Thian Hock Keng
Thian Hock Keng is Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple. Located at 158 Telok Ayer Street, it is recognised as the most majestic Chinese temple in Singapore.1 It was designed and built in 1842 by skilled craftsmen from China according to traditional Chinese temple architectural style.2 The temple is managed by the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.3 It was gazetted as a national monument on 28 June 1973.4
The Thian Hock Keng temple started out as a prayer house located along the shoreline of Telok Ayer Basin.5 In 1821, immigrants from Fujian province, China, erected the prayer house and dedicated it to the goddess Ma Zu (or Tian Hou), protector of seafarers and navigators. Chinese immigrants who had just completed their perilous journey across the turbulent sea would make thanksgiving offerings of money and joss-sticks at the prayer house for their safe sea voyage.6
Between 1839 and 1842, extensive reconstruction transformed the prayer house into Thian Hock Keng, which means “Temple of Heavenly Happiness”.7 With funding from wealthy Hokkien merchants like Tan Tock Seng, the temple was completed in 1842 at a cost of 30,000 Spanish dollars.8 Not a single nail was used in the construction, and all the materials were imported from China, including the ironwood posts which served as the building’s main supporting pillars.9 The temple was designed and built according to Chinese temple architectural traditions by skilled craftsmen from China, making it one of the most traditional Chinese temples in Singapore.10 The patron deity, Ma Zu, was shipped from Amoy (now Xiamen), Fujian province, and arrived in Singapore in April 1840.11 The Chung Wen Pagoda and Chong Boon Gate, situated to the right of the main temple, were added in 1849.12
In 1907, Emperor Guang Xu of the Qing Dynasty presented a plaque, together with a silk scroll, to the temple. The wooden plaque is inscribed with the Chinese characters 波靖南溟 (bo jing nan ming), which mean “gentle waves over the South Seas”, The same four Chinese characters are also found on the yellow scroll. The plaque and scroll had hung over the temple’s main altar signboard until 1999, when they were taken down before restoration work began. A replica of the original scroll and the original wooden plaque were returned to the same spot upon the completion of restoration work. The scroll was subsequently donated to the Singapore History Museum (now National Museum of Singapore).13
The Hokkien clan association, Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, was housed in the temple’s left wing before it relocated to premises next to the temple in 1919 and across the street in 1955. Chong Hock Girls’ School, one of the earliest Hokkien girls’ schools in Singapore, had its beginnings at the temple. Established by the Hokkien Huay Kuan in 1915, the school was located at the Chong Hock Pavilion, which shares the same compound as the Chung Wen Pagoda. The school, now known as Chongfu Primary School, began enrolling boys in 1949 and moved out of the temple grounds to Yishun in 1985.14
Conservation and restoration
In the 1990s, the temple was infested with termites, which were feeding on its wooden structures. A committee was formed by the Hokkien Huay Kuan to look into conserving and restoring the temple. Adhering to guidelines by the Singapore Preservation of Monuments Board (now Preservation of Sites and Monuments) on the conservation of national monuments, the façade and physical appearance of the temple were preserved. Original materials that were beyond restoration were preserved for their historical significance. The restoration plan also took into consideration the longevity of the materials used as this was crucial for the long-term maintenance of the temple. The planning team also ensured that the various statues in the temple were positioned according to usual practices adopted by Chinese temples.15
Planning for the restoration project began in 1995. It involved major restoration works that saw up to 70 Fujian craftsmen – including wood carvers, stonemasons and artisans – brought in to ensure that the restored temple remained true to the original.16 Headed by architectural firm James Ferrie & Partners, the restoration took two-and-a-half years to complete at a cost of S$4 million. It won the temple many local and architectural awards, with the most prestigious being an honourable mention in the 2001 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.17
A new eight-storey Hokkien Huay Kuan Building was built on Telok Ayer Street in 2003, with the clan association occupying the top floor.18 On 16 April 2005, a ceremony to commemorate the completion of the temple restoration, the clan association’s 165th anniversary and the opening of the new building was officiated by then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.19
1. Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 126–35 (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
2. Edwin Lee, Historic Buildings of Singapore (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 1990), 71 (Call no. RSING 720.95957 LEE); M. Gretchen, Pastel Portraits: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage (Singapore: Singapore Coordinating Committee, 1984), 120. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 PAS)
3. ‘Our Heritage,” Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, accessed 25 September 2016.
4. Preservation of Monuments Order 1973, Sp. S 228/1973, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 1973, 377 (Call no. RCLOS 348.5957 SGGSLS); National Heritage Board, “Preservation of Monuments Board Merges with the National Heritage Board,” press release, 8 July 2009. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 20090715004)
5. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 25–27. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM)
6. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2002), 12–17. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
7. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 12–17.
8. Lee, Historic Buildings of Singapore, 71; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 126–35.
9. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 12–17; Lee, Historic Buildings of Singapore, 71.
10. Gretchen, Pastel Portraits, 120.
11. Liu, Granite and Chunam, 126–35.
12. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 12–17.
13. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 12–17; Guardian of the South Seas: Thian Hock Keng and Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, 2006), 131–33 (Call no. RSING 369.25957 GUA); Sarah Ng. S. (2005, April 24). “Restored – after 92 Years in Cylinder,” Straits Times, 24 April 2005, 12 (From NewspaperSG); “About Us,” Thian Hock Kheng Temple, accessed 3 October 2016.
14. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 12–17; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 126–35; “History,” Chongfu School, accessed 26 July 2016.
15. Guardian of the South Seas, 131–33.
16. Kao Chen, “Facelift for a Goddess,” Straits Times, 16 April 1998, 39 (From NewspaperSG); Guardian of the South Seas, 132.
17. Guardian of the South Seas, 131–33; “Temple Bags Unesco Award,” Straits Times, 20 September 2001, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Thian Hock Kheng Temple, “About Us.”
18. Guardian of the South Seas, 131–33, 145.
19. “Clan Group Marks 165th Anniversary,” Straits Times, 16 April 2005, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Ng, “Restored – after 92 Years in Cylinder.”
“A 30,000 Silver Dollar Temple,” Straits Times, 16 April 1998, 39. (From NewspaperSG)
Du Nanfa 杜南发, ed., Nan hai ming zhu: Tian fu gong 南海明珠 : 天福宮 [Jewel of the South Sea: Thian Hock Keng] (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, 2010). (Call no. Chinese RSING 203.5095957 NHM)
G. Uma Devi, Resonance: Songs of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2009), 36–41. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 RES)
John Hall-Jones and Christopher Hooi, An Early Surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853 (Singapore: National Museum, 1979), 48. (Call no. RSING 526.90924 THO.H)
Leong Weng Kam, “Was this Emperor’s Own Work?” Straits Times, 26 May 1999, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, Report (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 1972–1973), 10. (Call no. RCLOS 722.40959)
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 of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Architecture--Conservation and restoration--Singapore
Architecture and Landscape>>Building Types>>Religious Buildings