Tok Sam Kai – Altar to Heaven1
By Norman Cho
The Tok Sam Kai is the altar to the Three Realms. “Tok” means table/altar while “Sam Kai” means three worlds/realms. The three realms is based on the Buddhist principles of Desire, Form and Formlessness. Some believed they also represented Heaven, Earth and Hades (or Man). This is thought to be the most sacred of all altars as the offerings would reach the highest deity, the Jade Emperor, Lord of the Heavens. Hence, It is reserved for use only during very important occasions such as weddings and the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, which is the birthday of the Jade Emperor (known as Tih-Kong Seh).
It can come in various styles of Qing or Ming designs but the dimensions are always fixed. It is two-tiered and stacked to attain a height of about 1.6 metres.
The Tok Sam Kai is elaborately decked with a pair of candlesticks, a pair of table oil-lamps, a Chanub (jianhe) which is a black lacquered receptacle adorned with skewered slices of carved papayas and berries, a joss urn, a pair of vases with the quinessential bunga sundal malam (tuberoses) and the tok-wee (altar apron).
Tuberoses were used because of the fragrance the flowers emit at night when the celebratory ceremonies were observed.
At the bottom of the altar a special type of incense made from sugarcane is burned. This is the Stangee. There is a road by this name – Lorong Stangee in Joo Chiat.
Incidentally, some believed that the altar actually consisted of three tiers – the platform, the altar and the mandatory chanub – to represent each of the three realms. During the ninth day of the Chinese New Year, offerings would be done at midnight with the altar set outside the main door of the house where a pair of sugarcane is burnt as an act of thanksgiving. Legend has it that the Hokkien people, a southern Chinese people, were saved by hiding in the sugarcane plantations when their homeland was invaded. However, during weddings, the setup would be indoors as the altar became the key witness to the many elaborate rituals carried out by the bridal couple.
The setting up of the Tok Sam Kai is virtually extinct in Singapore today due to the absence of the proper paraphernalia required.In this day and age, the offerings are simply laid out on a normal table. However, in Malacca, some families still maintain their own Tok Sam Kai altars. Although the Tok Sam Kai is Buddhist/Taoist in nature, the Catholic Church of the Holy Family at Katong would set up a proper Tok Sam Kai for their Peranakan congregation on the eve of the Chinese New Year each year during the midnight mass for the “Sabot Taon” (Welcoming of the Lunar New Year).
While the Tok Sam Kai is technically a religious altar for Buddhist/Taoist offerings, the Catholic Church views its use as a cultural practice of the Peranakans. It is perfectly acceptable since there are no religious Buddhist/Taoist idols used at the altar.
a.t.Bukit Brown is looking for a photograph of this Tok Sam Kai at the Church of the Holy Family. Can you help us? Look out for an update on this post when we do find it.
(Norman Cho also wrote about how his grandparents met and wed in this moving tribute.)
Two Peranakans comment on Tok Sam Kai
Rosalind Tan, a nonya, says the “tok sam kai” is a sacred altar. Hence the legs cannot “touch the ground.” Therefore it is placed on top of another table. Then gold joss paper “kim chua” is placed under the legs of this lower table touching the ground. Gold, one of the 5 elements of Nature, is primarily reserved for the Gods.
Peranakan language is a mix of Hokkien; Malay and English. It’s “baba patois” as we call it. “Tok” is Hokkien for table. “Meja” is Malay for table. We had feasts on a long tables called the “tok panjang” or long table. Not different from today’s buffet. The Indonesian version is the “rijstaffael”.
Matt Tan adds: Rumah Abu would mean Ancestral Home, where one practises ancestral worship and where the ancestral tablets are kept. There are houses of Peranakan families where the will states the rumah abu cannot be sold by the family. When a family member dies, after the burial the joss stick urn would be filled with the earth from the deceased’s grave. This will be brought home and joss sticks are lit in an urn with this earth. On the annual death anniversary, before the prayers are conducted, the family would sieve out the earth/sticks till only the ashes from the joss stick is left and this will be placed back into the container. Eventually, an urn would contain only ashes from burnt joss sticks, he said. The altar for the gods is called Tok Datok, and the ancestral altar, Tok Sembahyang.
Here is an excellent video on an ancestral home or rumah abu in Surabaya, Indonesia. (Indonesian documentary with English subtitles. By Kevin Reinaldo.)