Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Making "Unofficial" Sacred Space: Spirit Mediums and House Temples in Singapore

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Making "Unofficial" Sacred Space: Spirit Mediums and House Temples in Singapore

Article excerpt



Deep in a trance, Nick, a thirty year-old Tang-ki (Mandarin cognate ji tong ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])), or spirit medium, cuts his tongue with a broken porcelain cup. The dripping blood is caught by multiple sheets of paper talismans, rendering them sacred, and are the hurriedly picked up and replaced with fresh ones, so as to maximise the number of sacred items created (DeBernardi 2012). This ritual is part of preparations for the opening of Nick's house temple--a sintua (Mandarin equivalent shen tang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or spirit altar. Nick has spent six years training and serving in temples around Singapore, and has now been tasked by the main deity who possesses him, Sun Wukong ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), also known as the Monkey God, to set up his own temple to serve the people around him. (November 2014, Author)

In this paper, I will explore how Chinese religious spirit mediums operate in "unofficial" sacred spaces, arguing that through the use of aesthetic markers and bodily comportment (Knowles 2003), spirit mediums are able to subvert and resist Singapore's functionalist political ideology on religious buildings and spaces (Kong 1993). Two case studies, involving visually focussed, participant observation (Heng 2011) will demonstrate that spirit mediums' use of aesthetic markers--such as behavior, vestments, and an array of tools--allow them to create sacred spaces in "unofficial" locations--for instance, their home. Their social prominence of mediums, or the attention accorded to them when they are in a trance--for example, are seen as Gods--further serves to temporarily diminish the importance of physical location in favor of their embodied sacredness.


Studies involving the dualism between sacred and profane (nonsacred) space in the geography of religion are wide and diverse (Cooper 1992; Kong 2001; Peach 2002). Scholars like Julian Holloway (2003), Tong Chee-Kiong and Lily Kong (2000), and Orlando Woods (2013) have noted how Mircea Eliade's (1961) work on the sacred and profane shaped geographical thinking. According to Eliade (quoted in Holloway 2003), sacred space is where hierophany, or the manifestation of the sacred, happens. When the "divine or the ultimate makes itself apparent" (Holloway 2003, 1962), that space also becomes sacred. However, as Holloway also argued, the sacred and profane are treated as too distinct. Holloway proposed for us to understand that the sacred also occurs in the everyday, particularly through embodied performances of sanctification. Holloway concluded that we need to better know "how god or the spirit moves in the everyday and in what (mysterious) ways the supernatural engenders a different way of being in the day-to-day world" (Holloway 2003, 1973).

I wish to respond to Holloway's call to understand these workings and movements by examining how Chinese religious spirit mediums make sacred space in "unofficial" spaces through the use of physical objects and behavior in everyday life. But to do this I first need to explain what I mean by "unofficial" sacred spaces. Kong (2001) noted that spaces deemed to be "officially sacred" (citing Leiris 1938) signify the politics of space, particularly relationships between secular and religious forces. "Officially sacred" space like "churches, temples synagogues and mosques, illustrates the power of the secular in defining the location of religious buildings" (Kong 2001, 214). And, echoing her work on the relationship of religion and the state in Singapore (Kong 1993), Kong also argued that "such secular forces may take the form of 'rational' urban planning principles, including capitalistic principles of land values, and principles of multiculturalism" (Kong 2001, 214). "Officially sacred" spaces are thus spaces that are sanctioned and approved by secular forces, particularly the state, as being sacred, and sometimes reinforced by religious forces connected to the state. …

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