The Nine Emperor Gods Festival & Its Psychedelically Cute Turtle Buns! (○’ω’○)

The Nine Emperor Gods (Kau Wong Yeh in Cantonese) Festival have recently concluded but I wasn’t able to make it back to my hometown Ipoh for the celebrations. I was a little bummed because I missed out on seeing the turtle buns sold as temple offerings at this time of the year. Thankfully, a Facebook friend shared his photos of this year’s turtle buns, and even better, some great behind-the-scenes shots of the bun shops (thank you, George!).

We start first with this mega terrapin beauty, likely a special order by a grateful devotee. The four blue characters on the largest turtle’s read ‘hap kah peng on‘ (family togetherness), and the second-largest one reads ‘fook‘ (fortune) while being surrounded by little baby turtles (signifying children). Interestingly, the ‘legs’ of the great turtle are mid-sized turtles themselves, completing this representation of a multi-generational family with close ties and abundance (´ω`)

Nine Gods Festival -Turtle Family Pau

Holding up the weight of their world on tiny turtle feet, very much like to the Great Turtle of many other legends. [Photo credit: George Loh]

The turtle buns are actually Chinese steamed buns, shaped into turtles of every size and covered with a coloured layer of pink or yellow. You can pay more for your turtles to be sculpted into fancier displays or have auspicious characters written on their backs (like the turtle family above). Some will also buy a large number of small turtles, all stacked up as a small ‘mountain’, as an offering to the gods and a food donation to the temple. Aside being a sign of longevity, these hong gwai (‘red turtle’) appear to relate to a legend of a giant red turtle who came to the rescue of the Nine Emperor Gods and ferried them to safety on Tow Boo Keong island (it all makes sense now! And turtles are awesome! :D).

Nine God Festival Tow Boo Keong Temple turtle buns skin

Making the ‘skin’ of the yellow turtle batch. [Photo credit: George Loh]

Nine Gods Festival Tow Boo Keong Ipoh

Many hands making a sea of turtles! [Photo credit: George Loh]

Nine Gods Festival Turtle Buns

Half-finished baby turtles and more to go [Photo credit: George Loh]

The steamed buns are also shaped as sau tou (longevity peaches), with pandan (screwpine, my favourite!) fillings in the yellow ones and lotus paste fillings in the pink. All peach and turtle buns are either donated to the temple or brought home for eating. My parents will peel off the coloured layer and re-steam the buns in our rice cooker. While we can eat the peach buns on their own after steaming, the turtle buns are plain with no filling so we’ll usually enjoy these slathered with plenty of kaya (coconut egg) jam ^o^

Nine God Festival Tow Boo Keong Temple Ipoh

Turtle & peach buns a-galore! The peach buns in the glass warmer are sold hot to eat on the spot [Photo credit: George Loh]

Nine Gods Festival Turtle Buns

Can you see the *stacks* of flour bags? I wonder how many buns are made in these 9 days! [Photo credit: George Loh]

The festival period runs for the first nine days in the ninth month of the lunar calendar. It usually falls in the month of October, and this year it took place from 5th till 13th October 2013. During this time, my family will go for our night prayers at one of Malaysia’s oldest Taoist temples – Tow Boo Keong temple in Ipoh, being 104 years now (!)

We would buy our joss sticks from one of the ‘car jockeys’ (as a small thanks for their help in finding a parking spot); and from the stalls outside the temple walls, our offerings of fruits, flowers, and of course the turtle and peach buns  (*^▽^*). After that, it’s onward to the temple prayer hall. My task was always to find a space on the tiled tables to place our offerings and then stand ‘guard’ over them (not that anyone would take them, just that it can get a little confusing identifying which spot is yours and people may shift things around to free up scant table space), while my parents make their joss stick prayer rounds at various parts of the hall. Then it’s my Mum’s turn for ‘guard duty’, while my Dad accompanies me for my prayers.

Tow Boo Keong temple hall

A little hard to tell which turtles are yours, aside from quantity [Photo credit:]

One of the key things we do here is the ‘quin toi tai’ (crawl under the table) ceremony. We first queue before the altar entrance, take a yellow protective talisman from one of the temple staff, then walk under the altar till we come to its exit – we will repeat this, until we’ve done it 3 times. I remember when I was a toddler, the altar was made of wood and its ‘corridor’ below was dark and very low – my 4-year old head could almost reach its corridor top, so the adults had to crouch low to walk through (hence its name!) mentions that Tow Boh Keong is the only temple in Ipoh with this ceremony to ward off evil spirits and obstacles. “Devotees enter the ‘tunnel’ from the left side of the altar, coming out from the right side. Some devotees do this one time, but actually, they have to do so either three, six or maximum nine times.”

Tow Boo Keong altar ceremony

The temple altar corridor is nowadays more comfortable to walk through [Photo credit:]

After performing our prayers in the main temple hall, we’d eat a vegetarian supper at one of the festival food stalls – my godmother usually helps to run a stall for her Buddhist association, so we’ll always buy something from there in support of her. Devotees can also stay in the temple dormitories for 9 days of prayers and vegetarianism. I remember my grandmother doing this years before, and during those times, we’d drop by the dormitories to say hi and pass her a snack from the festival stalls.

Tow Book Keong dormitories

Pay a donation fee to stay in Tow Book Keong dormitories, and remember to book well in advance! [Photo credit: CY Leow]

There are also Chinese opera shows performed in Cantonese in the temple grounds. As a child, I loved watching these and would obsessively draw the fabulous characters and costumes at home right after each temple visit! These days, our visits are usually closer to midnight, in order to catch the ‘jip san‘ (receiving the gods) ceremony of inviting the Nine Emperors which start at the temple gates before devotees set off for the nightly procession to the Kinta River. So we’d usually miss the last opera show by that time.

IpohChai has a good summation of the nightly Nine Emperor Gods procession: “The Nine Emperor Gods Festival is held to celebrate the return of the Nine Emperor spirits from the heaven to earth. There will be a ceremony for the arrival of the gods which arrive through the waterways such as river or by the sea. So, along the nine days of festival, there will be a ceremony where the devotees goes to the river (Kinta River bridge, in the case of Ipoh) or sea side to held the welcoming ceremony for the arrival for each of the nine gods. Usually, it will be held at midnight. Rain often fall during the festival time and it is believed that the rain was to clean up the path where the Nine Emperor Gods would arrive from the waterways and brought to the temple (and it’s true, it really does rain heavily during this period and clears up in time for the nightly processions!).” 😀

Tow Boo Keong Cowan Street 1947

The Nine Emperor Gods procession along Cowan Road, back circa 1949 [Photo credit:]

If you’re ever in Ipoh around October, you may want to catch this colourful Taoist festival which is a major celebration here. Below are some resources for your further exploration of the festival:

  • Emily2U has several posts about the festival at the Ipoh Tow Boo Keong temple [No. 12, Jalan Tokong, 31650 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia], including the fire-walking ceremony and Chinese opera shows (the video in my post is from her site).
  • CY Leow also covers the festival in Ipoh Tow Boo Keong temple, as part of his thoughtful piece on the Chinese community in Malaysia. Do read his other photo essays on the Malay, Indian, and indigenous communities of Malaysia – which are excerpts of a 1911 publication ‘The Soul of Our Nation’.
  • IpohChai documents a morning parade of the festival in Ipoh, back in 2008. You can see many pictures of the deity sedans, mediums, kavadi cheek-piercings, and pretty girls dressed as heavenly maidens here 😉
  • Cheryl Hoffman devotes an entire blog to The Nine Emperor Gods Festival with amazing photos, information, and routes in various parts of Malaysia – Ampang (Kuala Lumpur), Penang, and Johor Bahru.
  • Minisuitcase did a great post on the festival in Ampang with excellent shots capturing the colour and ordered chaos that is the essence of the festival, and has photos of red turtle buns with gold lettering (!) 😀
  • Singapore Infopedia talks about the festival in Singapore and lists the 12 Singaporean temples that celebrate it.

For myself, this post is a good reminder, to book (in advance) my plane ticket home to Ipoh next October, and recall that the best festivals and sights sometimes are found back home. Have you attended similar festivals like this? Please comment to share 🙂


While you’re in Ipoh, you may want to check out some fabulous-looking rainbow cakes in Interlude in Ipoh: Zakka Loft

Or enjoy some Seoul-tastic food over at 3 Days & Nights of Seoul Feasting

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