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Salvation rituals and Ah Pek parties
Fabian Graham

Moving south to Johor State during Ghost Month, Chapter 8 focuses on the comparative importance of City God temples in Malaysia and the active role played by Anxi Chenghuangmiao in promoting the contemporary tradition. The first ethnography follows an elaborate salvation ritual at Muar City God temple, with particular attention paid to the influence of Mahayana Buddhism and Thai vernacular religion. The latter manifests in the use of Thai luk thep dolls appropriated to accommodate the souls of malicious foetus ghosts enlisted into the temple’s Underworld spirit army. As the Malaysian malicious foetus ghost is a reinvention both of vulnerable foetus spirits in Singapore and of foetus ghosts appropriated into Taiwan’s vernacular tradition from Japan, transnational cultural flows and the socio-political catalysts affecting them are introduced. Returning to community creation, the second ethnography focuses on an event titled ‘Anxi City God’s cultural exchange’. Bringing together ten pairs of Tua Di Ya Pek, one pair channelled from each Underworld court, discussions with them reveal perceptions of post-mortal cosmology in conflict with that of their Singaporean counterparts. The analysis therefore compares societal catalysts triggered by Singapore and Malaysia’s competing post-1965 political agendas to account for the divergences between the two Underworld traditions’ cosmological interpretations.

in Voices from the Underworld
Coffin rituals and the releasing of exorcised spirits
Fabian Graham

Returning to central Malaysia to describe two ritual events, Chapter 9 serves to compare south and central Malaysia’s Seventh Month ritual events. The first ethnography recounts a night-time luck-promoting ‘coffin ritual’ in Kuala Lumpur where participants lie in a coffin, symbolically dying and entering the Underworld when the coffin lid is closed and re-entering the world of the living as the coffin lid is removed. The ritual is described from the perspective of both participant and observer. As the coffin ritual was appropriated from contemporary Thai Theravada Buddhism, the analysis further examines Thai transnational cultural flows. The second ethnography revisits Klang to recount the ritual release of exorcised spirits which have been trapped in Guinness bottles and stored in the prison cell in the temple’s Underworld recreation. The chapter concludes by discussing Di Ya Pek’s perceptions of the relative passage of time in the Underworld, and an alternative interpretation of the Chinese Underworld’s creation.

in Voices from the Underworld
Fabian Graham

Relocating to China, Chapter 10 centres on Anxi Chenghuangmiao. The temple’s early history and its 1990 relocation from Anxi city centre to the Fengshan Scenic Tourism Area above the graves of Xie Bian and Fan Wujiu are critically investigated, as are its atypical Tua Di Ya Pek mythologies. Analysed in context of the invention and commoditisation of tradition and of China’s changing cultural policies, Anxi Chenghuangmiao’s reinvention is associated with self-perpetuating its own City God tradition, and to Tua Di Ya Pek’s recent overseas popularisation. Continuing this line of enquiry, the chapter concludes by describing the opening of a new annex in front of Xie Bian and Fan Wujiu’s graves, an annex first conceptualised in Klang, Malaysia, and evaluating the contestation of meaning and counterclaims to provenance of the new ritual site.

in Voices from the Underworld
Abstract only
The earliest recollections of Tua Di Ya Pek embodied
Fabian Graham

Owing to the implausibility of Anxi Chenghuangmiao providing the tradition’s genesis, Chapter 11 returns to Malaysia to trace the modern Underworld tradition’s origins. Following an historic trail of oral accounts, the ethnography turns to 1950s George Town, Penang, and to legends surrounding Malaysia’s eldest City God temple. In the absence of textual records, the oral narratives reproduced represent the earliest recollections regarding not only where but also how the modern Underworld tradition most likely began. Substantiated by a Tua Di Ya Pek mythology from George Town’s eldest Underworld temple, local history and folklore converge, suggesting George Town as the modern Underworld tradition’s most likely point of origin.

in Voices from the Underworld
Fabian Graham

In the final chapter, as neither Xie Bian nor Fan Wujiu’s popular mythology originated in either Anxi or Penang, and allowing for the complexities of cultural transmission, the chapter begins by proposing the most likely timeline and trajectory of the Underworld tradition’s geographical spread, both in and between Malaysia and Singapore. The versatility of the framework of analysis is then demonstrated by being applied to religious developments over a corresponding timeframe in Taiwan to explain why a similar Underworld tradition has not developed there. The potential benefits of combining ontological, dialogic, participatory and interpretative approaches to the study of religious and esoteric traditions are then clarified and discussed, and final conclusions drawn.

in Voices from the Underworld