the Northern Dipper rules over death, the Astral Lords of the Northern Dipper soon became known as deities who could determine how long humans lived. Subsequently, the practices of Lidou (Venerating the Dipper) and offering prayers to the Lady Mother of the Dipper gained popularity among Taoists.

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