I’m sitting on a bench in a copse of trees at the edge of a concrete pathway bordering a lake in Desa Park City Dog Park. My cell phone in my shirt pocket chimes. The name “Sifu Sabrina” appears on the screen.
“Hello, I’m near the bridge.” I can almost feel the heat of excitement in my voice.
“Stay put, I’ll come over.” The voice is the husky kind that does things to a man’s spine.
Ahead and to my left, I see Sifu Sabrina with two toy poodles walking towards me. A gray dappled top manages to cling to her curves under the guise of covering them. It is a figure worth clinging to—high-breasted, narrow-waisted, long-legged. Her lips are full and moist, her eyes hazel and slanted.
I rise and gesture with a side nod. “Let’s go for coffee.” As we trot towards the waterfront, the tide of pedestrians, joggers and dog-walkers ebb and flow along the length of the walkway, occasionally pitted like acne scars. Overhead, leaves on the trees are lifting and rattling dryly in the warm evening breeze.
Inside a cafe, Sifu Sabrina sits her pooches on a wooden chair beside her. We order coffee and snacks. I dig a boney hand into my jeans back pocket for a small thick notebook. I undo the two broad rubber bands which criss-cross the fat notebook and yank a ballpoint pen out of a side pocket.
We sit silently until our pot of coffee and food arrive. I pour coffee into Sifu Sabrina’s porcelain cup to within a hairline of the top. It is as dark as sin and thick enough to walk on. I fill my own cup, push it aside and set my notebook in front of me.
“So, what’s the story? Praying to deities in the correct way.”
Sifu Sabrina takes a sip of her coffee, clinks the cup gently on the saucer. “First, choosing the statue. Statue’s material isn’t so important. But the statue mustn’t be hollow, should be solid. Size matters, not too big or too small, as in proportion to your altar. Of course, the statue must be consecrated, otherwise, it remains a decorative object.” Meeting my eyes, her eyes are steady and cool “You can get it done at a temple or by me.” She looks at me like an insurance fucker trying to sell life insurance. “In fact, I was in Seremban last week to install and consecrate a Guan Yin in a new bungalow and check its feng shui. So, recommend me some clients if you can.”
Nodding, I tear a sachet and pour sugar into my coffee. “Whoa, you’re multi-talented. That’s great.” My eyes are equally steady and cool.
“Now, choose the pose of the statue carefully. A passive pose promotes household harmony, suits salary-earners, but for businessmen, the statue should be in an action pose.” Sifu Sabrina’s lips go flat, her voice turns serious. “Take Guan Ti as an example—never get a statue of him sitting down. He should be fighting for business, not relaxing. This warlord should also carry a big guan-dao, not a puny one.”
“I see.” I swirl the swizzle stick in my cup. “What about Monkey God? Which pose is best?” I take a big swallow of my coffee and scribble in my notebook.
“Features alert, looking ahead, posture not sitting. The Monkey God should spot opportunities and potential problems. In that way, he can clear obstacles in advance.” Sifu Sabrina crosses her legs at the knees and one leg of her chair wobbles. “The ash pot should have a tiger’s head at each side. Better still, if you can, get one with two dragons. More power!” She grins, showing excellent lifetime oral hygiene. “If you’ve two, three or more deities, one ash pot is suffice. Always light either one or three joss sticks to pray, never two. Even though the deity is accompanied by his wife.”
I pick up a sandwich with my left hand and chomp down on it. I write in my notebook again with my right.
“Next point—never leave a bottle of liquor beside any deity. He will be perpetually drunk!” A scowl crimps Sifu Sabrina’s crimson lips. “Offer him three glasses on the first and 15th day of the lunar month. Or on his birthday or festive day.”
I lift my eyebrows and quirk a corner of my mouth. “Not even to Ji Gong?”
“Ji Gong is a minor deity, not worshipped by many here. Tell me, how can a drunk help you?” Sifu Sabrina notches her chin. “This mad monk has healing powers, though.” Her next words roll out reluctantly. “He's popular in Taiwan only.” Her gaze drops to a croissant on a platter and hops back to my face. “Got cob-webs and dirt or soot on the statue? Don’t wash it under running water, but wipe it with a clean damp towel. In Buddhism, statues of Lord Buddha are bathed on Wesak Day. But not in Taoism.” She picks up a croissant and nibbles on it.
“Mama-mia! The effects of the consecration will go kaput.”
“Definitely. If you’ve an ancestral tablet beside a deity, the god must be higher. Put the deity atop a pedestal—you can get it from a prayer store. Or place a stack of gold joss paper beneath the deity.
I finish the sandwich and toss the crust on the platter. “Candles?”
“Use red candles that have bamboo legs. They act as links between Heaven and Earth. Don’t just stick a legless candle in a holder.”
“Beverages—tea, three cups; wine, three cups. Right?”
Sifu Sabrina pushes the last morsel of croissant into her mouth. “Yes, display them in two parallel rows.” She chews and her jaw muscles quiver. “The second row—set nearest to the urn pot—should contain tea, then three cups wine in front. Some big-hearted devotees offer eight cups tea and eight cups wine—fatt ah!—to symbolize luck.” A big shrug by Sifu Sabrina. “Works or not, I don’t know. Deities, big and small, also welcome water to soothe parched throats, especially after drinking wine. Coffee can be offered to Tay Chi-Gong. This fella—a luck-getter—loves the kick of caffeine!” Her eyes shine with merriment. “Will be spunkier around your home!” Her grin reveals a flash of perfect teeth.
"Tay Chi-Gong is a small deity.” I purse my lips in a pout. “Worth praying?”
Sifu Sabrina stiffens her spine, eyes blazing. “Hey, he’s important too! This god’s low-level status forbids him to whoosh up to Heaven. So, he’ll be at home 24/7, which deters intrusion from evil spirits. Two pineapples put beside his plaque bring luck into the house.”
“I’ve seen paper fakes displayed.”
“Won’t work, use fresh real ones.” Sifu Sabrina gives a small headshake. “For major deities, popular fruits are Washington apples, Sunkist oranges, South African grapes, China pear and persimmon. And peach is a favourite with the Monkey God! Fruits banned from big deities are mangosteen, banana, guava, pineapple, carambola, D24 and even Musang King!” Sifu Sabrina’s husky laugh climbs little steps into a shrill giggle and teeters shakily down. “Incidentally, old toothless deities, like Tua Pek Kong, for instance”— she tightens her lips and her cheeks bulge with repressed merriment—“don’t like hard food.” A pause. “Finally, flowers for the Goddess of Mercy should be placed on her left. There’s no taboo to displaying white flowers.”
“Phew, these fruits, food, alcohol, joss paper and tea—twice a month—add up to quite a bit. Is it okay to cut costs? I mean, some folks offer rice cooking wine instead of Johnnie Walker Black, or coffee-shop-quality tea instead of premium Oolong tea.”
“Offer what you can afford. If you’re a poor bastard, the gods will not be angry if you serve them liquor that’re popular with Nepalis, Myanmars and Banglas.”
Sifu Sabrina leans sideways to pet her toy poodles. Then she shoots her gaze back at me. “Now, the fatt koh is very important. Ask the seller whether they’re edible. If they’re not, don’t offer them to the gods. Some sellers sell two types of fatt koh—one for eating, one for prayer, cheaper and low quality. Buyers of inedible fatt koh are shitheads! Toxic preservative-laden fatt koh that you can't eat, you wanna give to the gods to eat? It’s utterly disrespectful!" She downs the rest of her coffee and releases an exhale. “Okay, time for me to go.”
I slap my thick notebook shut, winding the rubber bands around it. “Thanks for your time.”