Trances and Pierces Penang-Style

As one moves north in Malaysia, the Nine Emperor Gods Festival becomes synonymous with the antics of mediums possessed by the Chinese gods. Many of you will think of Phuket, Thailand, where the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is known as the Vegetarian Festival, famous for the bicycle-through-the-cheek stunt. It’s all quite sensational and although I respect its traditional roots, it is not my favourite part of the festival. However, a blog about the Nine Emperor Gods Festival in Penang would not be complete without showing the experience of this ritual. At Tow Boh Keong, Hong Kong St., the 12 ft long skewers hang on the wall of the temple throughout the year and are taken down on the Ninth Day and readied for who ever might show up that night.

1. A volunteer sharpens the point of the skewer in preparation for the ritual piercings. The temple is very careful to ensure that the instruments are sharp and clean so as not to hurt the mediums. After sharpening, the skewers are cleansed with oranges and Chinese tea.

2. A medium arrived at the front of the temple and went into trance with an uplift motion that actually made his hair stand on end! At this point on the Ninth Night, the crowds outside the temple were huge – thousands of onlookers, hundreds with cameras, and the press of people was concerning. I had a good spot, thanks to my friends at the temple, but almost too close for comfort!

3. There is one man in the family who has the job of piercing. He learned from his father, who was a skilled piercer, and is passing the tradition on to his son. Very intense work. There were about 12 piercings on the ninth night. He blows water on to the cheek of the medium at the exact moment that he pushes the skewer through. The water is the only lubricant used. It’s a matter of community spirit, as you can see from the faces of the men behind.

4. There is no blood involved when the skewer goes through. That’s part of the mystique. I sense some discomfort, but the mediums tell me that they feel no pain, just revelation.

5. When the 12 ft skewer is properly placed, the mediums bow three times to the Emperor in the temple and then walk carefully sideways through the crowd out to the procession route.

6. The mediums seem to be fine, despite the appendages, and most manage to perform for the crowds by scraping the ends of the skewers on the pavement while they spin. Some can produce sparks.

7. Here are the gods looking very regal and keeping very still as they move along the procession route while seated on the chair of swords – well one is seated and the medium on top stands on the swords. This float is the highlight of the procession to the jetty.

8. When the procession reaches the jetty, the skewers are removed, again with the help of water. A piece of joss paper is used to cover the hole in the cheek. Little or no bleeding. I’ve heard that they are protected by their vegetarian fast and “clean” living during the festival.

9. It may be hard for some of you to believe, but these acts of self mutilation are not repulsive. They are a way of worship (not one that I would embrace!) and show respect for the Emperor within the pantheon of Chinese Gods. As this photo shows, there are, within this ritual, moments of peaceful reflection amidst the chaos.