Handbook of Religion and the Asian City: Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century

Handbook of Religion and the Asian City: Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century

by Peter van der Veer


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Handbook of Religion and the Asian City highlights the creative and innovative role of urban aspirations in Asian world cities. It does not assume that religion is of the past and that the urban is secular, but instead points out that urban politics and governance often manifest religious boundaries and sensibilities—in short, that public religion is politics. The essays in this book show how projects of secularism come up against projects and ambitions of a religious nature, a particular form of contestation that takes the city as its public arena.

Questioning the limits of cities like Mumbai, Singapore, Seoul, Beijing, Bangkok, and Shanghai, the authors assert that Asian cities have to be understood not as global models of futuristic city planning but as larger landscapes of spatial imagination that have specific cultural and political trajectories. Religion plays a central role in the politics of heritage that is emerging from the debris of modernist city planning.

Megacities are arenas for the assertion of national and transnational aspirations as Asia confronts modernity. Cities are also sites of speculation, not only for those who invest in real estate but also for those who look for housing, employment, and salvation.
In its potential and actual mobility, the sacred creates social space in which they all can meet. Handbook of Religion and the Asian City makes the comparative case that one cannot study the historical patterns of urbanization in Asia without paying attention to the role of religion in urban aspirations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520281226
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/05/2015
Pages: 488
Product dimensions: 10.10(w) x 7.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Peter van der Veer is Director at the Max Planck
Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen and University Professor at Large at Utrecht University. He is the author of The Modern Spirit of Asia, Gods on Earth, Religious Nationalism, and Imperial Encounters, among other publications.

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Handbook of Religion and the Asian City

Aspiration and Urbanization in the Twenty-First Century

By Peter van der Veer


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96108-1



Global City, Sacred Space, and the Guanyin Temple in Singapore



The pedestrian street outside the two temples was bustling with makeshift stalls selling flowers and other kinds of offerings and joss sticks of all sizes. Hawkers, when they were not busy touting their religious wares to passersby, were lighting up oilcans to provide devotees with the fire to light their joss sticks. Security officers were setting up metal barriers to direct the expected heavy flow of worshippers. The Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple was lit up with colorful festive lights. Younger worshippers know it simply as the Guanyin Temple. Older worshippers call it the Si Beh Lor (or Si Ma Lu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Hokkien) Temple. Si Beh Lor means "fourth road," referring to Waterloo Street, which is partially closed off to automobiles in front of the temple, turning the street into a civic square.

It was only 9 p.m., but there was already quite a buzz of devotees in front of the temple, praying with and burning their joss sticks before entering the main hall to give offerings to the bodhisattva famously known as the Goddess of Mercy—Guanyin Pusa ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This was the night of the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year. For the Chinese in Singapore following traditional religious practices, this was the place to be and the ritual to do, if not every year, then at least once in their lifetime. The regulars would also stop in front of the Sri Krishnan Temple, where they would also burn some joss sticks in prayer and bless themselves with holy incense. This very sight, of Chinese worshippers praying in traditional Chinese style in front of the Indian temple, was the attraction of many Western tourists taking a photograph of such a strange practice.

Strange, that is, to modern eyes. I have had friends, local English-educated elites who are Christians or atheists, ask me whether the Chinese who pray to Krishna at Waterloo Street believe in Hinduism, and if so, how they can believe in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The problem is compounded for them when I say that the local Chinese who pray to Guanyin usually also pray to deities of Chinese popular religion and sometimes even to the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholic churches, especially Novena Church. Academic scholarship has long sought to resolve problems of this type by distinguishing between belief and practice. The latest installment is Adam B. Seligman, Robert P. Weller, Michael J. Puett, and Bennett Simon's influential Ritual and Its Consequences, which opposes ritual and its "as if" subjunctive world of continuously separating and combining boundaries in creative play to sincerity and its "as is" vision of definitive, totalistic reality that produces absolute boundaries. Thus, the Guanyin devotees in Singapore could be said to be engaging primarily in the ritual mode, treating Krishna and other deities as if they were just as real as Guanyin, rather than in the mode of sincere belief and authenticity of self-cultivation. Such an explanation would sit well with the conventional scholarly understanding of Chinese religion as dominated by ritual and practice over belief and doctrine.

It would also sit well with my Christian friends. Despite their elevation of ritual, Seligman et al. and others who emphasize the dichotomy between practice and beliefs remain stuck in Protestant Enlightenment ideology. Ritual, Seligman et al. argue, should not be contrasted to the modernity of conscious and rational individual autonomy. This would merely continue the conceit of the radical Protestant rejection of Catholic ritualism for sincerity and the secularization of this rejection in the Enlightenment. However, sincerity lies at the heart of the Protestant and Enlightenment projects to arrive at the essence of authentic selfhood. Substituting autonomy with sincerity and keeping the dichotomy would help us better understand ritual, especially in supposedly ritualistic oriental religions. Seligman et al. argue that the tension between sincerity and ritual has driven religious change and reform through the ages. Again, I see a certain Protestant Enlightenment conceit—a teleological history driven by dialectics and hurtling toward modernity.

In this chapter, by ethnographically reading the New Year's Eve rituals in and around the Guanyin Temple and Sri Krishnan Temple, I argue that ritual and beliefs are found combined, inseparable, in spatial practice and produce a dynamic spirituality that is affirmative rather than propositional: "it is" rather than "as if" or "as is." This spirituality absorbs modernity and infects it, thereby domesticating its presence and drive in the state's secularizing urban projects that have been impinging on the temples and their rituals.

The two temples have been increasingly hemmed in by urban redevelopment in the past few decades. The Bugis area to their east, which was once the site of one of Asia's seediest nightlife districts, was redeveloped into a retail shopping complex, sanitized street market, and public housing estate in the mid-1980s. Shopping centers, office buildings, and private apartment complexes sprung up around the temples. Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, as part of the state's larger agenda to turn the old civic center and neighboring ethnic quarters into a cosmopolitan heritage and cultural hub, so as to transform Singapore into a global city, the Waterloo area to the south and west of the temples, between two metro stations of the Downtown Line under construction, was to be transformed into a hub for the arts.

On New Year's Eve, the Guanyin Temple rituals, already deeply spatial in their everyday practice, spill out into the streets and radiate their spiritual meanings beyond Waterloo Street. How does the religious spatiality of the temple affect the secular urbanism encroaching on it and vice versa? I argue that the state has failed to pin down the religious spatiality as cultural heritage, and instead, the temple continues to infect the secular urbanism with a vernacular spirituality that resists easy incorporation into the developmental state's ideal global city and offers the alternative worlding of cultural sentiments.


I arrived at the cul-de-sac that marks the northern end of Waterloo Street that remains open to automobiles. The road leading to the cul-de-sac is bounded by the aptly named Fortune Centre, a multistory square-block shopping center filled with small proprietors, and the Stamford Arts Centre, an old Japanese school of the colonial era converted into a multitenanted arts building. The National Arts Council manages the Arts Centre as part of the Waterloo arts belt. On the other hand, without much planning but by dint of market logic, Fortune Centre has become the place to go for organic and vegetarian Chinese food, because of its proximity to Guanyin Temple.

Entering the square in front of the Guanyin Temple and Sri Krishnan Temple, I experienced a time warp back to the 1980s Singapore of my youth, when I used to attend school in the neighborhood. Street stalls had been set up to sell flowers, offerings, and different types of joss sticks. Hawkers weaved in and out of the stalls and the crowd to tout their wares, while worshippers and tourists—it was hard to distinguish the two—milled about the entrance to the Guanyin Temple. Clouds of incense smoke wafted up from the front of the temple, gradually blanketing the square with their sharp scent and slightly stinging the eyes. I was reminded that this temple was once part of a cultural complex that covered the Rochor and Bugis areas, places of night markets offering cheap goods, entertainment, and food, dotted with mini religious shrines. Urban redevelopment had isolated the Guanyin Temple, as modern shopping centers and public housing blocks now surround it. It is even separated from its sister Sri Krishnan Temple by a private apartment block. So it seems.

It was still early, three hours before midnight, and the entrance to the Guanyin Temple was still navigable. At the center of the courtyard, outside the front doors of the main hall, was placed a giant urn for joss sticks to be stuck into. Already a crowd was milling about the urn. Worshippers bought their joss sticks outside in the square, lit them from fire provided by the hawkers, and came into the temple to greet the New Year. The ideal spot would be somewhere in front of the urn, on the line running from the Guanyin statue to the urn and out through the main gate of the temple. A worshipper would walk facing Guanyin into the courtyard, turn around with back to Guanyin, baibai ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) with the joss sticks facing up to the heavens, turn around to face Guanyin, and baibai with the joss sticks again before sticking them into the urn.

Because of the heavy crowd, the joss sticks in the urn were quickly taken out by workers, still smoldering, and thrown into a metal bin, to clear space for the sticks of other worshippers. A boy turned to his father to ask in Mandarin whether this would affect their family's prayers, as joss sticks are supposed to burn down and join their ashes with the pile of others in the urn. The father replied, "No, as long as we are sincere [zhenxin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], our prayers will be heard." Before the temple was reconstructed in 1982, candles and incense were burned inside the main hall. The official reason for moving the urn outside was to prevent incense smoke from staining the ceiling. But there is another explanation: moving a popular ritual outside the main hall. Indeed, at the center of the main hall, toward the front altar, is a rectangular area, specially marked off by beige tiles, with a large lotus motif in the middle, where one is supposed to take off shoes to enter. This is the place for individual quiet prayer and meditation.

One could interpret moving the urn outside as a rationalizing reformist move that shifts a traditional folk practice out as a compromise, so that the hall can be cleared for undisturbed Buddhist meditation while folk worshippers can continue to enjoy incense burning. If so, such an intention would have failed in its modernizing goal. With the urn outside at the door, offering incense now becomes the rite of passage to enter the main hall. Few worshippers skip the step before entering the main hall. If prayers of sincerity in search of the authentic self were expected in the main hall, then they would have to be preceded by ritual. Burning joss sticks is now seen as an act of purification as much as an act of ritual offering, such that one's doing it has become a test of sincerity—the "as if" as a way of discovering the "as is"—as the father's reply to the inquiring son attests.

The modernizing goal also would have failed because the theatrical ritual of jostling to be the first to put a joss stick into the urn at the stroke of midnight to greet the New Year has come to define the public identity and image of the Guanyin Temple. By 11 p.m., the crowd in the courtyard had swelled and packed the area, with everyone holding up large joss sticks above their heads. A temple staff member acted as the master of ceremonies, standing on an elevated platform constructed for the event. Speaking into the sound system, sometimes shouting, he maintained order and tried to keep a path clear of waiting devotees so that other worshippers could enter the temple. He had to disrupt the ritual practices of worshippers a number of times because some took too long to baibai with the joss sticks and were jamming up the pathway, causing consternation to the waiting devotees who thought that the worshippers were trying to usurp the best spot to greet the New Year. Moments of sincerity intruded into the ritual space. When things went smoothly and he did not have to maintain order, the master of ceremonies reminded the devotees that they should go straight into the temple after sticking their joss sticks into the urn, leave through the side doors and go straight home, and not go shopping outside at the night market farther down the road, to preserve the blessings of the incense.

The tension was building up as those at the back pushed those in front as everyone inched toward the urn. Hot ashes dropped on everyone's heads and shoulders, adding to the tension in the air. By 11:45 p.m., the situation was getting untenable. The master of ceremonies was practically shouting to keep order, while the crowd was exclaiming "Huat ah!" (Fa a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Hokkien), "Prosper!," in rhythmic unison. At one point the master of ceremonies raised his voice to stop some devotees carrying joss sticks from entering the main hall. At another, he had to persuade the elderly, children, and pregnant women to leave the courtyard, telling them that as long as their desire to bainian ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "worship the New Year"), to pay their New Year's respects, to Guanyin and Buddha was sincere, they did not have to participate in the ritual, as it was dangerous for them.

Suddenly, at around 11:53 p.m. the crowd became pensively silent. Then, just before 11:55 p.m., a segment of the crowd begin counting down from ten, and everyone joined in. The master of ceremonies panicked and tried to calm everyone down, shouting that it was not yet midnight. But he was ignored. The crowd surged forward, and the master of ceremonies gave in, wished those who had stuck their joss sticks into the urn five minutes early a happy New Year, and turned on the drum music to welcome the New Year. Worshippers began to enter the main hall, but most were still holding out for midnight. When it arrived, after an orderly countdown led by the master of ceremonies, there was another surge, with cries of "Huat ah! " The crowd, satisfied, began to flow into the temple. Devotees, with faces and torsos covered in ashes, put their hands together in prayer mode as they walked into the main hall and baibai'd their way to the front altar. The work of the master of ceremonies was not yet over. For more than an hour, a constant stream of worshippers flowed into the courtyard to greet the New Year.


I observed the ritual from inside the main hall, standing in the spacious area behind the center reflection square. Benches were provided for people to rest. This was the liminal zone, the transition space from self-interested, noisy, and pushy religiosity to the quiet, solitary, and reflective prayerfulness of the center square. Here, worshippers who had just gone through the trial of ashes rested and got ready to enter the prayer zone still stinging with smoke but now facing toward Guanyin and quieting down.

Earlier, during the quieter parts of the night, I had noticed a couple with a baby in a stroller walking in to meet six male friends carrying large joss sticks and offerings. The group stood out in many ways. They were young and spoke English, when the most common language heard in the temple was Mandarin. The couple was a Chinese man and an Indian woman, when the more common mixed-race couples worshipping at the temple were a white man and a Chinese woman. More significantly, several of the men were dressed in similar T-shirts, adorned with gold chains, and had dyed hair, which Chinese youths from working-class backgrounds like to sport. They seemed to belong to a close-knit fraternity of young businessmen.


Excerpted from Handbook of Religion and the Asian City by Peter van der Veer. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Urban Theory, Asia, and Religion (Peter van der Veer)

In Place of Ritual: Global City, Sacred Space, and the Guanyin Temple in Singapore (Daniel P. S. Goh)
2. The City and the Pagoda: Buddhist Spatial Tactics in Shanghai (Francesca Tarocco)
3. Territorial Cults and the Urbanization of the Chinese World: A Case Study of Suzhou (Vincent Goossaert)
4. Global and Religious: Urban Aspirations and the Governance of Religions in Metro Manila (Jayeel Serrano Cornelio)
5. The Muharram Procession of Mumbai: From Seafront to Cemetery (Reza Masoudi Nejad)
6. Urban Processions: Colonial Decline and Revival as Heritage in Postcolonial Hong Kong (Joseph Bosco)

7. Urban Megachurches and Contentious Religious Politics in Seoul (Ju Hui Judy Han)
8. Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good (Trust) Deeds: Parsis, Risk, and Real Estate in Mumbai (Leilah Vevaina)
9. The Urban Development and Heritage Contestation of Bangkok’s Chinatown (Tiamsoon Sirisrisak)
10. Dealing with the Dragon: Urban Planning in Hanoi (Tam T. T. Ngo)
11. Contested Religious Space in Jakarta: Negotiating Politics, Capital, and Ethnicity (Chang-Yau Hoon)
12. Urban Buddhism in the Thai Postmetropolis (James Taylor)

13. From Village to City: Hinduism and the “Hindu Caste System” (Nathaniel Roberts)
14. The Politics of Desecularization: Christian Churches and North Korean Migrants in Seoul (Jin-Heon Jung)
15. Parallel Universes: Chinese Temple Networks in Singapore, or What Is Missing in the Singapore Model? (Kenneth Dean)

16. The Flexibility of Religion: Buddhist Temples as Multiaspirational Sites in Contemporary Beijing (Gareth Fisher)
17. Cultivating Happiness: Psychotherapy, Spirituality, and Well-Being in a Transforming Urban China (Li Zhang)
18. Other Christians as Christian Others: Signs of New Christian Populations and the Urban Expansion of Seoul (Nicholas Harkness)
19. Aspiring in Karachi: Breathing Life into the City of Death (Noman Baig)
20. Can Commodities Be Sacred? Material Religion in Seoul and Hanoi (Laurel Kendall)

21. Cinema and Karachi in the 1960s: Cultural Wounds and National Cohesion (Kamran Asdar Ali)
22. The Cinematic Soteriology of Bollywood (Arjun Appadurai)
23. Media, Urban Aspirations, and Religious Mobilization among Twelver Shi'ite Muslims in Mumbai (Patrick Eisenlohr)
Internet Hindus: Right-Wingers as New
India’s Ideological Warriors (Sahana Udupa)

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