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The Hokkien term “tangki” triggers perturbed childhood memories of the eerie red glow illuminating a dim HDB unit on my block where men decked in traditional Chinese garb spoke in tongues. I was only all of 6 then and could not grasp the concept of a “sintua”. For the uninitiated, a Taoist medium who goes into a trance when possessed by a deity is known as a “tangki” and a “sintua” is a Taoist place of worship often found in humble HDB units, boasting ceiling to floor altars stacked with an array of deities, neatly positioned according to their heavenly rankings.
Report by Jane Franklin
The Supernatural Confessions team’s pursuit to research on Taoist medium practices led us to Ken (not his real name). We were invited to attend Ken’s bi-monthly spiritual session one Saturday night at his “sintua” in Jurong West, where he and his counterpart would channel the infamous underworld duo, Dua Di Ya Peh. There are many versions of the story on how Dua Di Ya Peh were ordained by the Heavenly Jade Emperor. Ken narrated to us the version that originated from the province where their tombstones still stand, “Dua Ya Peh (Xie Bi An) and Di Ya Peh (Fan Wu Jiu) had planned to go to the capital for the state exam. Xie’s mother had suddenly taken ill thus they had to postpone the trip and agreed to meet at the pavilion by the river a week later. On the agreed date, the river overflows, drowning Fan who was waiting for Xie at the pavilion. Xie arrives later to find his best friend’s lifeless body at the riverbank, blackened from drowning. Driven by guilt and blaming himself for Fan’s death, Xie hangs himself from a tree with the belt from his silk robe. Moved by their sincerity and the fact that they had never committed sins when alive, the Jade Emperor appointed them as the Guardian Constables of Hell. This is why Di Ya Peh is always portrayed with black skin and Dua Ya Peh is depicted with his tongue sticking out, the last forms they were seen as mortals.”
As we approach Ken’s “sintua” at 9pm, the familiar scent of burning joss sticks welcomes us. We arrive just in time to witness Ken preparing to channel Di Ya Peh. In the completely dark HDB unit, Ken is seated next to his counterpart (who would channel Dua Ya Peh) on similar antique-looking wooden thrones with matching tables, surrounded by a handful of devotees. We find a spot near Ken and watch as he closes his eyes in meditation to call upon the deity to possess his body. Barely minutes later, he starts to tremble and thrust back and forth violently, legs shaking uncontrollably as if an indomitable force is trying to take over his body. Two of his males disciples hold him down in a bid to subdue him. Once the deity has successfully descended into Ken’s body, Ken stops his disconcerting convulsions and sits there composed with his eyes closed. He beckons at his disciples and like clockwork, they bring him 2 unfiltered cigarettes and a tiny shot glass of rice wine. Ken smokes both cigarettes simultaneously while quaffing glass after glass of rice wine like it doesn’t burn his throat. Ken then turns to his disciples and mumbles to them in what sounds like Hokkien. They pull out a stool and ask me to sit next to Ken. I had agreed to put myself in the “hot seat” to satiate my curiosity about this practice I knew so little about. They then tell me that I must address the medium as “Ah Peh” now and since this deity only communicates in ancient Hokkien, one of his disciples, Leon, would be our translator.
I am told that both deities have distinctly varying personalities, and devotees visit them for a myriad of reasons. Dua Ya Peh’s specialty is reading fortunes and Di Ya Peh’s is exorcism and healing of injuries. I take my seat, anxious about what secrets Ah Peh has to reveal. He offers me a cup of wine followed by a hearty chuckle. The deep, hoarse, authoritative voice he speaks in does not seem like it belongs to the young medium. Leon translates the message that Ah Peh wants me to drink with him since he knows that I enjoy a tipple. I am slightly taken aback that he knows my vice. Lucky guess? Perhaps. Ah Peh then asks me for my unit number and goes into what appears like a deep sleep. Sitting there in that unexpected silence, I observe that there is a large abacus on the table, a stack of yellow talisman paper and a pot of burning incense from which thick smoke nearly singes my eyes. Ah Peh jolts awake abruptly and what he says next will forever remain imprinted in my mind. He asks if my front gate is black and tiles are grey, I nod in agreement but still a little skeptical. “There are 2 religious statues outside your house, placed in angle where they are directly facing each other though some metres apart”, he states and goes on to describe them in full detail. “You need to move the one that is not cemented to the ground. There are many conflicts at home because both statues are facing each other,” Ah Peh asserts. I am blown away! How could he have known such precise details of my residence, as if he was standing and speaking from inside my house? Every shadow of doubt I had is now gone. He goes on to point out other private details about me that no one else has ever had privy to and gives me meticulously calculated predictions about other things like my career. He speaks of a career change that would come my way in a matter of days and advises me on what to do. I am puzzled because I had not been applying for jobs. An unsuspecting phone call I’d get a few days later with a job offer completely fortifies my belief in Taoist spirituality.
When my session is over, I am asked to stay on to witness the ‘fire healing ritual’. A friend that accompanied me suffers from chronic pain on his neck after a car accident and two surgeries following that. My friend takes his seat next to Ah Peh, back facing him and shirt off. Ah Peh shares a joke with his disciples about my friend being crazy about tattoos. He chides my friend jokingly, asking if the accident happened two years ago and tells him the accident could’ve been avoided if he had not been distracted by his cigarette while driving. My friend and I exchange astonished looks as there was no way Ah Peh could have known such details of the accident.
A metal pot filled with rice wine and herbs is brought and put on the table. The pot is ignited and the flames soon accelerate from orange to blue. Blue flame is known to have an average temperature of 1500 degrees Celsius. I am invited to put my hand over the flame to feel the intensity of the heat, I politely decline. Ah Peh dips his hand into the burning concoction and for that brief moment in time the flames leap, devouring feverishly at his bare skin. He removes his hand, completely unscathed and rubs the liquid on my friend’s neck and back, repeating the steps several times. He then highlights other injuries that my friend sustained when younger and pinpoints certain areas on his body where the injuries haven’t healed. My friend sits there smiling sheepishly. Days following that, my friend told me his chronic pain seemed to have miraculously disappeared and he now has no trouble sleeping at night.
It is 11.30pm by the time we are done. My eyes are red from the hazy, incense-filled air of the “sintua” and I smell like a piece of flame-grilled meat. I leave the place with a newfound insight into Taoism that is no longer corroded by fear.
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