All hail the procession: An integral expression of Sarawak culture

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak by FoSM

Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Karen Shepherd

SOME of my earliest memories of Sarawak surround processions, the cavalcade of noise and light and colour snaking through the streets as drums and cymbals clatter in that distinctive rhythm, instantly recognisable to anyone in the East.

I remember feeling small as I stared up at the passing feet of stilt walkers, towering above me, gigantic cloth dragons twirling and circling in the skies, furry lion’s legs jumping and bounding at eye level, through air redolent with the heady scent of joss sticks.

Procession dragons and stilts. Photo: David Jorgensen

I remember devotees wandering by in trance states, hazy and oblivious of shouted commands to passing performers, people lining the streets and calling out to friends as they walked by, muscular Chinese boys taking a breather from the heat of the lion’s head, smoking a cigarette by the side of the road.

Roadside ‘Ah Ma Hu’s waiting. Photo: Karen Shepherd

To this day, I love a procession, any procession. Not much has changed. They remain a huge part of Sarawak life, indeed anywhere across Asia from Singkawang to Siniawan to Singapore. Kuching has them in numbers, ushering in luck and driving out misfortune. A town of many temples to multiple faiths and even more deities, almost all of them stage one at least once in the year, a tradition stretching out across the state.

On procession day, the streets close and traffic crawls to a standstill as the coffeeshops and five-foot ways buzz with extra activity. Nevertheless, it is usually easy to find a place to watch from. Often there are more performers in the procession than people watching it pass. But the participants are a cast of thousands. If you don’t see someone you know on procession day, then you are not a Sarawakian.

First off, a procession is not a parade. Sarawak boasts the largest Christmas parades in Malaysia, running across several towns. But these are very firmly described as the latter rather than the former. For visitors to the city, the distinction is sometimes masked by the similarity in community spirit, in celebration, and in style. Processions, however, are a spiritual observance in themselves, a key element of the Chinese religious practice linked to Daoist or Shenist worship. It is not a party, though party people do.

Processions, instead, are primarily for the deity. Each temple in Kuching houses multiple deities, embodied in the icons on the various altars inside. Some are universal symbols, like the ever-radiant Guanyin, known variously as the Bodhisattva of Compassion or the Goddess of Mercy. She looks down from the Lim Fah San temple on Tabuan Road from a great height, for example, but also resides serene in several side chambers in temples dedicated to others.

Tua Pek Kong is another big name, deified outside of China and worshipped across Malaysia as the God of Prosperity. He has many sites but his most famous in Sarawak is the first founded in the city, standing since the 19th century, overlooking the Kuching Waterfront. A trip inside the temple will show him flanked by other luminaries, as in other temples in the state, like the often-present God of Hell, characterised by his angry black face, or the Goddess of Birth, and many others besides.

These deities reflect the history of the Chinese community of Kuching. They represent prayers for prosperity in a new land or thanks after an arduous crossing at the feet of Ma Zu, the Goddess of the Sea.

Mah Zu in sedan chair. Photo: Karen Shepherd

They mark moments in the city’s history, like the Great Fire of Kuching in 1884, during which Kueh Seng Onn appeared on the roof of his temple on Wayang Street to warn the citizens of impending disaster. They speak of clan and dialect group and connection, a familiar face to anyone arriving new in the city.

Each temple has its own community, so any conflation of the ‘procession’ into a single practice comes with its dangers. But certain characteristics are shared, an indication of wider communal purpose across the clans, and one that speaks of a Sarawak spirit. For each, the primary deity has a special occasion, a birthday, an anniversary, a key date in the spiritual calendar, and the procession is a way to come out and see the people.

The procession itself is usually the final event in a period of observance. When the flags fly in front of the temple, and when the stacks of folded joss paper start to pile up inside and the smoke from their service puffs out of the fires outside, it is a hint that a procession is on the way. The devotees will often cleanse themselves through diet and prayer, preparing themselves for duty. It is an honour to be in the convoy so true believers must make themselves deserving.

A staple of the process is the staging of the opera, though this tradition is waning as the performers age and fewer young people learn the trade. The Old Bazaar opposite the Hong San Si temple still houses a stage as does Lau Ya Kheng across Carpenter Street from the Hiang Thian Siang Ti Temple. The first is home to the Yi Sing Fukien Dramatic Association which still performs to this day. In the past, this would have been a grand community affair to a large audience of onlookers, but even as the patronage dwindles, the opera plays on. The guests of honour are the gods themselves.

Hokkien Opera. Photo: Karen Shepherd

This is equally true of the procession itself. Floats are prepared by community members. Kueh Seng Onn’s birthday procession, held on the 22nd day of the 2nd month of the lunar calendar, is the biggest in the city, boasting over 130 floats. Associations, businesses, temple groups, lion dance troupes, each will take part—decorating a float with aspects of Chinese culture and then sending their members out to march.

The procession waits to start. Photo: Karen Shepherd

It can be an expensive undertaking. But participation is a prayer for prosperity, peace and luck in the coming year, so it is money well spent. It is also a community service, a chance for everyone to get together and celebrate with each other, sometimes to pay respect to another Sarawak culture. The line of floats will commonly include people from all faiths and ethnicities—drummers in tudong, just enjoying the music, or Dayak boys displaying their athleticism under the dragon.

Energetic lions at Hong San Si. Photo: Karen Shepherd

At the procession’s head, there is always the deity. The line of floats will mass along the street leading to the temple as the ceremony starts inside. The deity is brought down from its altar by its devotees and then prepared for travel, tucked in its own sedan chair.

Kueh Seng Onn ready to leave the temple for the procession. Photo: Karen Shepherd

Sometimes other deities will be part of the entourage, brought up from other temples in Sarawak or even from sister temples elsewhere in the world, to be part of the celebration.

Once the main deity is installed, the procession is off. The route is predictable. This is not a tour of the town, instead it is a tour of the temples. The convoy halts at every sacred location along the way, even small roadside altars, and salutes the deity inside with a special display. Dragons twirl, lions dance and devotees pay their respects properly to the full pantheon. If you are a visitor to the city, then station yourself outside a temple gate to see its full splendour. The deity is happy to share.

Dragons in procession. Photo: David Jorgensen

In Sarawak, this will also usually include the Hindu temple on Ban Hock Road, a nod to all the gods. This is where the contradiction arises. Despite the clear links with a single Sarawak culture, the procession is an exercise in inclusivity, from participants to stopping points. This is not the hushed and subdued entry of the Christian faithful or the secluded sanctuary of the Mosque. Instead, it is a full-on congregation, out in the open. It is daily devotion on display, the deity’s most public engagement and everyone comes to the party.

This is a reflection of the multi-cultural context of the community as it is here, outside of China. Processions are the integration of faith into wider Kuching life and so must work on multiple levels. In Sarawak, many Chinese are converted to Christianity and they reside in mixed race areas. So the procession must serve another purpose, forged across several generations integrated in the Nanyang.

They have become equally a celebration of culture. They are the Chinese community demonstrating longstanding links to another place, but yet, they have become entirely localised. They celebrate Malaysian-born deities and dialect groups no longer active in China in the same way. In many cases, the practices are preserved only here, now extinct in the old country after long years of transmission, transition and cultural revolution.

Old traditions in today’s Sarawak. Photo: Karen Shepherd

Just like the cuisine, the Chinese contribution is entirely Sarawakian. The Hokkien opera exists in its own form, defined by the people who made their homes here. In the end, it proves that culture is a reflection of people, moving with the times and the will of the populace. The procession in Sarawak is a long line, leading from past to present to future, linking one place with another and every community with each other. Long may they last.

Karen Shepherd is currently the Focal Point and Strategic Director for Kuching as a City of Gastronomy under UNESCO. A writer and content creator, she tells stories about Sarawak and its unique culture through a range of media, including her own website,

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.