The Temple on Phoenix Hill

4 03 2012

Sitting up on an incline overlooking Mohamed Sultan Road, is a gem of a Chinese temple that is well worth the climb up the incline to. The temple, a wonderfully restored work of Chinese Minnan temple architecture, is the Hong San See (凤山寺) which translates into “Temple on Phoenix Hill” in the Hokkien (or Fujian) dialect, is a gazetted National Monument which dates back a century. The Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that has undergone several renovations over the years – the last was a restoration effort that was undertaken from 2007 to 2009 for which the temple earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010.

The main courtyard of the Hong San See Temple.

The temple traces its history back 175 years to 1836 when a pioneer from the Lam Ann clan, Neo Lim Kwee, built a temple at the Wallich Road area in Tanjong Pagar which was based on the Hong San See temple at Lam Ann (Nan’an) in China, dedicated to the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang (广泽尊王) who is also referred to by several names including Guo Sheng Wang (郭圣王) and Guo Sheng Gong (郭圣公). The land on which the original temple was built was however, acquired in 1907, and the temple moved to its present location on which the current temple was built from 1908 to 1913. Amongst the clan leaders involved in the rebuilding of the temple was a certain Lim Loh who was the father of a World War II hero, Lim Bo Seng. The new temple was built at a cost of $56,000 and was laid out in the traditional Min-nan style with its alignment in a North-South axis, and features courtyards and walled enclosures.

A door god seen on a door panel. Door gods are painted on temple doors to stop evil spirits from entering.

The names of those who contributed to the building of the temple can be found inscribed in the elaborately decorated pillars of the temple. Lim Bo Seng's father Lim Loh, also known as Lim Hoon Leong's (Lin Yun Long or 林云龙 - 林雲龍 in traditional Chinese script) name is seen inscribed on one of the pillars.

I have not previously taken much interest in the wealth of Chinese temples we have in Singapore, and it was during a guided visit to the temple back in November last year, that I was to learn of the temple. The tour, which was expertly guided by Yik Han, also touched on the interesting history of the temple, its architecture, the early Lam Ann immigrants who brought the temple to Singapore, and also about the very interesting story behind the deity Guang Ze Zun Wang. There were also several Taoist customs that were shared which were very new to me. One interesting one was that there is a proper way to enter the temple – which is through the Dragon Door on the right, through which one should step over (and not on) the threshold. The exit is through the Tiger Door on the left and a centre door – which is usually kept closed, is reserved for the passage of the gods.

The entrance to the temple consists of three doors - the Dragon Door on the right through which one should enter, the Tiger Door on the left which one uses to exit and a Centre Door which is reserved for the gods.

It is at the entrance to the temple that attention was drawn by Yik Han to the exquisite wood carvings painted in red lacquer and gold leaf and the elaborately decorated stone dragon and phoenix columns. Materials for these, as with most of the materials for construction, based on the temple’s records, were imported from China, as were the two teams of skilled craftsmen from Quanzhou in Fujian Province – each to work on the carvings on one of the left or right sides. This apparently was a standard practice that is referred to as “Corresponding Workmanship” (对场作) where the two teams in friendly competition provides a result that is not just different but gets the best out of the two teams.

Elaborate wooden carvings decorate the temple - two competing teams from Quanzhou were used to get the best results for the temple.

More of the exquisite wooden carvings that decorate the temple.

Reliefs on the stone pillar - the legend of a carp passing through the Dragon Gate and transforms into a dragon.

One interesting fact that I was also to learn was that a school had once operated within the temple. Temples in the early days had become focal points for the respective communities they had catered to making them natural for them to function as social and welfare centres for the communities. It wasn’t any different for Hong San See which not just brought the Lam Ann community in Singapore together, but also became a centre that served the welfare needs and for a brief period of about 10 years, provided free education to the children of poor Chinese migrants in the community with the Nan Ming School that opened in 1914 and operated at the sides of the temple. Lessons were conducted primarily in the Hokkien dialect. The school unfortunately closed due to a lack of funds to continue running it – evidence of the school does still exist in the wooden benches at a open room at the side of the temple that were once used by the school.

Wooden benches that were once used by a school that briefly operated in the temple's grounds.

A lantern in the temple.

The recent restoration of the temple involved a massive and meticulous effort that took three years to complete. The restoration committee included a consultant for the Beijing Palace Museum and required extensive historical research to ensure the effort, including additions, are true to the original structure. The restoration not just restored the temple to what it must have been at the height of its glory, but also has given the temple’s aging structure a new lease of life – an effort that will ensure that the beauty of the work that has been with us for over a hundred years, can be appreciated for many more generations to come.

A dragon sits atop the roof of the temple.

A coil of incense burns at the altar.

Resources on Hong San See:

Preservation of Monuments Board’s entry on Hong San See.

Hong San See in its glory – Straits Times 25 September 2010.

Wikipedia page on Hong San See.

Infopedia article on Hong San See.

Wikipedia on Guang Ze Zun Wang.