Mainland Chinese in this west coast Malaysian state shipped their evil spirits to the unknown aboard a burning boat, reviving a 68-year-old ritual designed to ward off disease and economic hardship.
Thousands of people waving incense sticks in prayer stood under a full moon to watch the three masted ‘Wangkang’ (king’s boat) burn to the ground and a fresh wind blow its embers into the Strait of Malacca.
Five thousand devotees had earlier followed the plywood ship as it was paraded 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) through the narrow streets of this historic city to capture bad spirits.
Malacca, the place where Malays and Chinese inter-married to create the culture known as Baba Nonya, last witnessed the Wangkang in 1933 during a global influenza outbreak.
Prior to that, it was held in 1919 when a cholera epidemic gripped the town.
Some onlookers questioned why the Wangkang was ‘sailing’ after nearly seven decades.
A few suggested the prompt had been Malaysia’s sluggish economy while others speculated it was a response to heightened tensions between the Chinese and the majority Malays in this nation of 22 million people.
A recent demand by a group of Chinese organizations to remove affirmative action policies for Malays has led to public sparring between the groups.
Organizers would only say that the temple’s deity instructed them to build the 10-meter craft late last year and call it ‘Aun Kak’ or Peaceful Malacca.
Chinese devotees and onlookers lined the route of the day-long procession as men dressed in white to represent purity pulled the Wangkang through the town, one of 15th-century Asia’s most influential sea-trading centers.
“I don’t know where I’ll be 68 years from now. I don’t want to miss this,” said Lee Siem Lee, 23, who walked in a small knot of mostly elderly women directly behind the boat.
Others climbed into rickshaws to follow behind the Wangkang, which was accompanied by temple priests, drummers and sedan chairs carrying replicas of gods.
“The younger generation may not know truly the significance; for them it’s just a carnival. The idea is the deity wants to relieve the state of all diseases and calamities,” said Koh Kok Kiong, spokesman for organizers from the Yong Chuan Tian temple.
As it stopped, the Wangkang was approached by devotees who rubbed the animals painted on its side to represent the Chinese zodiac. This year is the year of the snake.
Gods and pastoral scenes were painted in small ‘windows’ on the Wangkang’s hull while a mini pagoda and a temple burning incense rose from its open deck. Orange lanterns hung from the prow, which was fronted by a fierce looking god.
Wednesday was Chap Goh Meh, the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, celebrated by Malaysia’s Chinese. In northern Penang unmarried women throw oranges into the sea in a ceremony to attract husbands while Malacca usually holds a modest parade.
But this year’s Wangkang drew visitors from throughout Malaysia and beyond, including one man sitting with two elderly relatives who both witnessed the 1933 festival.
“My aunt saw it. It was made of sandalwood and took one year to build. You could smell it when it went past,” he said.
Many people acknowledged that shortcuts were made to create this year’s Wangkang, some for cost reasons but others because skills have been lost in the 68 years since the last ritual.
Certain hymns were dropped from the prayers that accompany the Wangkang because it’s believed that even slight errors in reciting them would portend bad fortune.
“It was also a more solemn affair (in 1919), people wouldn’t let their children watch when it went past because of the bad spirits,” said one elderly onlooker.