Dragon ship set to depart in fiery ritual

The finished ship, made with bamboo, cardboard and 6,000 pieces of folded joss paper stands at 4.88m high, 4.88m long and 1.83m wide.


Dedicated work: Temple caretakers Linda Ng (left) and Molin Aw putting the final touches to the dragon-shaped paper boat and the Tai Su Yeah effigy in conjunction with the Hungry Ghost Festival in Air Itam, Penang. — LIM BENG TATT/The Star

August 12, 2022

GEORGE TOWN – In a painstaking effort, a group of eight youths spent a whole month delicately putting together a dragon-shaped paper ship, made with bamboo, cardboard and 6,000 pieces of folded Ong Seng Jee (joss paper with sutras imprinted).

The finished ship, or Say Hong Chun, stands at 4.88m (16ft) high, 4.88m long and 1.83m (6ft) wide.

And it will all go up in smoke on Aug 20.

The Say Hong Chun and an effigy of the King of Hades (Tai Su Yeah) will be burnt in a final ritual to send off departed loved ones to mark the seventh lunar month celebration.

The ritual, which will take place on the night of Aug 20 at Sian Chye Tong Temple in Ayer Itam, is part of the Hungry Ghost Festival. The actual day of festivity, however, is today.

The temple’s youth section chairman, Loh Choon Teik, said that after a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the temple was finally able to celebrate its Filial Piety Celebration (Cheow Thor), which began on July 29.

He said the celebration was carried out on a smaller scale the past two years and there was no burning of Say Hong Chun.

“The framework of the ship is made up of bamboo and cardboard, while the exterior is fully covered with more than 6,000 pieces of folded Ong Seng Jee.

“The joss papers are folded in various designs, including the lotus leaf, roof tile, dragon scale, dragon tail and lotus flower,” he said.

Loh said the paper ship would be fully filled with folded Ong Seng Jee and other joss paper.

“The design, shape and structure of Say Hong Chun have been improvised with a dragon head and tail to make it look more impressive and exclusive, like an emperor’s ship,” he said.

Loh explained that the Cheow Thor celebration was significant for all living descendants to show their gratitude as well as filial piety towards their departed ancestors and loved ones.

The temple’s religious adviser, Venerable Seck Chin Sooi, together with other monks and nuns, will conduct special day-long chanting and prayers on Aug 20, and all the paper tablets will be placed in the Say Hong Chun and burnt.

“The Say Hong Chun is symbolic for this festival as it represents Amitabha Buddha’s effort to ferry the deceased to Buddha’s Pure Land for repentance and rebirth,” he said.

Besides the Say Hong Chun, Loh said a Tai Su Yeah effigy designed using Ong Seng Jee was made by members of the temple’s youth section.

The effigy of Tai Su Yeah, measuring 3.66m tall and 1.52m wide, is also made using bamboo and cardboard, and covered by 2,000 pieces of Ong Seng Jee.

Loh also explained that Tai Su Yeah was the transformation of the Buddhist Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy), who guards the visiting spirits of the departed ancestors during the celebration.

Temple caretaker Linda Ng, 72, said they had been making the paper ship for more than 20 years. She added that paper tablets bearing the names of the deceased and the date on which they died would be placed in front of a beautifully decorated Amitabha Buddha altar during the Cheow Thor celebration for daily offerings and chanting.

Meanwhile, huat kuih (prosperity cakes) seller Goh Kai Loon, 38, is experiencing brisk business at the Batu Lanchang market during the Hungry Ghost month.

“My business has doubled over the past few weeks. My customers usually offer huat kuih to their ancestors as well as to Tai Su Yeah,” he added.

The Hungry Ghost Festival began on July 29 and will last 29 days, which is the number of days in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar this year.

The festival peaks at midnight today, although temples and communities may hold their main celebrations a few days before or after.

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