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The Three Faces of “Grand Uncle” Tradition

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My “xuejie” Ifan Wu has organized a panel entitled “Negotiating and Interpreting Diasporic Traditions: The Making of Ethnic Chinese’s Lives in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore from the 19th Century to the Present” for the New York Conference on Asian Studies 2012. I will be presenting a paper on the cult of Tua Pek Kong (Dabogong 大伯公, Grand Uncle) in Malaya and Singapore. I am very much fascinated by Tua Pek Kong’s cult in Southeast Asia and I hope to research more about this ubiquitous deity in the near future!

The Three Faces of “Grand Uncle” Tradition: Tua Pek Kong’s Cult in Nineteenth-Century Southeast Asia

Jack Meng-Tat Chia

Cornell University

Mass migration from China to Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century saw the arrival of numerous deity cults in the new host countries. However, the arrival of Chinese beliefs and practices was far more complex than being a single-traffic transplantation process. Chinese migrants did not merely transfer popular deities or local cults from China to Southeast Asia; they also invented their own gods in the migrant society. This paper aims to build on Robert Hymes’s notion of “personal model of divinity” to examine the emergence and popularization of Tua Pek Kong’s (Dabogong 大伯公, literally Grand Uncle) cult in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia, with particular focus on Malaysia and Singapore. I argue that in the absence of a Chinese bureaucratic structure in Southeast Asia, the personal model aptly explains the proliferation of Tua Pek Kong’s cult among the Overseas Chinese communities. Tua Pek Kong was far from being a standardized god in a bureaucratic pantheon of Chinese deities; the deity was a “personal being” that offered protection to those who relied on him. This paper will present the multifaceted cult of Tua Pek Kong in three forms: a symbol of sworn brotherhood, a syncretic Sino-Malay deity, and a Sinicized god. It will reveal that Tua Pek Kong’s cult is a multifaceted religious belief combining diverse elements of Chinese religious culture and local practices.

Tua Pek Kong temple on Kusu Island 

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