Thian Hock Keng


Thian Hock Keng, at 158 Telok Ayer Street, is Singapore’s oldest Chinese temple and is recognised as the most important temple of the local Hokkien community. Designed and built by skilled craftsmen from China according to Chinese temple architectural traditions, it was completed in 1842. The temple was gazetted as a national monument on 28 June 1973.

The temple started out as a prayer house located along the shoreline of the Telok Ayer Basin. Immigrants from China built the prayer house dedicated to the goddess Ma Zu (or Tian Hou), protector of seafarers and navigators, between 1821 and 1822. Chinese voyagers who had just completed their journey across the turbulent South China Sea would make offerings of money and joss-sticks here as thanksgiving.

Between 1839 and 1842, extensive reconstruction transformed the prayer house into Thian Hock Keng, which means Temple of Heavenly Happiness. With funding from wealthy merchants like Tan Tock Seng, it was completed in 1842 at a cost of Spanish $30,000. Not a single nail was used in the original mortise construction. All the materials were imported from China, including the ironwood posts which served as the building's main supporting pillars. It was designed and built according to Chinese temple architectural traditions by skilled craftsmen from China, making it the most traditionally authentic Chinese temple in Singapore. The resident deity, Ma Zu, was shipped down from Amoy and arrived in Singapore in April 1840. The Chung Wen Pagoda and Chong Boon Gate, situated to the right of the main temple, were added in 1849.

In 1907, Emperor Guang Xu of the Qing Dynasty presented a scroll to the temple. This had hung over the temple’s main altar signboard until renovations began in 1998. The scroll was subsequently donated to the Singapore History Museum (now the National Museum).

The Hokkien Huay Kuan, the Hokkien clan association, was housed in the temple before it relocated across the street. The Chong Hock Girls' School, one of the earliest Hokkien girls' school in Singapore, also had its beginnings here, initiated by the clan association in 1915. It was located in the Chong Hock Pavilion, which was built in 1913 and shares the same compound as the Chung Wen Pagoda. The school, now known as Chongfu Primary School, began enrolling boys in 1949 and later moved out of the temple grounds.

Between 1998 and 2000, Thian Hock Keng underwent major restoration works which saw up to 70 Fujian craftsmen, including wood carvers, stonemasons and artisans, being brought in to ensure that the restoration remained true to the original. The roof ridges were restored to reflect decorations using the chien nien technique, a Fujian style where colourful broken porcelain form relief patterns on the roof ridges. The S$3.5-million restoration, headed by architectural firm James Ferrie & Partners, won the temple an honourable mention in the 2001 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.

Bonny Tan

Lee, E. (1990). Historic buildings of Singapore. Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board.
(Call no.: RSING 720.95957 LEE)

Lee, G. B. (2002). The religious monuments of Singapore: Faiths of our forefathers (pp.12-17). Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 726.095957 LEE)

Liu, G. (1996). In granite and chunam: The national monuments of Singapore (pp. 126-135). Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU)

Pastel portraits: Singapore's architectural heritage
. (1984). Singapore: Singapore Coordinating Committee.
(Call no.: RSING 722.4095957 PAS)

Samuel, D. S. (1991). Singapore's heritage: Through places of historical interest (pp. 25-27). Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SAM)

Temple bags Unesco award. (2001, September 20). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.

Further readings
A 30,000 silver dollar temple [Microfilm: NL 20241]. (1998, April 16). The Straits Times, p. 39.

Chen, K. (1998, April 16). Facelift for a goddess [Microfilm: NL 20241]. The Straits Times, p. 39.

杜南发. (Ed.). (2010). 南海明珠 : 天福宮 [Jewel of the South Sea: Thian Hock Keng]. 新加坡: 新加坡福建会馆.
(Call no.: RSING Chinese 203.5095957 NHM)

Guardian of the South Seas: Thian Hock Keng and Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. (2006). Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.
(Call no.: RSING 369.25957 GUA)

Hall-Jones, J. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841-1853 (p. 48). Singapore: National Museum.
(Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO.H)

Kwek, L. J., et al. (2009). Resonance: Songs of our forefathers (pp. 36-41). Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board.
(Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 RES)

Leong, W. K. (1999, May 26). Was this emperor's own work? The Straits Times, Life! p. 4. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.

Preservation of Monuments Board. (1972-1973). Report  (p. 10). Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board.
(Call no.: RCLOS 722.4095957 PMBSR)

Thian Hock Keng. (2010). Retrieved October 25, 2010, from Preservation of Monuments Board website:

The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history on the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Religious Buildings
Religious buildings
Arts>>Architecture>>Religious buildings
Architecture--Conservation and restoration--Singapore
Historic buildings--Singapore
Temples, Chinese--Singapore

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