Pulau Ubin Stories

Stories, old and new, about Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Legend of Ma Zu

In the previous article "Ma Zu Temple", I discovered the origins of a Ma Zu Temple that once stood on the west coast of Pulau Ubin. Since the article was written, there was a spark of curiousity as to why seafaring folk were faithful devotees of this female Deity - Ma Zu. Who is Ma Zu and why did she become the patron "saint" of the sea.

As I mentioned previously, my mother had told me that most island countries have its fair share of Ma Zu temple and devotees. In total, there are around 1,500 Matsu temples in 26 countries of the world (yourencyclopedia.net). Singapore is no exception. In fact, this particular Ma Zu Temple of Ubin was not the only one. It had a more well-known counterpart in the Thian Hock Keng Temple which stood on the Telok Ayer Basin before land was reclaimed from the sea. According to can.com.sg, "Telok Ayer Street once formed the foreshore of the sea before it was reclaimed in the 1880s". Again, the similarity in locations is unmistakable.

Worldroom.com wrote, "Thian Hock Keng is the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore, it is also the island's most important Hokkien temple. Sailors were said to have given thanks at this Taoist-Buddhist temple as early as 1821. Both the young and the elderly can be seen paying their respects to Ma Zu Po (the Mother of Heavenly Sages) or Confucius."

Picture of Thian Hock Keng, undated (UNESCO)

At first I didnt understand why "Thian Hock Keng" would have any similarities to the "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" of Ubin. There appears, of course, to be many variations of Ma Zu Temples. Thian Hock Keng is the hokkien dialect pronunciation of "Tian Fu Gong" while the temple on Ubin is "Tian Hou Gong". However, according to can.com.sg, Ma Zu is also known as Ma-Zu-Po (Tian Shang Shen Mu), the Celestial Queen. This is of course familiar as can be seen by this photo below. The name on the sign says "Tian Hou Shen Mu" which may just be another variation of Ma Zu's title.

According to the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation webpage on Thian Hock Keng Temple:

"The shrine was dedicated to Ma Zu Po, the Goddess of the Sea, or Mazu for short. As the immigrants would have had a potentially hazardous voyage across the China Sea, the newly arrived showed their gratitude to Mazu for a safe passage. Those making the return trip would have done likewise to insure a safe return.

Mazu lived on the coast near the Island of Meizhou in Fujian. She was gifted with great powers; of healing the sick and guiding seafarers to safety when the sea conditions were hazardous. Though her life was quite short (AD. 960 - 987), her exploits were extensive and were recognized by the Emperor. After her death she was revered as a goddess or saint and particularly by those whose livelihood depended on the sea and those embarking on a voyage. She was said to have appeared in dreams to coastal dwellers and instructed them to build temples so that they could receive blessing for safe voyages.

This is evident from the many temples, including Thian Hock Keng, dedicated to her that can be found throughout the region from Fujian, along the coast of Southern China, Indochina and the Malacca Strait including Penang and Lumut. This was the area of sea plied by the Fujian seafarers. These temples all feature close similarities in architectural style and the deities represented within included idols of Mazu herself as the principle.

The importance of Mazu's blessings for safe passage from China to Singapore cannot be underestimated as in those days the voyage was made in small sailing junks across seas beset with dangerous reefs and typhoons. Safe passages as well as safe arrival of the cargos and trade upon which commerce depended featured significantly in the welfare of all the immigrants from Southern China. Thus the clan leaders made it their business to build temples dedicated to Mazu."

Ma Zu Temples are predominantly found in Chinese Dispora Communities in the South China Sea. As mentioned above, the immigrants before the dangerous voyage would pray to her for safety and when they reach their destination, to show their gratitudes, became faithful devotees and thus the temples started sprouting up in areas where the Chinese Dispora were established. According to the Chinese Overseas Databank, "These sojourners originated mainly from southern China and have come to trade and finally settled in Southeast Asia over a period of a thousand years." There are Chinese Dispora communities in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar.

Not only are there temples dedicated to Ma Zu, in Taiwan, there is even an archipelago (a group of islands) named after Ma Zu. The Ma zu Archipelago is located northwestward by west in Taiwan Strait, which is the very water Ma zu (the deity) had saved many sailors' lives. According to Asia Planet, "Ma Tzu (the archipelago) is named after the Goddess of Sea, who carried the body of her drowned fisherman father back to shore. The casket of the Goddess is still preserved in a local temple. Ma Tzu consists of more than 10 islets with a total area of 28.8 square km. Due to its sensitive position, Ma Tzu used to be a military fortress like Kin Men. With the cross-strait relations growing friendlier, Ma Tzu is now developing its tourism. In 1999, Ma Tzu was designated as a national tourist district and began attracting tourists."

Not only were there islands in Taiwan named after Ma Zu, but if the below is true, then the previous portuguese colony of Macau may just be in fact named after Ma Zu too! According to a website dedicated to the place of Ma Zu's birth, Putian (Taiwan), "Ma Zu - The world-famous sea goddess Mazu ( Lin Mo by name) was born on Mar.23, 960 A.D. at Meizhou Bay in Putian and died on the ninth of September of the lunar calendar in the year 987 A. D. on Meizhou Island in the Song Dynasty. Throughout her life, Mazu devoted herself to offering generous help to those who were distressed at sea, for which she has been highly revered by the public. In 987 A.D., more than 1,000 years ago, people built a temple on Meizhou Island to worship her and to commemorate her meritorious deeds. After her death, she became the goddess of the sea. With great respect, outh-east China fishermen bring her statue with their travelling and build emples for her everywhere they settle down. Macao, the English name of this small peninsula actually cames after a temple of "Ma Zu" in the peninsula. This is the reason why the pronunciation of Macau(Macao) is so different from the Chinese name (Au Men) of it."

For more interesting background reads on Ma Zu:
  • RGS' "Ma Zu in Singapore"
  • Online Encyclopedia entry on Matsu Goddess
  • Online Encyclopedia entry on Matsu Islands


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