halloween birthday in a chinese temple

One advantage of being on this side of the dateline is that my birthday went on for 42 hours. I got lots of in-person birthday wishes from the SAA redesign team, then lots of remote wishes from friends and family in the US.

I celebrated with a nice day of exploring. I toured Singapore’s Chinatown in the sweltering heat with a native Singaporean named D who took me through the prayer ritual at the quarter’s largest temple. We began by purchasing incense sticks at a small stand outside the temple…

With our bundle of new incense in hand, we slowly worked our way through the crowd of mostly middle-aged and elderly Chinese, eventually stopping in front of a sort of stand with a flame on top (I know there’s a name for this, but it eludes me at the moment). Beside it was a bin for extra incense. We deposited most of our bundle there, keeping three sticks each. Turning to the flame, I pushed my incense through a jungle of other arms and held my three sticks steady until they were fully lit.

We turned to face away from the temple, and D directed me to hold my smoking incense in front of my face, speak my name aloud and silently make my request. Then she told me to turn around to face the temple and repeat this incantation. She led me inside the temple where through the crowd we could see perhaps 100 people kneeling in tight rows on a large red mat. She told me it was usually not so crowded and that she thought the people had come to celebrate the birthday of some god or goddess.

As we pushed our way deeper, the thickness of the crowd made the heat and humidity almost unbearable, and there was an intense and constant metalic rattling coming from the people on the mat. It happened that many of them were vigorously shaking metal cans – of about five inches in diameter and eight inches tall – full of carved wooden sticks.

D handed me one of these cans, and we took off our shoes and found a space on the mat. She showed me how to shake the can, tipping it forward slightly, and she told me to think of a question, shaking the can until one of the sticks worked its way out. It took about two minutes, I think, for me to get the technique down (and not spill the entire contents), but eventually a stick worked its way out. I could see now that on the stick were written some Chinese characters.

D then handed me two kidney bean shaped objects that were flat on one side and rounded on the other. She showed me how to hold these together between the palms of my hands, while cradling the stick under my thumbs. She told me to drop the bean-shaped things (but not the stick) onto the floor just in front of me to find out whether the characters on the stick represented the answer to my question. When the bean-shaped things landed – one round-side up and the other round-side down, she told me the stick was indeed the right one for my question, and then she stood up and disappeared into the crowd.

She came back a minute later with a piece of paper that had three things written on it: The first was a kind of story or koen. The second was an indication of whether the interpretation was “Good” or “Bad”, and the third was the actual interpretation.

Perspiring profusely and very thirsty by now, I repeated the entire ritual (everything after the incense bit anyway) with another question in mind. Then I watched D go through the ritual with a couple questions of her own.

Both of my interpretations were “Good”, but one of hers was “Bad”, so as we walked out, she held the bad one to a small fire burning on another stand outside the temple. The paper caught fire, and she held it in her hand for a moment before dropping it onto the pile of ash.

Thoroughly overheated by now and finished with the ritual, we wandered off to a hawker stand where we bought some sugarcane juice from a vendor.