Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, located on Waterloo Street, is a popular place of worship for devotees of Guan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy.1 Built in 1884, it is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Singapore and a hallmark of late-19th-century Chinese temple courtyard architecture.2 The temple is known for its philanthropy.

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple first started as a temple dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Guan Yin. Other deities found in the temple include Ta Ma Tan Shith (or Da Mu Tuo Shi), chief of the six Buddhist patriarchs; and Hua Tuo, a Han-dynasty doctor who is the Chinese patron saint of medicine.3

The temple underwent alterations and additions in 1895.4 It was demolished in the late 1970s5 and rebuilt in 1982 with the job commissioned to Tay & Yeo Architects.6 With the reconstruction, the temple doubled its former size. In 2001, the temple was declared a historic site by the National Heritage Board.7

During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45), many came to the temple to seek refuge.8

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple forms a part of a network of historically significant religious buildings in the Waterloo Street area, including the Church of Saints Peter and Paul on Queen StreetSri Krishnan Temple and the Maghain Aboth Synagogue.9 The Chinese temple is a hallmark of traditional Chinese temple courtyard architecture and is reflective of craftsmanship popular in the late 19th century. Following the reconstruction work in 1982, new features were added while some old ones were retained.10

In the old days, visitors to the temple entered through a recessed porch and screened anteroom which gave access to a large, covered courtyard. The courtyard then led to the main prayer hall where the three main deities – Guan Yin, Ta Ma Tan Shith and Hua Tuo – were kept on separate altars.11 Another altar with a large idol of Shakyamuni Buddha was kept in the rear hall.12

In the current structure, all the deities are placed within a single altar with the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha placed just behind that of Guan Yin. Though the positions of the main deities have been changed, other idols in the temple are kept in their old places.13 The current temple has two roofs at different heights. One enters the temple through a large gateway flanked by two smaller gates on either side. Yellow swastikas adorn the ends of the roof rafters. The ridges have simple curves with calligraphy or decorations denoting good omen.14 Another feature of the new temple is that there is no candle or incense burning inside the temple hall. The urn for offering incense is placed outside the temple hall to prevent the soot from staining the ceiling.15

Qian (divining sticks) – wooden sticks with writing on them – are placed in a brass can and shaken.16 The sticks that fall out are interpreted to foretell a person’s future. In 1990, the temple became the first temple in Singapore to provide divination slips with English translations for English-educated devotees and tourists.17

Most devotees visit the temple on the first and 15th days of the lunar calendar.18 However, the temple’s most festive period is the eve of Chinese New Year when the temple is kept open all night long. Thousands of devotees flock to the temple and the entire street fronting the temple is packed with worshippers waiting to offer incense to the goddess of mercy for an auspicious start to the year.19

Known for its philanthropic work, the temple is an active contributor to Singapore’s social, educational and arts sectors. The patron was awarded the Patron of the Arts in 2002 for its contributions to the Singapore arts scene.20

To help achieve the Association of Women and for Action and Research (AWARE)’s mission in eliminating gender barriers in Singapore, the temple has been providing funding for the association’s campaign and services since 1997.21 The temple was also lauded for reaching out to other ethnic groups when they donated to the Singapore Indian Education Trust, a self-help body that provides bursaries and scholarships for needy Indian students in 1995.22

In 2016, the temple donated S$5 million to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) Development Fund, which supports the school’s infrastructure and capability development. The donation was also used for acquisition of library resources and setting up of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Student Relief Fund and the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Fellowship. In appreciation, NAFA has named its library the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Library.23

The temple is also a longtime donor of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF), having sponsored the setting up of two dialysis centres and footing their operating costs. In addition, it contributed S$15 million for the NKF’s free health-screening programme in 2000.24

Other activities
In 2006, the temple was chosen as one of the exhibition sites by artistic Director Fumio Nanjo and his curatorial team for Singapore’s first visual art biennale. Together with other venues including museums, religious spaces, public institutions and disused buildings, the temple was selected to give a local perspective of Singapore as a multireligious, multicultural society and to provide a historical context that reflects the relationship of architecture in the construction of beliefs.25


Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. G. Uma Devi, Singapore’s 100 Historic Places (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2002), 111. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
2. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 263. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
3. Uma Devi, Singapore’s 100 Historic Places, 111.
4. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 263.
5. Arthur Sim, “Kwan Im Temple Now a Historic Site,” Straits Times, 29 September 2001, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 263.
7. Sim, “Kwan Im Temple Now a Historic Site.” 
8. Sim, “Kwan Im Temple Now a Historic Site.” 
9. Uma Devi, Singapore’s 100 Historic Places, 111.
10. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 263.
11. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 263.
12. Uma Devi, Singapore’s 100 Historic Places, 111.
13. Uma Devi, Singapore’s 100 Historic Places, 111.
14. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 263.
15. Sim, “Kwan Im Temple Now a Historic Site.” 
16. Sim, “Kwan Im Temple Now a Historic Site.” 
17. Ho Sheo Be, “English Divination Slips in Two Chinese Temples,” Straits Times, 9 November 1993, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Sim, “Kwan Im Temple Now a Historic Site.” 
19. Uma Devi, Singapore’s 100 Historic Places, 111.
20. “Arts Funds Poured into Infrastructure,” Business Times, 21 September 2002, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Our Sincere Thanks to Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple,” AWARE, accessed 4 January 2018.
22. S. Tsering Bahlla, ”Chinese Temple Helps Indian Student,” Straits Times, 16 February 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Naming Ceremony of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Library,” Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, accessed 4 January 2018. 
24. “Temple to Give $15M to NKF Vetting Project,” Straits Times, 8 April 2000, 63; Lee Hui Chieh, “Kidney Patients to Get Travel Subsidy,” Straits Times, 8 April 2009, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Singapore Biennale 2006 – Belief,” National Arts Council, accessed 4 January 2018.  

The information in this article is valid as at 2018 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.

Religious buildings
Historic buildings--Singapore
Temples, Chinese--Singapore