Friday, September 30, 2011

God or ghost?? Nay it is just dust...dust...anyone?

Some people have gotten ghostly blobs appearing in their photos when they took shots of temple fairs or hungry ghost festivals (read here - paranormal ghost stories) and also my post on the second day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival). The first reaction is, hey did I capture something that was invisible?? Then they may think it is a defect in the lenses or dirt on their lenses, but wiping the lens proved that it was clean and a test at a later time indicate that their lenses were fine. And if two or more photographers in a group had obtained similar shots of the ghostly apparitions using two different cameras, then they are bound to think that they have seen something from 'the other side'.

Actually those blobs are light, usually from an intense source, bouncing off dust particles. That comes from the use of flash photography, whether in slow sync mode or fill mode flash. Also the particle must be big enough and high enough in numbers to be captured by a photographer, hence the usual occurrence inside smoky temples during festivals. I have personally experienced this before when taking photos inside temples and was desperate enough to use flash to fill in the dark interiors.

A good place to try it out is during Guan Yin celebration or during the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or the worst place to scare the shit out of yourself, the Hungry Ghost Festival. The blobs mar the photos, although small ones can be Photoshopped away, it takes time and therefore I usually discard it. If you want to try this, do remember the magic phrase to invoke them - Om! Anybody Home!... Just kidding, it is flash photography (Say cheese!).
Om! Anybody Home?! I can summon the gods to appear in my photograph (click to enlarge the pic and see the ghostly blobs that I have labeled with orange arrows). Shot with a weak fill flash at 1/40 of a second.
And make them go away. Shot at 1/13 of a second with no flash.
At this moment you can only see smoke rising in the air. Just wait and let me summon them; Om! Anybody Home!!!! And....
'Yes we are here!' What, you're not offering us any joss sticks?! Damn!' Notice the blobs - flash was used for this shot.

The reason which triggered me to write this article was due to the fact that I was quite pissed off with one of the 'big boys' photographers (people with big DSLRs and acting like 'very pro') today at the Nine Emperor Gods Temple in Ampang. I was trying to capture the candles and was using very slow shutter speed with my point-and-shoot. I needed the table to brace for the shot, and he suddenly came in and kept pushing me off just so that he can get the shot. Well, it was fair game for any photographer to try and grab the shot, but he then did a dumb thing that really got me pissed; he used his flash and at quite a high output, which means I must also time my long exposure shots way off of his so that I will not inadvertently capture those blobs. It was only self restraint that kept me from uttering a prayer to the gods to jinx him so that all his shots turn out bad for nine continuous days (me very bad, thinking about it). Anyhow, I think he could not get the good shot he so desired, for he left 5 minutes later after numerous clicking and flashing (the light, not his body..ewww) whilst muttering something under his breath. Perhaps the gods did read my mind...hahahaha.

Fourth Day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2011(九皇大帝) at Ampang (Day 4)

I suddenly woke up at 3.11am in the morning and I can hear strains of 'It's A Small World' and 'Rasa Sayang' being played on what sounds like an Erhu (Chinese two stringed violin) from the temple. The sales pitch by the feng shui decorative auction can still be heard going at a feverish pace at this hour (36 ringgit, now at 36 ringgit...38 ringgit anyone? Anyone?).

Obviously the poor guy is trying hard to make a sales pitch. That or his sales is so good that he had to keep on going till the wee hours of the morning. Hmm, it is the fourth day of the festival (30th September 2011) and I seemed to be out of ideas of what to focus on for the day. I hope it is not writer's block.
People are still walking to the temple (安邦南天宮) at 3.16am in the morning. This is definitely a different kind of nightlife!
Past daybreak and they are still going on and on and on...Energizer bunny stall owners.

At 5am in the morning, the familiar sounds of bells and hand held cymbals could be heard emanating from the temple. It must be the time for the morning prayers. Then I realised that some of the stalls are still open. And remained open even past daybreak - a 24 shift perhaps.
6.47am - some of the stalls were still open.

Now, to reveal the focus of today's entry - Offerings (i.e. the stuff that you bring for the gods).
There are a few common items that devotees offer to the gods, perhaps as thanksgiving or perhaps to obtain a boon from the deities. The basic items are incense (joss sticks and sandalwood), light (candles and oil for lamps), money (joss paper and noble people joss paper 貴人符/贵人符), flowers, food (uncooked stuff like vermicelli and rice, fruits or specially prepared and decorated cakes), tea (yes as tea leaves) and the most important one...heart.

Now before you conjure up the image of a blood thirsty god, let me 'rephrase' the last item to willingness of oneself to subjugate to the authority of another unseen being (hmmm, still sounds negative). Enough said, let the pictures roll...
A table of prosperity cake (發糕/发糕), tortoise buns and joss paper. O ye the unseen one, we bring you our offerings together with our pleas; grant us what we desire, lest we leave disheartened and will not return next year.

The must have item. When you buy a packet of joss sticks, you get candles, joss paper and also a packet of tea leaves. Joss sticks can come in different lengths and sizes, coiled like a pagoda to the towering dragon joss sticks that can be 9 feet long.
Dragon joss sticks and pagoda joss sticks. Take your pick.

So if you do not want to light a whole bunch of small ones, go for the pagoda incense or why stop at that, just get the biggest, most ferocious dragon incense and you will sure be noticed (hopefully by the Nine Emperor Gods).
Your friendly, one-stop, prayer item shop that open 24 hrs.

Candles are the mainstay of light offering. However, there are people who bring bottles of oil as an offering for the oil is to be used to keep the oil lamps lit.
Let there be light...and the devotees bring light. Notice the pile of joss paper and on top of that are packets of tea leaves.

Joss paper and tea leaves
The joss paper represent a plea for prosperity. Thus symbolically the devotees tell the deities to show them the money. The tea leaves in packets (白毛猴 label) are part of the offering. This is then used to brew the offering tea which will be served to devotees who offer joss sticks to the Nine Emperor Gods inside the temple.
Joss money, noble person joss paper (貴人符/贵人符) and candles strewn on the altar table. On top of the noble people joss paper is a packet of tea leaves.

Well, who can resist a bunch of fresh flowers. Chrysanthemums are usually offered to gods and to the dearly departed over here (I was quite surprised to see in Australia, they give Chrysanthemums to mothers on Mother's Day). Also on sale were tuberose (夜來香/夜来香 - fragrant at night), one of my favourite blooms. The Malay name for tuberose, is however, quite rude when translated literally (harum sundal malam - i.e. the fragrant night slut/whore - smelling that kind of fragrance at night is associated with the presence of a female vampire, the pontianak). They even sell small floral arrangements in bowls that you can buy and place on the altar.
Chrysanthemums and tuberose on sale.

Food stuff, cakes and buns
There are people who bring all sorts of vegetarian foodstuff as offerings. What is interesting are the tortoise buns and longevity peach buns. They are made into a vast array of every possible design and stacking arrangement, in bright colours with gold ingots or characters with good meaning written on the the top of the buns. This is a sure way of telling the god that you want longevity, or prosperity (especially with the prosperity cakes 發糕/发糕).
Tortoise buns and longevity peaches.
Golden characters of well wishes written on top of the tortoise buns (you can get the nice girl behind the stall to write your own custom wish if you like). There are also longevity peaches and small flower arrangements that you can buy as offering.
Longevity peach (壽桃/寿桃) buns in various sizes and colours. Even pineapple and tangerine shaped cakes are available and of course, the usual prosperity cake. I wanted to ask how much for the peach buns but stop short of doing so for I felt it was very inappropriate to ask a young girl how much do her buns cost and whether hers was still soft and fluffy after being left unclothed uncovered the whole day.

If cakes do not tickle your fancy (oops I mean the deities fancy - for what you have offered to the deity is usually take back for your own consumption so people tend to buy what they want to eat), try fresh fruits instead. Very much healthier and probably less sugar, there are stalls selling fruits on the temple compound. Apples and oranges to pineapples and dragon fruits.
Selling her apples and oranges...pineapples and dragon fruits too.

Last but not the least - your heart (or your soul)
A practicing Taoist devotee of the Nine Emperor Gods will after praying, shake the joss stick three times, kneel three times and bow their head till it touches the floor three times. This is done with pressing both palms together, kneeling with both feet by the side of one another, and touching the floor with the forehead. This supposedly represents the offering of prayers to the nine kings, nine emperors and the nine dynasty monarchs. So basically you hope that by doing so, you are under their watchful eyes.
Enter the light - the main door to the main prayer hall of the Ampang Nan Tian Gong (安邦 南天宫) temple.
Follow the leader. Just make sure that the leader isn't blind.

There isn't any food testing today (well, I just ate what I had tried the previous day), but there is another post on a photography tip here (God or Ghost??).

[Previous - Day 3] [Back to first post] [Next - Day 5]
[Sidebar story - God or Ghost??]

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Third Day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2011(九皇大帝) at Ampang (Day 3)

Below is the scene of the temple at 27 minutes past midnight on the 29th of September 2011. Just past midnight, it is now the third day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The mood remains festive, a carryover from yesterday's procession.
It is past midnight but the night (or day) is still young.

In the morning, I was awakened by the droning sound of idling bus engines. A peep out of my balcony showed me the culprit of the noise - buses bringing in visitors/devotees parked/lined up along Jalan Merdeka. The parking lot was also filled with more buses than there were on the 2nd day.
Buses ferrying visitors/devotees along Jalan Merdeka.
A larger number of buses in the parking lot.

The third, sixth and ninth day are party feeding days for the soldiers of heaven, so I expect the atmosphere to turn a bit more religious if not more festive. Here's Cheryl Hoffmann's Nine Emperor Gods website where you can check the daily events of the Ampang Nan Tian Gong Temple and look at her lovely photographs of the Nine Emperor Gods festival.

For today, my post will concentrate a little more on the people associated with the celebration; for without these people, it would be like one buck short of a celebration.
The visitors that makes the festival, well, a festival - walking to and from the temple.
For her on the bicycle, it is her lunch break. For the stall owners, their day had just begun.
Devotees that ensure the continuous offering of joss sticks, incense paper, food items, flowers money money.
The recycling man - collecting the used newspaper wrappers.
Possible conversation by the guy on the bottom right:
Hello? Nine Emperor Gods ah? It is me Ah Beng, your faithful devotee.
This year ah, can give me a new car ah? You watch Top Gear one or not? Get me the best reviewed car, OK?
Ahh, you got no satellite TV ah?!! How can one, the temple didn't fix satellite TV for you meh?!!
Aiyah this one ah, small problem only. I get it for you and then you watch Top Gear and get me an Ah Lian (babe) magnet car, OK? Thanks. Next year I bring more tortoise buns, OK?
The ever watchful altar attendant who periodically clears the joss sticks on the urn so that you can stick yours right in.

It was a pleasant evening, with glowing blue skies as the sun dipped over the horizon. Time to go back to the task of capturing the people who are part and parcel of this festival.
Dusk at the Nan Tian Gong Temple, Ampang.
The medium in trance and his faithful assistant - rendering service to those whom have physiological or psychological problems that may benefit from a second 'alternative' opinion.
The tireless temple counter staff that ensures you get your divination blocks or sticks and makes sure that you can get a number to talk to the deities about your troubles.
The RELA men (paramilitary civil volunteer corps) who 'patrol' the temple ground to ensure 'peace'. I think they should just stick to doing this instead of being allowed to conduct raids on illegal immigrants as they are not well trained for that and that task should be left to the immigration department and the police. Their reputation is to say the least, good (read here from Al-Jazeera).
And not forgetting the RELA women.
The 'ting ting dang' (ting ting candy) seller that provides that familiar resounding pings whenever he knocks on the solid blocks of candy with a metal hammer and chisel (on top of his block of candy) to chip it away into bite sized pieces.
The foodstall sellers - this is the vegetarian popiah (spring roll) seller of which I purchased the seaweed 'chicken' popiah to try.
The dragon's beard candy makers - hand pulled and wrapped around crushed peanuts. There were three different flavours to choose from besides the original maltose sugar.
The pros religiously checking their shots. They are easily spotted as they lug around at least one bag full of heavy equipment.
We definitely cannot ignore the beggars that flock to every religious event like flies to carrion.
Last but not the least, the 'super efficient' parking tout lout attendant (blue arrow).

As usual, the food tasting part closes the post for the day. I tried the seaweed 'chicken' popiah which was pleasant in a different way. The filling of mock chicken floss, peanuts, shredded cucumbers and carrots with mayonnaise sauce and wrapped with a popiah skin and nori seaweed on the outside reminded me of a Japanese temaki roll (or California roll). The dragon's beard candy was sweet (what do you expect) but had quite a chewy feel to it once the candy mixed with the saliva in your mouth. I liked the peppermint flavoured one better as the flavour masks the sweetness rather well, unlike the strawberry flavoured one which tasted sickly sweet.
The 'chicken' seaweed popiah (spring roll).
The fillings of the popiah - mock chicken floss, peanuts, cucumbers and a bit of carrots with mayo sauce.
Dragon's beard candy - the blue ones are peppermint flavoured whilst the pink ones are strawberry flavoured.
Whoa, all this pink and blue candy stuff makes me feel like I need to go lie down for awhile to sleep off the sugar high. And perhaps I will then dream of eating a whole life-sized dragon made out of candy floss. Now that is what I call a real sweet dream.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Second Day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival 2011(九皇大帝) at Ampang (Day 2)

September 28th 2011 is the second day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. The Ampang Nan Tian Gong Temple comes alive with this festival, and transforms the sleepy Ampang village into a bustling hive of activity, especially at night (more like past midnight)! It is now 43 minutes past midnight, and I am beginning to see buses that ferries the aged (and those who don't have transport) devotees from other temples have begun to pour in. At this hour, the blaring announcements over the PA system continues on. Children separated from their parents get called to go over to the counter, but hell, even an adult can get lost in the maze of stalls and the sea of people surging back and forth from the temple. Parents, next time around, keep your child/children on a leash (if they are allowed to do so by the law).
One of the tour buses that brings a busload of devotees to the temple (white arrow). It is past midnight and there are still a large number of people going to the temple (cyan arrows).
The parking lot filled to its maximum capacity at 12.43am!

In the morning, the temple has less visitors, and they are mostly devotees who make their way to offer incense and joss paper. This is due to the fact that most of the stalls were closed during the day, thus the temple does not attract that many casual visitor who just wants to soak up the sights and sounds of this festival. Buses that ferry devotees from other temples have begun to throng the temple. You can see the bus going down the road and turning to park at the parking lot.
The temple on the morning of the second day. Notice the bus on the far left, carrying devotees from other locale for a visit to the temple.
The bus making its way into the parking lot (yellow arrow).

There is also another procession tonight, which starts at 8pm. This procession is carried out to welcome the arrival of Marshall Tian deity (田府元帥) and his heavenly soldiers. When I got back from work, the procession was in heading out of the temple.
The floats and flags making its way towards Ampang Village.
The musicians banging on drums and clashing cymbals that announce the arrival of the temple medium supposedly possessed by the Nine Emperor Gods.
One of the mediums from the Nine Emperor Gods temple, walking in front of a huge yellow parasol.
Hey, there are two devotees under the huge parasol! Must be the Urn Master inside with the Nine Emperor Gods' joss urn.

Not satisfied with the shots that I got, I went back, took a shower and return to secure a better spot to catch the procession when it returns to the temple. I planted myself on a spot in front of the Ampang Old Folks Home, waiting patiently for the return of the procession. A sign that the procession is nearby is the presence of a traffic police outrider clearing the road and making sure that vehicles do not block the route. When the procession was in sight, the frenzy of photo taking began and you can see a wide range of photo taking devices, from DSLRs to point and shoot to camera phones. A trick in taking photos here (or any Chinese temple festival) is that if the air is excessively smoky, you cannot use flash, even slow synch or fill flash, as this will bounce off the joss particles and appear like large, white ghostly blobs in the photo (or you could say that you have captured the gods in your photo to justify the poorly taken shots). Read my post (God or Ghost??) about this and also read here (about ghost stories) to see how this phenomenon confused 3 photographers, lol.
Traffic police outrider - he was the centre of attraction whilst the crowd were waiting for the procession. Look at the giggly girls snapping photos of the traffic policeman. Men were more interested in his bike.
First around is the police patrol car as escort.
Next are the flags bearing the name of Marshall Tian.
In this digital age, divinity turns to electronics, with a digital signboard saying 'Welcoming the Nine Emperor Gods and Marshall Tian deity.
Even Guan Yin Ma took part in the procession. Hmmm, how does and sounds?
A drummer coiled by the dragon.
Hmmm, when will this procession end?? My hands are tired and my botoxed face is cracking.
Stilt walker dressed like characters from Chinese folk tales. The yellow arrow points to one of the stilts.
One of the stilt walkers giving a spectator the 'death stare' after one of the kids 'molested' him.
Showing off by hopping on one 'leg'.
Blazing cymbal players.
'Give me back my ball!' - On of the dragons that danced in this procession.
The medium for 田府元帅is dressed in a Chinese general costume and carrying green flags (partly blocked by his assistant - no paparazzi shots please!).
Another medium in trance with skewers through his cheeks and running frantically down the road. The were a few other mediums in trance with similar implements going through their flesh.
The swinging Chariot sedan of the Nine Emperor Gods.
After the Nine Emperor Gods' medium, the devotees in white followed suit.
Then the spectators and others rush to join the crowd swarming back to the temple. If you step into the road to join this surging mass, be warned that you can hardly turn back. Motorbikes and humans move side by side.
Almost there but can't get in. The crowd is just unbelievably huge.
Since every fasting devotee (white clothes with white headgear) carries a bundle of joss paper and three joss sticks for the procession, the joss paper eventually find their way here to the joss paper burner at the end of the procession.
The flames burning fiercely, fueled by the large amounts of joss paper.
After taking the pictures of the burner, I turned back and went to the stinky tofu stall to give it a try. It smells very much like a combination of wet chicken feathers, open sewer and rotting garbage. However, the taste is quite mild, with just a hint of the smell. Since it is fried, the outer shell is cripsy and salty, and the inside is soft and somewhat creamy. Not too bad, but just like blue cheese or durian or belacan, it falls into the category of an acquired taste. And just like durian, you have got to get past the smell, for once you are eating it, you do not notice the stink that emanates from the tofu. The tofu is served with a tangy sauce that contain calamansi lime juice, shredded cabbage and chillies - not hot but tangy and the cabbage gives the tofu more bite. I also bought back a packet of Sichuan cold noodles, but this time I tried the whitish noodles and asked the stall owner to make it even hotter. It was delicious, with enough heat and the numbing spiciness of Sichuan pepper.
Selling stinky tofu. I wouldn't want to sit beside her in a car or plane.
I bought six pieces but got seven, which I ate one before taking this photo.
Sichuan cold noodles with the white noodles.

At home, I can hear the Chinese opera blaring away, the temple bells ringing and the PA announcements going on and on as devotees were reminded to carry their lit joss sticks higher and parents to keep an eye on their children.