For the Hokkiens, yesterday was the last day of the Chinese New year celebration although the actual period was 15 days for other Chinese clans. The 9th day celebration was known to the Hokkiens as ‘Bai Tian Gong’ (拜天公) which literally means ‘praying the Heaven God’.
Growing up in a close-knit traditional Hokkien family, my childhood memories of ‘Bai Tian Kong’ can be regarded as one of my sweetest memories during those days. The evening before the prayers at midnight, I will help mom, grandparents, uncle and aunts setting up the tables where the offerings will be placed. Our place will then be crowded by non-Hokkien neighbours, friends and guests taking up seats, chatting away with one another while waiting the clock to strike midnight.
Bai Tian Gong 2007 @ uncle Hor Lai’s place. (Thanks sis for the pic)
Late grandpa will be the MC-ing the prayers by lighting up the red firecrackers that was suspended on a rod. The pandemonium caused by the cracks and bangs can be heard up to few distance away. In those days, when the ban is still not imposed yet by the ‘gomen’, we kids have the chance to play with fireworks with all varieties while cycling around the neighbourhood with cousins eating away sweet-buns and soft drinks.
As I was growing up, ‘Bai Tian Gong’ does really mean much as it was a day where family gathers again, helping each other to organise the ‘party’ thus strengthening unity in family. In those days it was considered a party where alcohol and cocktails are being served to our guests. Food are abundance and everyone was chatting away in a small but yet concentrated social gathering. The only thing that amiss was what the hell is ‘Bai Tian Gong’ actually means?
I questioned my parents and grandparents about the history of Bai Tian Gong when I was a kid but they only provide me brief information that doesn’t satisfy me. Being a curious and a thinker at all times, I googled around for it, and only to find ‘Bai Tian Gong’ does have significance in Hokkien people’s history.
That was during the Song Dynasty (Mongols), all the clans in Southern China (i.e. Fujian, Henan, Zhejiang) were heavily repressed and lived under great fear and suffering. The Hokkien clan was no exception and were constantly at the mercy of the Mongols who attacked and hunted the Hokkiens, because the Hokkiens are seen as a threat to their kingdom. Therefore, the sole purpose of hunting them is to exterminate the clan all at once.
The Hokkiens then fled to the Henan province where sugarcane plantation is abundance. There, the small group of surviving Hokkiens hid themselves among the sugarcane plants. The pursuing Mongols spent many days trying to locate them but to no avail. On the ninth day, they gave up and returned to base.
The Hokkiens then happily emerged from their hideout praising the blessings of the celestial deities and owing gratitude to the sugarcane plants for saving them from destruction. The Hokkiens believe that the sky is a protecting roof over them, the Earth is where they can stand firm and the sugarcane plants their refuge. Thus, in all Hokkien celebrations, the sugarcane plant is given prominence.
That is why the Ninth day was regarded as the day of their salvation, and the day was known as the Ninth Day Festival. On that day, a pair of sugarcane plants are used usually placed one on each side of the offering table. The pair symbolising unity, cooperation and strength. The sugarcane itself is a symbol of harmony and a token which can bring good and ‘sweet’ results. The very straightness of the sugarcane stem also ensures that the Hokkiens can become a clan of honest and sincere people!
According to my sis, ‘Bai Tian Gong’ nowadays has been quieter. It is only run jointly by my parents and my uncle who happens to live next door. No guests, no crackers, thanks to the ban that killed off this tradition which is slowly dying and facing extinction.