The caretaker of Da Bo Gong (Tua Pek Kong) Temple on Kusu Island – just a 20-minute boat ride from Singapore – stands astride the short flight of stairs leading to the temple’s inner prayer sanctum, his eyes fixed on the jetty in the near distance.
It is the start of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, and thousands of devotees will travel to the island temple seeking blessings from Tua Pek Kong (God of Prosperity) and Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy).
At the temple, caretaker Seet Seng Huat pauses and nods his head in the direction of a small group of men huddled at the furnace in the temple courtyard. The trio, in long sleeves and biker masks – with only their eyes visible – to protect themselves from the heat and smoke, offer to burn joss paper for devotees in return for a small donation.
He comes here every season, and stays for a long time each time he visits.
Seet Seng Huat, Tua Pek Kong Temple Caretaker
Thick smoke billows out steadily from the narrow chimney of the furnace. The requests come thick and fast. As the two men take turns to collect joss paper and throw them into the furnace, the third man – probably the oldest – sits down.
“He comes here every season,” Seng Huat says, “and stays for a long time each time he visits.” He adds, “I think you should speak to him.”
“It has been over 60 years since I first started work here,” 91-year-old Mustari Dimu, a former resident of Lazarus Island, says in Malay. And every year since then, Mustari has returned to Kusu for a full month – maintaining his long family tradition and deep friendship with Seet Hock Seng, Seng Huat’s late father, the temple’s former caretaker.
In the 1940s, Hock Seng’s father regularly visited Lazarus Island from Kusu Island and knew Mustari’s father. And Hock Seng’s mother would love to play a card game called Chap Cheki – similar to Gin Rummy and was popular with the Babas and Nyonyas then – with Mustari’s mother.
Needing extra help during the ninth month, Hock Seng’s father asked Mustari’s father to work at the temple. He agreed, working together with his brothers.
A young Mustari would often follow his father on trips to the temple. When his uncles passed on, he decided to follow the tradition. Not surprisingly, the other two men with him are his son, Sardon Mustari, 65, and grandson, Hazwari Abdul Wahid, 23.
“When my uncles passed away, I had to help my father as there was little manpower,” Sardon said. He has been helping out for almost 30 years now. For Hazwari meanwhile, he too wanted to help his grandfather while waiting to enter the police force.
Back then, this temple was just surrounded with water and nothing else.
Mustari Dimu, has worked on Kusu Island for 60 years
Back then, this temple was just surrounded with water and nothing else,” he said looking around, making comparisons of then and now. Not to mention they can have over 22,000 devotees visiting on one weekend he adds.
In those days, burning joss paper for the devotees was not something the predominantly Malay-Muslim villagers from Lazarus island frowned upon. Mustari said that their job was simply to burn the joss paper. He adds: “This is their way and we respect that.”
If not for tradition, then for friendship with someone he grew up with since young. “His problems were my problems, and my problems were his problems,” he said of Hock Seng, who has died for close to 30 years.
These days, he waits for a call in early September from Seng Huat every year. Before you know it, Mustari packs his clothes, prepares food items like tea, sugar and biscuits to stay there for the full month – he does not return. In fact, there is even a special locker for him on the temple.
“Frankly, I just sit there and do nothing,” he said with a laugh. “Most of the work is done by my son and grandson.”
Transport and meals are provided by the temple. At night, he simply enjoys the night breeze on the island from the sea. His son and grandson either sleep or try to fish. “Living on Singapore, you cannot experience this and would need something else in large supply,” he says, rubbing his thumb and index finger together.
“I’ll go again next year if my health permits,” Mustari said, confidently. And his children understand completely this tradition that belongs to him as well as being there for a friend – but as long as he is healthy to go. In fact, they observed that he gets healthier every time he’s there for the full month.
“The air there is different.”
Cover photo courtesy of Ivan Polunin.