A Taoist priest stood along the banks of Pulau Punggol Timor late last night, chanting and calling out to the spirits of the Nine Emperor Gods.
He was inviting the gods into an urn to be taken to the Tou Mu Kung, or Dou Mu Temple, in Hougang in a colourful procession marked with lanterns, lion dances, and a parade of sedan chairs specially prepared for the deities.
For nine days, about 10,000 devotees from all corners of the island will flock to the 95-year-old temple to celebrate the birthdays of these deities, as well as to seek their blessings.
Although the festival is unique to South-east Asia and has been celebrated for a century, there is no official documentation on how it is celebrated across Singapore.
For instance, the national collection is bereft of local artefacts or references to the festival, said Dr Koh Keng We, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University.
To address this gap in knowledge, a team of researchers, led by Dr Koh, has embarked on a two-year nationwide study of the festival.
The project is one of six receiving funding from the National Heritage Board's (NHB's) Heritage Research Grant scheme which was introduced last year. A total of about $545,000 will be disbursed to researchers.
Dr Koh said there are at least 19 temples here which celebrate the Nine Emperor Gods festival and that anecdotal evidence has led him to believe the festival is still thriving and widely-attended today.
He said: "It is a major festival that still seems to be growing very strongly... The temples also cooperate and work together both locally and regionally."
Dr Koh's project will look at the installations erected for the event, the rituals, artefacts, objects and food involved, as well as its fringe activities, such as opera shows.
The team will conduct interviews with organisers and devotees, documenting the festival with photos and videos. These will eventually be woven together in a book.
Said Dr Koh: "My aim is to raise the profile of the festival, and work towards the preservation of its knowledge, traditions and artefacts."
Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, said the grant scheme aims to build local research capabilities and address research gaps.
Each project can receive funding of up to $150,000. The grant is open to institutions of higher learning, academics and researchers as well as non-governmental organisations.
The funding covers the cost of manpower and fieldwork, among other things. All applications will be evaluated by NHB's Heritage Advisory Panel, which comprises heritage experts and academics.
Another project the NHB is funding is a study of 21 pre-World War II places of worship in Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Tanjong Malang by the Singapore Heritage Society.
It is led by anthropologist Vivienne Wee, who said the project is an urgent one as changes are constantly occurring in the Central Business District.
Aided by a team of researchers, Dr Wee has been studying the intangible heritage of these places of worship for a few months now.
At Tanjong Malang, the team will be studying the Keramat Habib Noh shrine at 37 Palmer Road and the early 19th-century Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple nearby.
Dr Wee said: "Studies on these places so far have generally focused on the architectural and historical merits of these buildings. My project focuses on these places of worship as social anchors and aims to understand the social significance of these structures."
The other projects funded by the NHB include two on archaeology, one that examines the mortar, render and plaster composition of 20th-century buildings to improve restoration or conservation methods, and the other that aims to study a group of recently discovered Hokkien tombs in Bukit Brown.
When completed, the key findings from the projects will be made available in some form to the public. For example, they could be uploaded onto NHB's heritage portal Roots.sg.