A Moment With the Gods in Binondo's Sheng Guan Temple

A Moment With the Gods 
By Walter Ang
February 5, 2000
Philippine Star

With a grocery bag filled with fruits, I ramble over to the Chinese temple along Narra street. As I step over the threshold, I come face to face with a towering golden goddess. I recognize her as the Goddess of Mercy. Her eyes are closed in quiet repose as she holds out her hands to the mortals below her.

Inside the temple is a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and smells that tickles the senses. The serene interior is always a welcome respite from the intense heat outside. The first thing I see are the massive stone pillars that punctuate the tiled floor. Towards the end of the main hall is an entire wall filled with various statuettes of gods, goddesses, deities, and spirits. There are a few that are as high as the ceiling. Some are no bigger than my hand. I glance at the thick glass panes that isolate these gods from the humans.

I turn my gaze to the Buddha statue that I glimpsed at when I came in. It sits cross-legged in the center of the display. It gleams in the light with its gilded skin. Its ear lobes reach almost to the base of its neck. I was once told that having long earlobes is a sign of prosperity and goodwill. I touch my own ears as I recall the cheap, plastic, one foot imitation of the Buddha statue that we have in our living room.

There are so many figurines that I cannot begin to name them one by one. Back when I was in kindergarten, my grandmother would try to teach me the names of some of the deities. Now that I'm considerably older, I can probably, at best, list down only three to five familiar names.

I shift my attention to the worshippers scattered across the hall. Most are wearing the de rigueur red for the Chinese New Year celebration. Their excitement palpable in the air. Some are kneeling on the floor, with both hands clasped together by their chests. Some stand in rigid concentration, with crimson incense sticks raised to their foreheads. I walk past little grandmothers with their white hair tucked into neat chignons. Young couples in fervent prayer. I step out of the way of little pre-schoolers who tug at their mothers' skirts as they walk along.

I'm surrounded by all these different people with their low voices meshing into a single droning intonation. At one point, I am unable to make any sense out of it, making me feel as if I were an intruding stranger.

I count several urns in front of the figurine display. These chest- high, copper containers are all filled to the bursting point with lighted incense sticks. I think of coins in fountains and candles in churches?these incense sticks are people's intentions and hopes, their wishes rising to the sky with the ethereal smoke. The musky scent of incense permeates the atmosphere, giving an otherworldly character to the temple.

I approach the long table just in front of the display case. On it is an array of gifts and offerings for the gods. There are baskets filled with different fruits. I see pongkams, the small sweet variety of oranges. Plastic bowls filled with peaches and apples line the edge of the table. Dozens of beautiful flower arrangements adorn the table. I look for a vacant spot where I can unload the fruits that I've brought over.

There are even bottles of Remy Martin and Johnny Walker on the greasy surface. Perhaps the logic being that if we can get the gods a little tipsy, they might become more amenable to granting us additional requests.

As I prepare to leave. I turn my head to take another look at the Buddha. The golden god is still sitting in its glass casement smiling with glee, as if wishing me good fortune for the coming year.