9 Emperor Gods Festival – Part 1

The mediums dip their hands in the hot oil without any perceived ill effect.

The mediums dip their hands in the hot oil without any perceived ill effect.

Living in Penang is sometimes like living in Epcot Center. Many different cultures, and parties and festivals all the time. Seriously, it seems every month there is a festival or a holiday. Many of these are visually spectacular like Thaipusam or Chinese New Year. No other festival in Penang is more visual and varied than the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods.

The Nine Emperor Festival is complicated, to say the least. I love to get as much info about what I am shooting from the local community when possible. It seems everyone, even folks that are associated with the festival are unclear of the details. It is at this point when I lean heavy on Wikipedia.

In short, what the festival is about is disputed by more traditional Taoist. In popular belief, according to Wikipedia it goes something like this:

“On the eve of the ninth moon, temples of the deities hold a ceremony to invoke and welcome the nine emperors. Since the arrival of the gods is believed to be through the waterways, processions are held from temples to the sea shore or river to symbolize this belief. Devotees dressed in traditional white, carrying incense and candles, await the arrival of their excellencies.

A carnival-like atmosphere pervades the temple throughout the nine day festival. During this period of time, the constant tinkling of a prayer bell and chants from the temple priests are heard. Most devotees stay at the temple, eat vegetarian meals and recite continuous chanting of prayer. It is believed that there will be rain throughout the nine days of celebration.

The ninth day of the festival is its climax. A procession which draws scores of devotees sends the deities back home.” Wikipedia

As a photographer, the important part of all this is knowing the schedule. There is no point in showing up after an hour’s drive to find that the only things happening are speeches by dignitaries. Fortunately, I found this schedule at the Tow Boo Kong Temple website. Tow Boo Kong is the largest Nine Emperor Gods Temple in the area.

Festival Event
  • 1st Day Deity Nan Dou Birthday Celebration
  • 3rd Day Deity Bei Dou Birthday Celebration
  • Playing with Hot Oil Ceremony
  • 5th Day Spear Skewing Celebration
  • Float Procession
  • 6th Day Selection of new Urn Trustee
  • 7th Day Fire Walking Ceremony
  • 8th Day Fort Crossing Ceremony
  • 9th Day Deity Dou Mu Birthday Celebration
  • Sending-Off Ceremony


My first day to visit this year was on the third day. Having only read about the “playing with hot oil” I was intrigued.


The Chinese drama under the yellow lanterns. Not the best lighting.

The Chinese drama under the yellow lanterns. Not the best lighting.

When we arrived ( I was photographing with two other photographers from Penang, Simon Bond and Pete DeMarco) things looked rather tame. There was some drama being performed in the temple under, of all things, yellow lights. I had packed light. I brought my Cactus RF-60 flash, but that was completely manual. I also had my very tiny Nissin i-40. The Nissin is almost half the flash the Cactus is, but it is TTL and allows for rear curtain sync. If you read my blog you know I love to use rear curtain sync at events like this. But, I soon realized the limitations of the Nissin. 1. The flash just could not overpower the yellow lights from where I was forced to be. 2. The recycle speed seems to be very slow. I am not sure how much of that is the flash or how much the batteries.

Pouring the oil into the wok to heat it once they start the fire under it.

Pouring the oil into the wok to heat it once they start the fire under it.

After awhile it was time for the hot oil ceremony. The men from the temple organizing committee started to build small brick like ovens, but more like a chimney. They placed a huge wok on top of each oven and made fires under them. They had it barricaded off. However, I noticed several photographers with the local press inside the barricades so we joined them. No one said anything.

It was good that we did. The makeshift ovens had an opening that faced away from the crowd, and this is the opening where the spiritual mediums would eventually spit the hot oil and make massive fireballs.

Possessed by spirits of children, the mediums dance around the fire playfully.

Possessed by spirits of children, the mediums dance around the fire playfully.

After the fire was roaring, the men poured oil into each wok. Then after about 20 minutes of being heated by the fire the mediums arrived. They were hooting and squeaking like monkeys. When I asked about this, I was told that most of them receive the spirit of a child or a baby. But some get the spirit of a monkey.

The medium reached into the hot oil with their hands and then scooped it into their mouths.

The medium reached into the hot oil with their hands and then scooped it into their mouths.

The mediums went right away to the oil and began reaching into the hot oil with their hands and then putting a handful into their mouths. They would walk around and then spew it into the fire resulting in a fireball.

This dancing and spitting went on for about 15 to 20 minutes and then ended quite quickly. Just as soon as the mediums left the committee members added large branches of herbs into the oil to cook them.



Blowing the oil into the flame to ignite it.

The whole purpose of the playing/dancing and spitting of the oil is to bless the oil. The oil will then be sold to locals over the next few days as medicinal and the funds raised will help the temple.

All this and it was only our first night. Next visit will be on day 5, the spear skewing celebration and float procession.


Nine Emperor Gods Festival: Playing with Hot Oil Ceremony from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.


Fujifilm’s 90mm Makes a Colorful Splash on the Set of Indian Summers 2


The lush focus drop off of the new Fujifilm XF 90mm f/2.

The lush focus drop off of the new Fujifilm XF 90mm f/2.


 Every image in this article is shot with the FX 90mm f/2 (With the exception of the image of the lens it’s self.). To view the EXIF data for ech image click the image.

Fujifilm has a history of producing amazingly sharp prime lenses in their lens lineup. The latest is the newly announced Fujinon 90mm f/2. Like all of my lens reviews, I will not pretend to know more than I do. No focus charts or color bars. I wouldn’t know what to do with them once I photographed them. Frankly, pixel peeping is all fine and dandy, but the real question is how does the lense perform. But there’s a catch: I was given a “pre-production” lens. To be fair, this limits what I can say. Here is how I am going to address this dilemma. I can comment on the looks, the construction and the focal length and hopefully help you decide if you really need this lens. Continue reading

A Podcast: A conversation on the Fujifilm X System with Piet Van den Eynde #02

Piet and I checking out the menus of the X-E2 and X-100s.

Piet and I checking out the menus of the X-E2 and X-100s. © René Delbar


Last year after the Rajasthan Photo Trek, Piet Van den Eynde and I decided to take a few minutes to talk about our experience with the X-series cameras in the field. Piet is a brand ambassador for Fujifilm Belgium, an Adobe Lightroom Guru and an e-book author with Craft & Vision. More importantly he is my co-leader of the Digital Trekker Photo Treks. Last year after our first Photo Trek together Piet and I thought it might be fun to do a podcast about the Fujifilm X-Series gear we used. You can listen to that conversation HERE. That podcast turned out to be one of my most listened to podcasts and quite a few people had asked for a sequel… So, always eager to provide the content that people want, we though it might be fun to do this again… sort of a part two. This year, after the Photo Trek was officially over Piet and I huddled under a blanket together – no really it was the only way to deaden the sound in our cheap concrete day-rooms – and recorded this podcast. We talk about the latest gear and how we have been using the X-system since our last podcast. I hope you enjoy this conversation. Continue reading

The Lamayuru, Ladakh Barley Harvest

 (Best Viewed Full Screen)

I have been working on this very short (2:06) SoundSlides multimedia on the Barley harvest in Lamayuru for two reasons. The first reason is I am creating a SoundSlides example for an On Field Media Project workshop I am leading in Medan, Indonesia the first week of Dec. The other reason was to use it as a sort of teaser of coming attractions; The 2014 Ladakh Photo Trek. It is very short and frankly, it has no real plot or theme it is meant to be a peak at the harvest. A “day-in-the-life” type of thing. Instead of keeping it to myself, I thought I would share it with you.

By the way, we still have a few spots left on this amazing workshop/tour. Learn more about it HERE and come join us.

A Rocha Kenya, More Than Birds

Dr. Bob Sluka, Director of Marine Research A Rocha


This is the last post on A Rocha Kenya, at least for a while. As you can see, I was very touched by this organization and its efforts to blend together their Christian world view, views on conservation efforts and their calling to help the poor. I think it is because these three things are very similar to what I am all about. The video below is a very simple promo piece I did for my friend Dr. Bob Sluka to use as an introduction to A Rocha for his audience. It is not fancy, it is not overly emotional. It is simple, direct and to the point. Frankly, I was frustrated by my lack of underwater imagery of Watamu Marine Park. The marine park is where A Rocha Kenya has started it’s marine program. But I was saved by Benjo!  A hearty thank you goes out to Benjamin “Benjo” Cowburn for the use of some of his underwater images in this piece. Benjo is the on-site marine biologist working for A Rocha Kenya (He also writes a fun blog called “Benjo in Kenya“. Check it out!)

Marine research is new for A Rocha as an organization and Bob has been the driving force behind it. He is passionate about these same three points and sees A Rocha as outlet for expressing these with integrity. One thing I was impressed by was I never felt Bob, Benjo or anyone at A Rocha was preachy. Not about their faith, nor about the environmental or conservation issues. They know they have to live it out – walk the walk, rather than just talk it. I hope I captured this over these past three posts.

A Rocha Kenya – More than birds from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.

Multimedia: The Cobbler of Penang

The Cobbler Of Penang from Matt Brandon on Vimeo.


I love featuring my daughter’s work. Not because she is my daughter. Ok… that is part of it, but also because I think she is very good. I can hear you saying the same thing I said about my wife in my last post, “You are her father, you have to like her stuff.” If you have ever been in one of my classes or workshops you will know that is not true. Continue reading

Multimedia: Food Heaven

This post is a treat for me. This is my daughter, Jessie’s first multimedia production. She produced it for a class at school called “Digital Media”. Jessie shot the images and mixed the audio. I helped her edit the selections and with Soundslides. I hope you enjoy this hard hitting bit of photojournalism from my 15 year old. 😉

The Mamas of Chowrasta

This is a multimedia essay by Nate Watkins and myself. We have been working on this for months. We first approached this essay thinking we wanted to help preserve two dying trades among the Mamas in Penang, butchering and fish mongering. Through the process of making this we found out that, while we may have felt sad that these trades are dying out, this current generation is content to be the last. Their children are the first generation to become professionals among them. As a result of the time shooting these images and footage we have made lasting friendships with many of these men.

Check out more of Nate’s work HERE:

Thaipusam: The Fruit of Hard Labour

The workshop is officially over. As with most workshops, we took time to view each student’s completed projects. Every one of our students made memorable presentations. The focus of the week was story telling and the unique aspect of this workshop was that we were able to embed our workshop participants into local families. Below are two shows that illustrate off how well this approached worked. Gavin Gough and I are very proud of our students.

The first show was by Tim Steadman a photographer based out of New Delhi. Here is what Tim had to say about his piece.

“Nicholas and his family were kind enough to allow me to join and photograph them during the 2012 Thaipusam festival in Penang, Malaysia. It was a pleasure witnessing how values such as tradition and devotion flow directly from Thaipusam into the creation and sustenance of a strong family.”


The next show is by Victoria Finlay. Victoria was able to enter into the lives of Jay and Shri our models. She was able to capture the strong devotion that their family has to their faith.

We also gave several assignments given throughout the week. For the last assignment, students were challenged to find a short piece of music and then go out and shoot a story that fits the music – a real challenge. Here are two examples. The first one from this challenge is from Tim Steadman again and the second is from another Penang resident, Dave Ray. Both Tim and Dave took an extremely creative approach to this assignment. I think you will be as impressed as Gavin and I were.

Again, we would like to thank the sponsors of this workshop for providing gear and resources that students were able to uses, play with and even walk away with at the end of our time together.

Then, last but not least we want to thank our hotel the Campbell House, in Penang. If you ever get a chance to visit Penang and you are not staying with Alou and me, you have to stay at the Campbell House in historic downtown Georgetown. Owners Roberto and Nardya make your stay comfortable and relaxing. The stay is professional and accommodating. It feels like staying with family, but without the fights. 😉