Voices from the Underworld

Chinese Hell deity worship in contemporary Singapore and Malaysia

By Fabian Graham

Voices from the Underworld


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Book Information

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-5261-4057-9
  • Pages: 280
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Price: £80.00
  • Published Date: February 2020
  • BIC Category: SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / Cultural, Society & social sciences / Social & cultural anthropology, ethnography, RELIGION / General, South East Asia, Religious Groups: Social & Cultural Aspects, Religious Life & Practice
  • Series: Alternative Sinology


In Singapore and Malaysia, the inversion of Chinese Underworld traditions has meant that Underworld demons are now amongst the most commonly venerated deities in statue form, channelled through their spirit mediums, tang-ki. The Chinese Underworld and its sub-hells are populated by a bureaucracy drawn from the Buddhist, Taoist and vernacular pantheons. Under the watchful eye of Hell's 'enforcers', the lower echelons of demon soldiers impose post-mortal punishments on the souls of the recently deceased for moral transgressions committed during their prior incarnations.

Voices from the Underworld offers an ethnography of contemporary Chinese Underworld traditions, where night-time cemetery rituals assist the souls of the dead, exorcised spirits are imprisoned in Guinness bottles, and malicious foetus ghosts are enlisted to strengthen a temple's spirit army. Understanding the religious divergences between Singapore and Malaysia through an analysis of socio-political and historical events, Fabian Graham challenges common assumptions on the nature and scope of Chinese vernacular religious beliefs and practices.

Graham's innovative approach to alterity allows the reader to listen to first-person dialogues between the author and channelled Underworld deities. Through its alternative methodological and narrative stance, the book intervenes in debates on the interrelation between sociocultural and spiritual worlds, and promotes the de-stigmatisation of spirit possession and discarnate phenomena in the future study of mystical and religious traditions.


'Voices from the Underworld adds significantly to our understanding of this problem with a fascinating study of a completely new variant: the recent rise of Underworld deity temples among Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia. [...] The ethnography in these sections is notable for its richness of description as well as its documentation of a new development in Chinese vernacular religion. Most remarkable of all are the author's direct interviews with possessing Underworld deities, during which they discuss topics from their preferences in alcohol to the administrative structure of the Underworld and the nature of the soul.'
Robert P. Weller, Journal of Contemporary Religion

'Voices from the Underworld is an engaging ethnography that is suitable for undergraduate classroom teaching to students of religious studies and anthropology. The fine details captured in the well-structured and narrated field notes reflect the meticulous job that Graham has done, in two historically related yet culturally diversified sites of study. This book is a good resource for understanding contemporary religious trends in Singapore and Malaysia, and a useful reference for comparative religious studies in Asia.'
Review of Religion and Chinese Society



Part I: Setting the scene
1 The modern Underworld tradition
2 Analysis: a baseline of comparison
3 The historical development of Underworld cosmology

Part II: The Underworld tradition in Singapore
4 Yu Feng Nan Fu Xuanshan Miao: setting a baseline of comparison
5 A new Underworld God of Wealth, and, foetus assistance rituals in Singapore
6 Lunar Seventh Month: the centrality of graveyards in the Underworld tradition

Part III: The Underworld tradition in Malaysia
7 Malaysia and the party spirit: guanxi and the creation of 'intentional' communities
8 Seventh Month rituals in southern Malaysia: salvation rituals and 'Ah Pek' parties
9 Seventh Month rituals in central Malaysia: coffin rituals and the releasing of exorcised spirits

Part IV: Tracing the origins of the modern Underworld tradition
10 Anxi Chenghuangmiao and cultural flows of local mythology
11 Penang: the earliest recollections of Tua Di Ya Pek embodied
12 Conclusions and analysis


Fabian Graham is a Research Fellow in the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore

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