GEORGE TOWN, July 16 — Tucked along a narrow road within the inner city of George Town is a mid-19th century temple dedicated to the Nine Emperor Gods.
The Kew Ong Yeah Temple has been around for almost two centuries and after shifting several times, it found a permanent home at two heritage shophouses along Hong Kong Street (now known as Cheong Fatt Sze Street).
Despite moving from one place to another over the years, many of the temple’s paraphernalia, such as its scripture books, cloth door banners, carved lanterns, carved wooden items and various prayer items were carefully stored and brought along to each new premise.
Today, the fourth generation caretaker of the temple, Khoo Poh Ong, ensures the smaller relics handed down from his great-grandfather are kept safe and secure in a large security box in the temple while the larger items are stored in the temple.
“We have a lot of these relics; I have lost count and some have even rotted away due to termites and mildew,” he told Malay Mail Online in an interview.
One of the relics is a 3.5m-long, red cloth door banner with the Chinese words “Nine Emperor Gods” embroidered in gold thread that is 117 years’ old.
The banner, with meticulous stitching depicting the eight immortals and floral motifs, was kept folded, which exacerbated its deterioration over the years.
In a bid to save it from further damage, George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) is working with the temple committee to have the banner framed in a protective casing.
“It will be used for the Nine Emperor Gods Festival this year, in mid-October, and after that, we will be getting an Australian restoration expert to look at it,” said GTWHI Conservation studio coordinator Annie Lee.
She said they might have to send the banner to Australia for it to be restored so that it may be preserved.
“After restoring it, we will have to put it back in its frame to preserve and protect it from wear and tear,” she said.
The banner is not the temple’s only century-old relic, however, and Khoo said they have some items that are even older.
“[We] have a scripture book that was made in 1842,” he said.
The scripture book is still in good condition and kept securely in his safety box.
Khoo is understandably very protective of all the temple’s relics that were handed down over the generations before arriving in his care, and is reluctant to display them without pressing need.
“I can’t take out these items on a whim, I need to get the gods’ permission. These are all their items, we must respect them; if it’s mine, I will gladly show it to you,” he said.
The 81-year-old caretaker was born in the current premises and has never left the temple.
In fact, even during World War II, when parts of George Town were bombed, Khoo said they were never worried.
“I felt the safest here because we know the gods will protect us and sure enough, this building was not bombed and we were all safe and sound,” he said.
While most of the relics are kept in the safety box or in locked rooms on the first floor of the temple, a pair of intricately carved lanterns were once hung at the main entrance of the temple.
Today, only one remains; the other was stolen a few years ago.
“The lantern is possibly over 100 years old too, the date it was made was carved on it but it’s now faded so we can’t see the actual date anymore,” Khoo said.
When asked what they plan to do with the other artefacts, Khoo shrugged and said these will be kept and handed down to the next generation, as they had been passed to him.
“Some of these will inevitably rot or be eaten by termites, no matter how we take care of it, so we will try to save as many as possible for the next generation,” he said.
According to Lee, GTWHI will offer assistance and advice to the temple on ways to protect and preserve these relics.
“We will discuss this with the temple committee and Khoo on how to preserve their historical items,” she said.
For now, most of these except for the remaining wooden lantern and the banner, will be kept hidden away in a locked room upstairs or in the safety box.