Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church

The Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church is located at 235 Telok Ayer Street, at the junction with Cecil Street. Founded in 1889 by Benjamin Franklin West primarily for the Hokkien-speaking Chinese community, the church is considered the oldest Chinese Methodist church in Singapore. The church serves Chinese from various dialect groups and a growing English-speaking community.1

Founding
West first set up his missionary practice and a clinic in 1889 in a shophouse on Upper Nanking Street, to reach out to Chinese immigrants. In August 1889, he started holding two services every Sunday, which marked the beginning of the church.2 Even in the early days of the church, at least 30 people gathered in the shophouse to listen to his sermons, which were delivered in Malay and then translated into Hokkien.3

Having decided that mastering Hokkien would enable him to reach out to the Chinese more directly, West subsequently went to Amoy (Xiamen), China, to study the dialect.4 Between 1890 and 1892, he entrusted his work to Lim Hoai To and Alexandra Fox.5 In 1893, H. L. E. Luering, who was conversant in Hokkien and Foochow, took over the missionary work in Singapore, while West returned to America for health reasons.6 West was transferred to Penang in 1895, and had to return to America by 1907 because of his wife’s poor health.7

Expansion
By the mid-1890s, the church congregation had expanded to 170 members. Comprising mostly immigrants from China, the church members were from diverse dialect groups, including Hinghwa, Hokchiang and Foochow. In 1897, Luering recruited a Foochow pastor, Reverend Ling Ching Mi, and Foochows soon formed the majority of the congregation. The Hokkien-speaking congregation, however, was retained by Reverend Lau Seng Chong, who joined the church in 1901.8

With William G. Shellabear heading the Chinese missions in 1901, the Mission Press began publishing materials such as the Romanised version of the Amoy Hymnal. Between 1909 and 1913, the church flourished under the leadership of Ang Biau Chek.9

As the condition of the shophouse deteriorated, the church was relocated in 1905 to 12 Japan Street (now known as Boon Tat Street).10 The church, which was originally called the Hokkien Church, was by 1906 known as the Telok Ayer Church.11

By 1913, the church had purchased a plot of land at the junction of Telok Ayer Street and Cecil Street, where the church building still stands. The land was bought for $3,600. Worship was held in tents on the vacant lot until 1914 when the tents collapsed. The congregation then moved temporarily to Fairfield Girls’ School on Neil Road until a makeshift wooden structure was built on Telok Ayer Street in September 1915. Plans for a permanent structure were made in 1918, and the current church building was completed by 1925.12

In 1935 John Sung, a Chinese evangelist from China, came to Singapore on a trip sponsored by the Singapore Chinese Christian Union. Known as the Chinese John Wesley, Sung first preached at the church on 30 August 1935 to about 600 attendees. His thrice-daily preaching sessions of two-and-a-half hours each were said to be original and engaging. Even though his stay in Singapore was less than a week, he converted many Chinese in the Telok Ayer district and equipped them with evangelical skills.13

World War II and postwar developments
During World War II, the church became a refuge for about 300 people. Despite a preaching ban, Reverend Hong Han Keng continued Sunday services throughout the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45).14

The church entered a new phase of growth after the war. The Amoy Hymnal was published in May 1955. A surge in the number of congregants packed the sanctuary, leading to expansion plans for the church.15 As the next generation of parishioners were mainly English-educated, the church’s leaders decided to also provide English services, which subsequently led to the establishment of its sister church, Grace Methodist Church, in the 1960s.16

National monument
In 1989 when the church celebrated its centenary anniversary, the church building on Telok Ayer Street was gazetted as a national monument. Unlike other generic church architecture, the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church building is trapezoidal in plan, with Chinese and European influences. The church building has a Chinese pavilion at its highest level and upturned eaves typical of Chinese architecture.17



Author
Bonny Tan


References
1. “Our Heritage,” Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, accessed 15 May 2017; “Contact Us,” Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, accessed 15 May 2017.
2. Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 191 (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU); “Church Pillars” Benjamin Franklin West,” Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, 15 May 2017.
3. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Our Heritage.”
4. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Church Pillars.”
5. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Church Pillars.”
6. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan 新加坡卫理公会直落亚逸礼拜堂百周年纪念刊 [Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church centennial souvenir magazine, 1889 to 1989] (Singapore: Singapore Methodist Church, 1991), 27. (Call no. Chinese RSING 287.095957 TEL)
7. “Methodist Activity,” Straits Times, 25 February 1895, 3; “The Methodists Conclave,” Straits Times, 17 December 1907, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Church Pillars”; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan, 27–28.
9. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Church Pillars”; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan, 27–28.
10. Harry Fang, “…but It Was Once a Tent,” Malaya Tribune, 7 August 1950, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Our Heritage.”
11. “A Chinese Church,” Straits Times, 27 April 1925, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan, 28–29.
12. “A Chinese Church”; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan, 28–29.
13. “A Chinese John Wesley,” Straits Times, 8 September 1935, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Tan Hock Beng, Restoration of a Religious Refuge,” Straits Times, 16 September 1995, 20 (From NewspaperSG); Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Our Heritage”; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Church Pillars.”
15. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan, 31; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “The Amoy hymnal by the Official Board of the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church (First Edition in Chinese),” private records, May 1955, National Archives of Singapore (microfilm NA2609).
16. “Our History,” Grace Methodist Church, accessed 17 May 2017; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan, 31–32.
17. “1924 Church Has ‘Stood the Test of Time’,” Straits Times, 29 September 2014, 2; Tan, Restoration of a Religious Refuge”; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church,” National Heritage Board, accessed 15 May 2017; Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Xinjiapo wei li gonghui zhi luo ya yi libaitang bai zhounian jinian kan, 37–39.



The information in this article is valid as of December 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.



 

Subject
Methodist Church--Singapore
Religious buildings