36 pieces of 16-inch joss paper folded in half, tied in the middle by a red string, fold the tip of each sheet in alternating directions to shape into a lotus base. Pull a string through three stacked lotus bases and fasten them together, then make a belt out of red paper, thus completing a joss paper lotus (“liân-hue kim” in Hokkien). During Chinese New Year, when celebrating the Jade Emperor’s birthday on the ninth day of the first lunar month, a pair of those are required.
The ninth day of the first lunar month marks the Jade Emperor’s birthday, also dubbed “thiⁿ-kong senn”, “thiⁿ-kong tàn” or “thiⁿ-kong ji̍t”, the most important occasion of the Hokkien clan. Legend has it that during an invasion, Hokkien villagers hid in sugarcane fields in order to flee from massacre, only returning home after the troops have completely retreated, on the ninth day of the first lunar month. To show gratitude for the Jade Emperor’s blessing, the survivors held an elaborate ceremony with sumptuous offerings, among which sugarcane is a must-have. Other clans also celebrate the Jade Emperor’s birthday, to pray for safety, however customs vary across regions.
Joss paper dedicated to the Jade Emperor is called “thiⁿ-kong kim”, the area covered in gold foil is larger in comparison with other joss papers, therefore the most expensive deity currency. “Thiⁿ-kong kim” is folded into distinctive shapes such as ingot or lotus using traditional techniques, then burnt during the praying ceremony as a token of respect and appreciation. During mass emigration to Southeast Asia, joss paper folding techniques from various localities were brought over, the most common being tribute gold ingot, however the age-old method of shaping a large gold ingot by combining two pieces of “thiⁿ-kong kim” is scarcely seen.
70-year-old Madam Tan Siew Hong learnt traditional joss paper folding techniques from her mother since a young age. Later on, when her younger brother set up a praying supplies business, she is able to provide valuable help. Their house at Taman Sin Tat, Raja Uda, Butterworth, also serves as a warehouse, the roof beams are full of hanging joss paper lotuses handmade by Madam Tan. Tribute gold ingots and large gold ingots are folded into semi-completed products and packed, customers will then need to pry open each piece into shape during the praying ceremony.
Ethnic Chinese constitute the plurality of Penang’s state population, among which Hokkien clan is the majority, the ritual of celebrating the Jade Emperor’s birthday is well upheld, presumably the most important occasion of Chinese New Year celebration in Penang. After preparing food offerings and paying respect by burning incense sticks, “thiⁿ-kong kim” is piled mountain-high, symbolising moving onwards and upwards, after burning the paper offerings, firecrackers and fireworks are set off to mark the conclusion of the ceremony. Madam Tan needs to start folding “thiⁿ-kong kim” at least a month ahead of Chinese New Year, to be sold at her brother’s shop. Nevertheless, they almost always sell out, last-minute shopper will even sit by her and wait for her to finish folding “thiⁿ-kong kim”.
After a hectic Chinese New Year, the next busy periods for Madam Tan are tomb-sweeping festival and ghost festival, where she needs to fold joss paper relevant to the occasion as well as pack appropriate paper offerings into sets. Paper offering sets are an effective way to avoid mistakes in praying rituals, as the types of joss paper and paper offerings vary according to the occasion.
Decline in religious affiliation occur due to the pressure of leading fast-paced lives, however maintaining a heart full of gratitude opens up the door for continued blessings, therefore the ritual of celebrating the Jade Emperor’s birthday is still being upheld. The techniques of folding joss paper dedicated to the Jade Emperor have become simplified, not many have the time or patience to continue practising the complicated, old-fashioned way. It is truly wonderful of Madam Tan who is always willing to share traditional “thiⁿ-kong kim” folding skills and provide guidance.
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang / Michael Lerk
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Amelia Lim
Copywriter : Pua Hui Wen
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