Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church building
by Tan, Bonny
The Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church building is located at the junction of Telok Ayer Street and Cecil Street in Singapore’s Central Business District.1 Constructed in 1924, the building’s architecture is a unique blend of Eastern and Western styles, and does not conform to standard church design. The building was gazetted as a national monument on 23 March 1989.2
The Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church was founded by Benjamin Franklin West, an American medical doctor and missionary who had ministered to under-privileged Chinese in Chinatown.3 The church was known as Hokkien Church in its early years. As it grew, Reverend F. H. Sullivan purchased the land at the corner of Telok Ayer Street and Cecil Street in 1913 for $3,600 using borrowed funds. Subsequently, church services took place weekly in a tent at this location. In 1914, the tent collapsed and service was moved to Fairfield Girls’ School in Neil Road. By September 1915, a wooden hut with a zinc roof had been constructed at a cost of $900.4
Through funding by church steward Ng Hong Guan, the adjoining land belonging to the Chinese Free School and the British Crown was purchased in 1921. Work thus began on the construction of the church building. The stone-laying ceremony, which was presided over by Bishop G. H. Bickley, took place on 19 January 1924.5 French firm Bross and Mogin took charge of the construction, while the design was provided by architect Denis Santry of Swan & Maclaren. The cost of the building amounted to $75,000, of which $10,000 was contributed by sponsors from the United States, and another $10,000 by the local Methodist Publishing House.6 The church was consecrated on 11 January 1925 by Bishop Lowe of the American Mission, in the presence of E. S. Hose, the Colonial Secretary.7
The four-storey church building has several unique architectural features.8 Firstly, key ecclesiastical architectural features are absent primarily due to land constraints. For instance, the church was not built along the traditional cruciform plan of most Western churches, but comprises a single block flanked by two towers. Also, its main entrance is oriented west and not east-facing as in most churches.9
Secondly, the building’s design is an eclectic fusion of Eastern elements and Western functionality.10 The pagoda roof over the main block is one of the striking Chinese features of the church.11 The louvred doors and windows are reminiscent of those found in Southeast Asia. The church also features a distinctly Malayan five-foot walkway on the west side that links it to adjoining shophouses.12 Byzantine-style columns and piers, marked with crosses, stand along the length of the walkway.13 The inclusion of Chinese and local elements in the architectural design helped the local Chinese community identify with the building.14
The Western influences of the building’s architecture are reflected in the location of the sanctuary on the second level, a common European practice for urban churches of that period.15 The Roman-style rectangular block, with its two towers on either side, is also considered Western in origin.16 In addition, there are 14 windows of varying sizes and designs found in the building.17
The first storey of the building houses the social hall with a stage that is named after the church’s founder, Benjamin Franklin West.18 The main wall juts out by about a third of a metre because during the war years, refugees had fortified it in an attempt to keep the enemy at bay.19
The sanctuary is located on the second storey.20 Both first- and second-storey interiors have eight columns with a moulded scroll design at the column beam joint and a moulded column base. The pulpit furniture was donated by Swan & Maclaren, and the altar wall has four wooden panels with the Chinese characters “God is love” in gold-leaf.21 These panels were found hidden behind three arches and a backdrop during refurbishment works in 1995.22 Round, stained-glass windows decorate the walls on both sides of the altar, while the remaining windows are long and arched structures with wooden louvres. Some of these long windows also bear gold engravings of Chinese characters.23
The uppermost floor was formerly the residence of the pastor.24 The original terrace had served as a roof garden for fetes or open-air services but after it was roofed over, the space was converted into function rooms.25 The rooftop pavilion is used as a prayer room while the smaller room just opposite houses the air-conditioning system.26
Aside from the main building, the site originally had a playground, a tennis court and a badminton court that were donated by medical doctor and philanthropist Chen Su Lan to enhance the recreational functions of the church.27
The Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist building was declared a national monument on 23 March 1989, its centenary year. In October 1993, the church embarked on a S$3-million building restoration project. The project was helmed by architect David Hu of Design Architects, and took two years to complete.28 Various changes were made to the original structure to accommodate changing needs. These included a new mezzanine for general and pastoral offices, a new lift for the handicapped as well as installation of air-conditioning condensers.29 The church has a branch at 61 Wishart Road, off Telok Blangah Road. The building known as TA2 has an 800-seat sanctuary.30
1. “Our Heritage,” Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, accessed 24 November 2016.
2. Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 191, 194. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
3. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 191–95; Theodore R. Doraisamy, The March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 1885–1980 (Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1982), 14. (Call no. RSING 287.095957 DOR)
4. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2002), 62. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
5. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 62.
6. “A Chinese Church,” Straits Times, 27 April 1925, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 62; “Chinese Church.”
8. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 194.
9. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 62; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 194.
10. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64.
11. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 194; Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64.
13. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 194.
14. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Our Heritage.”
15. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Our Heritage. 16. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 194.
17. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64.
18. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64.
19. Vicki Low, “Church Which Early Chinese Migrants Could Call Home,” Straits Times, 10 August 1989, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 194.
21. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64; “Methodist Mission,” Straits Times, 14 November 1924, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 194.
23. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64.
24. “Chinese Church.”
25. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64.
26. “Chinese Church”; Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 64.
27. “Chinese Church”; “Methodist Mission”; “Death,” Straits Times, 6 May 1972, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Our Heritage”; Tan Hock Beng, “Restoration of a Religious Refuge,” Straits Times, 16 September 1995, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Tan, “Restoration of a Religious Refuge.”
30. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, “Our Heritage.”
Edwin Lee, Historic Buildings of Singapore (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 1990), 73. (Call no. RCLOS 720.95957 LEE)
Xinjiapo Jidu jiao wei li gong hui Zhiluoyayi li bai tang chuang li jiu shi zhou nian ji nian kan 1889–1979 新加坡基督教卫理公会直落亚逸礼拜堂创立九十周年纪念刊1889-1979 [90th anniversary souvenir [of] Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church Singapore 1889–1979], Singapore: [Gai li bai tang], 1981. (Call no. Chinese RCLOS 287.095957 NIN)
Xinjiapo Jidu jiao Wei li gong hui Zhiluo Yayi li bai tang zhu ri xue te kan 新加坡基督教卫理公会直落亚逸礼拜堂主日学特刊 [Sunday School souvenir of the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church Singapore], Singapore: Gai Tang, 1963). (Call no. Chinese RCLOS 268.4095957 SUN)
The information in this article is valid as at 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.