Qi Tian Gong 齐天宫 is probably the oldest Da Sheng 大圣 (Monkey God) temple in Singapore. Although established in this corner pre-war shophouse along Eng Hoon Street in 1938, its origin actually started earlier in 1920 in the kampong further up from where it is now.
How was the temple started?
As in Chinese belief, every existing entity has its reason. And so does Qi Tian Gong. Its origin is indeed very interesting. From hearsay, it was said that sometime in the early 1910s or thereabout, there was this person by the name of Goh Kim Choon who became the first spirit medium of the Monkey God. His father died when he was young and so his mother had to bring up the children. There were four in the family, an elder sister, elder brother, Kim Choon, and a younger sister. He was the third. He was a filial son who helped to bring income to the family by selling flowers. They were very poor and when his mother fell ill, it fell upon his shoulder to look for money so that his mother could seek treatment. But he was not able to find money. He was so depressed that he decided to end it all.
He went to a cluster of trees near to the kampong preparing to hang himself. Meanwhile, somewhere in the kampong, there was a Guan Yin Temple in session. The Guan Yin medium told her assistants that someone was about to commit suicide and instructed them to go and save him. They went to the trees and saved him in the nick of time. They brought him to Guan Yin who scolded him, saying that he should be thinking of how to save his mother and not killing himself. He asked her how he could save his mother. Guan Yin replied, “by becoming Monkey God’s medium.” It seemed that Monkey God was looking for a medium to help him in “saving the world” as they say in Hokkien “Kiu Seh” 救世. Saving his mother was all he wanted to do and so he agreed.
The Guan Yin medium then helped and guided him to become a Monkey God medium.
Interestingly, his mother had a small Monkey God statue with her. And so, with that statue, they started a small service to the community. And through Monkey God, he saved his mother. This statue could still be seen in Qi Tian Gong today.
Goh Kim Choon was already a third generation Peranakan in Singapore. His ancestors came from Jeo Beh, Chiang Chew (ZhangZhou) in Fujian, China. Kim Choon was only 16 years old when he became a medium.
Soon devoteeship grew with most of them being Peranakans. The devotees suggested moving to a bigger place so as to be able to serve the community better. In 1920, with the support of the devotees, Goh Kim Choon and family moved to this corner house (now indicated as #01-44) where they lived upstairs and have the Monkey God altar downstairs.
In those days, rental at $20 per month was considered expensive. The staircase to the upper floor was on the right side of the house. Since the renovation in 1992, the staircase has been shifted to the side making bigger space for the altar.
Celebrations in honour of Qi Tian Da Sheng (Monkey God or The Great and Venerable Sage)
In this temple, the celebration dates are 16th of the first lunar month and 16th of the eighth lunar month. During the festival celebrations, there will be the inevitable Chinese Operas (known as wayangs or street operas) that would be performed for the Monkey God, the resident Deities and the guests. During those days, the operas would also be a welcomed entertainment for the devotees and the neighbourhood. With devotees who are Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien and Peranakans, depending on the sponsorship from devotees, there could be days of operas, from one dialect opera to another. The interesting story about this temple is that because of its big Peranakan devoteeship, they even had Rongeng sessions!
There was also the procession, with the Monkey God presiding, through the streets of the neighbourhood. Many of the devotees in the neighbourhood placed temporary altars outside their house to welcome the Monkey God. The procession was also meant as cleansing the kampong. The medium of Monkey God (in trance) would also visit the devotees’ shops or homes to bless them. The procession was and is still a very colourful affair with a riot of colours and sounds, carrying of sedan chairs and palanquins with lion and dragon dance and the drum & gong percussion troupe, known as Kong-Kuan in Hokkien/Teochew.
A story about the Monkey God.
It was said that during the festivals (the 16th of the First Lunar Month, 1M16 and 8M16) when the Monkey God came (through the medium – Goh Kim Choon), he would climb up the betel nut tree and swing onto coconut trees growing just opposite the temple. He would do that stunt from tree to tree in the neighbourhood. Goh Kim Choon being young then, thought, he could play truant and avoid going into trance to give consultations. Monkey God had his way to punish him. It was said that once, during the festival, when in trance, the medium climbed up to the top of the coconut tree. Just as he was about to pluck the coconut, Monkey God left him. He was left clinging for his dear life!
Cap Ji Kee
For the poor, the fastest way to make money must be in this form of lottery. In those days, cap ji kee (12 sticks in Hokkien was most popular. It was said that the main operator was in Johor Bahru. So, when the Monkey God came, the devotees begged him for a good number to win some money. Monkey God decided to give them a set of numbers – for cap ji kee, two numbers, each from one to twelve. The devotees went to buy from a local agent who collected and passed on to his HQ. In this case, he thought he could “makan”(take) the bid. The next day, the number came out exactly! All the devotees were delighted with the win. This poor agent had to cough out money to pay the people. The next day, a woman came outside the temple, wailing and accusing Monkey God of causing the death of her son. Apparently, her son, the agent, committed suicide because he lost all the money. Since that day, Monkey God has decided that he would not give any number to the devotees.
Known as Gao Sng in Hokkien, it is a phenomenon occurring mostly in young children (probably from the age of 6 months) when they seemed to stop growing and would crouch like monkeys. At that time, doctors were not able to identify the cause of the problem. It was said that the child of one of the doctors in the then Singapore General Hospital (SGH) had this problem and they could not find a cure. The amahs working in SGH at that time had their dormitories in that area. They would pass the temple on their way to SGH to work and back. One of them introduced the case to the temple for treatment.
Monkey God had taught his medium to identify and treat the cases. Where the cases were deemed severe, then, they would refer the case to the Monkey God when he “came”. It was said that they could identify the severity of the case by looking for the nodes underneath the armpits. For nodes of three and below, the medium could treat with the help of Monkey God’s talisman and an elaborate process. Approval was sought from Monkey God through the use of divining blocks. It must be a three-time affirmation in succession to get a clear approval. This is indicated by the divining blocks appearing with one of the pair having the smooth side facing up and the other with the rounded side facing up. It would take about 49 days to complete the course of treatment. The child would go for treatment every 3, 6 and 9th day of the lunar month. It was said that the treatment included using wet chicken dung (gui sai kou) spread on a Chinese biscuit (pong bnia) and steamed over the child’s clothing which could only be in white. The child would then wear the clothing so that the smell would chase the mischievous monkey spirit away. In addition, the child would also be required to bathe in a tub of water mixed with a smelly Chinese herb known as gui sai ding. This smelly herb would also act to chase the mischievous monkey spirit away. During treatment, the kid was to avoid bright lights, fruits and be kept indoors (for 49 days). The kid was not to be exposed to “red” and “white” matters – red meaning happy occasions such as wedding or baby month-old celebrations and white meaning death. For protection, the kid would become the godchild of Monkey God.
For children found with 4 nodes and above, they would need the attention of the Monkey God. Monkey God will advise if the case was curable. The wife of the medium also learnt to treat such cases.
The medium passes away
It was in 1961, on the 18th of the 8th Lunar month when Goh Kim Choon passed away in his sleep. His son, Geok Swan, called out to him on his way out to work and he responded. But when his wife came to wake him up for breakfast, he had already left this world.
On the night before, which was the last day of the celebrations in the 8th Lunar Month, the temple members were seated around him in front of the altar where he sat on the dragon chair apparently in conversation with Monkey God. They noticed that his face became red, but he did not say anything to them. He then retired to sleep in the backroom at the ground floor of the temple. The members later guessed that he must have failed to get the approval to extend his life.
With the blessing of Monkey God, the funeral wake was held in the temple. After 5 days of the funeral wake, some 1000 people turned up for the funeral procession, many of them the “god-children” of the Monkey God, who cured them of the gao-sng (a term in Hokkien on cases of children who could not grow up, acting like monkeys).
After 100 days of his death, another medium by the name of Ah Tor took over temporarily to continue to give consultations.
During this time, the family was thinking of giving up the temple. After 100 days of mourning, the son, Geok Swan went to Poh Ann Keng (another Monkey God temple which was at Peck Seah St then) to ask if the Monkey God wanted to continue. The answer was “Yes” and that he would find the next medium. So, in consultation with his mother, the temple continued with the temple supporters.
The search for a medium
A year later, Monkey God “approached” Geok Swan, asking him to become his medium to continue his father’s work. But he refused. Monkey God tried. But each time when they beat the drum and gongs with the chanting, he would rush back to the temple tearing his clothing in the process and went into semi-state of trance. He must have resisted as he did not get into full trance. He would vomit (as is typical of most cases just before the Deity enters a medium’s body). He could only convulse and shake his body. It was only when his mother used three joss sticks to plead with Monkey God to let him go that he then returned back to his sober state.
It went on for quite a long time, but Geok Swan refused. Finally Monkey God gave up. That was also the time when the temple members decided amongst themselves that perhaps one of them might be able to take over. So, with drums and gongs, sitting on the chair, smoked by a big bunch of fuming joss sticks, they took turns.
Finally, one of them, Soh Teow Peng was the chosen one. He served Monkey God for 42 years, starting when he was in his 20s. He retired from this mediumship a couple of years back. The temple is now without a medium.
The temple continues its commitment to the community
As with the wishes of Monkey God, the temple supporters who formed the core temple members with the family of the medium continued with its good work towards the community.
With Monkey God’s support and advice, the members continued to operate from the same place when the temple started its community service since 1920, until this day, renovating and improving the temple over time. It also had to defend its occupancy since the old days to maintain its existence at this place with the ever changing landscape of Tiong Bahru. Through these years, the temple has seen how many of its devotees’ kids have grown up to become community leaders and even government leaders. One of the earliest known English record of this temple could be the book “Chinese Temples of Singapore” published in 1958 by Leon Comber. Geok Swan remembered Leon came to interview his father. This out-of-print book is now re-published as part of a collection of Leon Comber’s book entitled “Through the Bamboo Window”.
In the 1979, in response to the government policy to preserve the historical monuments, a Qi Tian Gong Temple Management Committee was set up to apply for the retention of the temple. In 1985, the committee acquired ownership of the temple and applied for a permit from the government. The temple is now registered as a public temple.
1. Mr. Goh Geok Swan for sharing with us his memories of his late father, Mr. Goh Kim Choon and Qi Tian Gong in its early days
2. Qi Tian Gong website (http://www.qitiangong.com) & photos