Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery (Siong Lim Temple)

Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery (莲山双林寺, which means “Twin Grove of the Lotus Mountain Temple”), or Shuang Lin Monastery for short, is a Buddhist monastery located in Toa Payoh.1 The name of the monastery refers to the twin groves of sala trees located at the Bodhgaya in India, where Buddha was believed to have attained enlightenment. It is also commonly referred to as Siong Lim Temple or, in the past, Low Kim Pong’s Temple after its founder. The Buddhist monastery, considered the oldest one in Singapore, was officially founded in 1898, although construction work on the monastery complex only began in 1902. The layout of the monastery is modelled after Xi Chan Si, a temple in Fuzhou, China.2 The monastery was gazetted as a national monument in 1980 and subsequently underwent a decade-long major restoration that began in 1991.3

Shuang Lin Monastery’s founding began with a dream. Low Kim Pong was a Hokkien merchant and devout Buddhist who had arrived in Singapore from China’s Fujian province in 1858 and made his fortune selling medicinal herbs. One night in 1898, Low and his son both dreamt of a sacred man radiating golden light and approaching from the west. Taking this to be an omen, both men went to the docks the next day. At dusk they met a family of 12 Buddhist nuns and monks led by Venerable Xian Hui who were on their way back to China after a six-year pilgrimage to India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma (now Myanmar). Low managed to persuade the group to stay in Singapore to spread the Buddhist faith, promising them a plot of land and funds to build a monastery for their use as well as inviting Xian Hui to be the monastery’s first abbot.4

On 7 May 1900, Low donated a 12-acre (4-hectare) plot of land in Toa Payoh for the construction of the monastery. He was also the main benefactor and fund-raiser for the $500,000 for building the monastery. His father-in-law, Yeo Poon Seng, another wealthy Hokkien merchant, also helped to fund the project. The building of the monastery complex was carried out in phases starting from 1902. The first structure that was completed was the rear hall in 1903, which became known as Fa Tang, or Dharma Hall. This was followed by the main hall (Da Xiong Bao Dian; Mahavira Hall) in 1904, the entrance hall (Tian Wang Dian; Hall of Celestial Kings) in 1905, and the drum and bell towers in 1907.5

The architect of the monastery is unknown.6 However, the layout of the monastery is modelled after Xi Chan Si, a temple in Fuzhou, Fujian province. This is probably because the monastery’s founding abbot, Xian Hui, was originally from Xi Chan Si.7 Both the monastery and Xi Chan Si are examples of cong lin (literally “layers of forest” in Mandarin) temples, where a standardised layout of the buildings within the temple grounds is adopted and the monks lead an ordered way of life practising Buddhist scriptures and following a strict daily routine.8

The main entrance to the Shuang Lin Monastery is known as the Shan Men (Mountain Gate) and features majestic gates over 9 m tall, known as pai lou, which are supported by stone pillars decorated with Chinese calligraphy inscriptions and joined at the top by a wooden roof. The doors of the gates are decorated with brightly painted Buddhist guardians, and the central door features a bronze knocker held in the mouth of a snail-shaped creature that represents one of the nine sons of the dragon.9 The monastery complex itself comprises three main halls separated by two courtyards and arranged along a central north-south axis, with the main entrance facing south according to the Chinese principles of feng shui.10 

The entrance hall, known as Tian Wang Dian (Hall of Celestial Kings), is topped by a half-hip roof (known as xie shan) with nine ridges. It also features granite wall panels depicting scenes from Chinese culture and history. In the centre of the hall sits the Maitreya buddha (depicted as the “Laughing Buddha”) flanked by the four celestial kings and with a figure of the guardian spirit Wei Tuo behind him. The courtyard behind the entrance hall is flanked by the Gu Lou (Drum Tower) on the left and Zhong Lou (Bell Tower) on the right.11

The main hall is known as Da Xiong Bao Dian (Mahavira Hall) and houses statues of the buddhas Amitabha, Bhaisajyaguru and Sakyamuni, with the latter flanked by his disciples Ananda and Mahakasyapa on the left and right respectively. At the back of the hall is the statute of the Avalokitesvara bodhisattva, better known as Guanyin. The hall has a two-tiered xie shan roof supported by colourful beams decorated with carvings of lotuses and dragons. The doors to the main hall feature carved lattice motifs of flowers, birds and Chinese symbols of longevity, while its exterior walls are decorated with tortoise-shell designs. Finally, the Dharma Hall, which is situated at the back of the complex, houses the statue of the goddess Guanyin as well as ash urns. It is the oldest building in the complex and was rebuilt in 1978 as the original timber structure had deteriorated beyond repair.12

The original monstery complex was built by Chinese craftsmen using materials imported from Fujian province.13 The craftsmen came from different counties in Fujian, hence the combination of three regional architectural styles: Fuzhou, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou.14 For example, Fuzhou-style square beams and Quanzhou-style round beams support the upper and lower tiers of the Da Xiong Bao Dian, while intricate Zhangzhou-style wood carvings are found on the roof of the Tian Wang Dian.15 Although the architectural style of Shuang Lin Monastery is primarily Fujian in origin, it also contains elements that reflect the styles of other dialect groups. For example, the porcelain mosaic ornamentation, known as chien nien, found on the roof ridges of the Tian Wang Dian and Da Xiong Bao Dian is Teochew in origin.16

The monastery fell into a state of disrepair not long after it was built around 1910 as a result of termite infestations, harsh tropical weather and wear and tear caused by worshippers.17 Major restoration works for the monastery were first carried out between 1918 and 1919 and a second time between 1950 and 1954.18

The monastery was gazetted as a national monument on 14 October 1980.19 In 1989, the then Preservation of Monuments Board (now known as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments) expressed concerns over the state of the monastery after checks by its architects revealed a leaking roof, water seepage and termite attacks.20 A further structural safety check uncovered cracks in the timber roofs and walls of the monastery.21 The Shuang Lin Restoration and Preservation Committee was subsequently formed in 1990 to oversee the monastery’s third major restoration.22

Plans for the restoration were first made in 1991. Experts in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan were consulted about restoring the monastery to its former glory and maintaining its authenticity. Some 80 carpenters, sculptors and artisans were brought in from China to work on the restoration. The process was time-consuming, as the workers attempted to restore as much of the original architecture as possible.23

Several fundraising events were organised for the restoration project, which was estimated to cost S$10,000 per sq m.24 In 1994, a charity concert featuring Hong Kong stars such as the late Anita Mui, Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung and Eric Tsang was held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium to raise funds for the restoration project.25

Learning from past experience, the restoration team chose materials that could withstand the tropical climate. Termite-resistant timber was imported from Sarawak, and custom-made roof tiles that were more water-resistant were ordered from Japan.26 French lighting expert Louis Clair, who designed the lights for historic buildings such as the Istana Park and Chijmes, was commissioned for the monastery’s lighting design. Clair created a subtle “mysterious glow” for the monastery using fibre-optic lights that were hidden in the beams and which complemented the existing lights. The lighting project cost an estimated S$250,000.27

In 1998, the first phase of the restoration was completed.28 The Urban Redevelopment Authority presented the monastery with an Architecture Heritage Award the following year. The final phase of the restoration was completed in 2001, following which the monastery was reopened to the public. Approximately S$40 million was spent for the entire restoration project.29

The area around the monastery has changed drastically over the years. When the monastery was built, it was surrounded by swamps and villages of different dialect groups that farmed pigs, poultry and vegetables. In the 1950s, the monastery’s land area was reduced by half when part of the land was acquired by the government for public housing. Today, the area around the monastery is surrounded by Housing and Development Board flats and the Pan-Island Expressway runs in front of it.30

Notable abbots
The first abbot of the monastery was Xian Hui, whom Low had persuaded to run the monastery in 1898. However, he died in 1901 before construction work began on the monastery.31

Pu Liang was appointed the monastery’s 10th abbot in 1917. He was said to have used part of the monastery grounds for rubber processing to help raise funds for the renovation works in 1919 and 1935. During the 1930s, he was actively involved in fundraising activities for the China Relief Fund to aid the anti-Japanese war efforts in China. He also allowed the monastery grounds to be used for the training of volunteer drivers and technicians for the Burma Road – a supply route set up between China’s Yunnan province and Burma to aid China’s war efforts against Japan. For his involvement in these activities, Pu Liang and two of his disciples were rounded up by the Japanese during Operation Sook Ching in 1942 and executed.32

Cao Can (sometimes spelt as Cao Cen; also known as Sek Koh Sam), a master of Shaolin martial arts, was appointed the monastery’s 12th abbot in 1948. He sought the help of Low’s descendants to fund repair works for parts of the monastery that had been damaged during the war. Cao also shared his martial arts skills with Toa Payoh residents, as well as enrolled students, to equip them with adequate self-defence against gangsters. Many of the martial arts schools in Singapore can trace their lineage to him and his disciples. Besides being a skilled martial artist, Cao was also a physician who served in various free clinics established by Buddhist and Taoist welfare organisations.33

The current abbot of the monastery is Venerable Wai Yim, who was appointed to the position in 2003. Prior to that, he served as chairman of the committee in charge of the monastery’s restoration project that began in 1991.34

Kaylene Tan

1. “About Us,” Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, n.d.
2. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2002), 26. (Call no. RSING 726.09597 LEE)
3. Tommy Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 506. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4. Kao Chen, “Face Lift of Siong Lim Temple: First Phase Over,” Straits Times, 31 January 1998, 24 (From NewspaperSG); “History,” Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, n.d.; Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books and Preservation of Monuments Board, 1996), 141–42. (Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
5. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 26; “Architecture: Areas of Shuang Lin,” Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, n.d.  
6. Sit Yin Fong, “Who Built Shuang Lin?Straits Times, 2 July 1994, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “History: Yi Shan Xi Chan Si,” Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, n.d.
8. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 26.
9. G. Uma Devi, Resonance: Songs of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2009), 155. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 RES); Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, “Architecture.”
10. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 145.
11. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 30–31; Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, “Architecture”; Koh, Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 506.
12. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 30–31; Koh, Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 506; Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, “Architecture”; “Serenity,” Straits Times, 14 August 1993, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Kao Chen, “A Return to Glory,” Straits Times, 2 December 1997, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Devi, Resonance, 155; Sit, “Who Built Shuang Lin?
15. Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, “Architecture.”
16. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 30.
17. Chen, “Return to Glory.”
18. Chen, “Face Lift of Siong Lim Temple.”
19. Devi, Resonance, 155.
20. “In Dire Need of Repairs,” New Paper, 4 April 1989, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Geneieve Kwek, “Safety Check of Temple Order,” New Paper, 6 July 1989, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Sit, “Who Built Shuang Lin?”; Chen, “Face Lift of Siong Lim Temple.”
23. Sit, “Who Built Shuang Lin?”; Chen, “Return to Glory.”
24. Chen, “Return to Glory.”
25. Chin Soo Fang, “Star-Studded Event, but Lacklustre Concert," Straits Times, 14 October 1994, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Chen, “Return to Glory”; Kao Chen, “The Quest for the Perfect Roof Tile,” Straits Times, 31 January 1998, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Rav Dhaliwal, R. (1997, March 28). “Temple to Get Mysterious Warm Glow,” Straits Times, p. 55. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Chen, “Return to Glory”; Chen, “Face Lift of Siong Lim Temple.”
29. Josephine James, “Work on Oldest Monastery Completed,” Straits Times, 5 October 2001, H8. (From NewspaperSG); “History: Down the Years,” Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, n.d.
30. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 145.
31. Granite and Chunam, 142.
32. Lee Geok Boi, “Shuang Lin Temple,” in The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2002), 29. (Call no. RSING 726.09597 LEE); Chan Chow
Light on the Lotus Hill: Shuang Lin Monastery and the Burma Road (Singapore: Khoon Chee Vihara, 2009), 27, 36–38, 48–49, 71–72, 79. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 CHA-[HIS])
33. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 29; Chan, Light on the Lotus Hill, 80; Koh, Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 506; Nick Hurst, “A Shaolin Grandmaster in Singapore,” Today, 1 September 2012, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Abbot Message: Current Abbot,” Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, n.d.

The information in this article is valid as at 12 December 2014 and correct as far as we can 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.

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