The synagogue at Belle Vue

19 10 2012

One of the wonderful things about Singapore is the diverse cultural and religious practices, some modified with time, some influenced by the environment, but many that remain distinct reflecting the many lands far and wide from which immigrants to Singapore have arrived from. Besides the myriad of festivals that seem to go on all year around, this diversity is also reflected in its architectural heritage – some 28 of its 64 National Monuments are places of worship which are very much in use today.

A page from religious diversity of Singapore – a Sefer Torah at the Chesed-El Synagogue.

Two of the 64 that I had an opportunity to visit during a recent Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) walking tour were the Hong San See Temple and the Chesed-El Synagogue. The Hong San See or Temple on Phoenix Hill is one that I already am familiar with from a previous visit. A magnificent and beautifully restored example of Fujian Lam Ann (Nan’an) religious architecture, its last restoration effort from 2007 to 2009 earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010. More information on the temple can be found in my previous post The Temple on Phoenix Hill.

The Chesed-El Synagogue at Oxley Rise was one of two religious monuments I recently had an opportunity to see as part of a Monumental Walking Tour organised by the PMB.

The main motivation for my participation in the tour was more for the opportunity it provided to visit a synagogue as I had never in stepped into one. While there are two such places of worship in Singapore, such opportunities are rare, especially due to more recent security concerns and this provided me with a look of what it was like behind the façade of a religious building belonging to a small and sometimes lesser known local community which has made a significant contribution to Singapore.

Opportunities to visit a synagogue are rare especially with more recent security concerns.

A look beyond the Chesed-El’s façade. The wooden pulpit or bimah is seen in the centre of the hall with the ahel or ark at the end.

The Jews in Singapore have certainly made a huge contribution to its development with many notable names through Singapore’s history, members of the community. One of its prominent members in the early days of Singapore was a certain Sir Manasseh Meyer, a highly successful businessman and property owner, who counted among his properties, the Sea View Hotel and the Adelphi Hotel, lending his name to Meyer Road. It was also Manasseh Meyer who built the Chesed-El, Singapore’s second synagogue (after Maghain Aboth in Waterloo Street).

Participants on the walking tour had a chance to look at the second of two synagogues in Singapore.

The Chesed-El completed in 1905 on Manasseh Meyer’s sprawling estate in Oxley Rise, Belle Vue, was designed by Regent Alfred John Bidwell of architectural frim Swan & Maclaren (which was responsible for many of the monumental works of architecture in Singapore) in the Palladian style. What had prompted Manasseh Meyer to build Chesed-El, which translates as the “bountiful mercy and goodness of God” were differences of opinions which members of the community from differing backgrounds had at the Maghain Aboth, which was built as a private synagogue.

The synagogue was completed in 1905.

The building was built in the grand Palladian style.

Besides providing the opportunity to have a look into the synagogue, the visit also allowed a better appreciation of the layout of a synagogue. Placed in a westward facing direction to Judaism’s eternal city, Jerusalem, a wooden pulpit rises at centre of the hall. The pulpit or bimah, is where prayers where the rabbi leads the prayers, and where the Torah scrolls (Sefer Torah) are placed and read during services.

The entrance to the synagogue.

A closer look at the bimah.

The entrance and the balconies on the upper gallery.

Inside the lower gallery.

A reminder.

The visit also allowed us a peek at the upper gallery where the women are kept separated from the men during services. The balconies on the upper gallery feature iron work that we were told were imported from Scotland which provided an appreciation of the effort taken in the building of the house of worship for the greater glory of the Maker.

The balconies on the upper gallery, reserved for women, feature beautifully crafted ironwork imported from Scotland.

The staircase to the upper gallery.

A view through an arch on the upper gallery.

The women’s perspective.

A quiet room on the upper gallery.

Another view from the upper gallery.

The upper gallery.

The highlight of the visit was a close-up look we had at Sefer Torah as well as a look into the holiest part of the synagogue, the ark or ahel – a room where the Sefer Torahs are stored. The sefers or scrolls are made from specially handwritten parchment and are ones donated by members of the congregation, and includes one that is a hundred years old.

The ahel at the front end of the hall is behind three curtains.

A rabbi opening a Sefer Torah.

A hundred year old Sefer Torah in the ahel.

Floor tiles.

The ahel’s entrances are covered by a curtain or parochet.

Ironwork above the ahel.

The look at the synagogue was one that provided not only an insight into the religious practices of a small but important community in Singapore, but also one which offered a window into the role the many successful immigrants who came from far and wide played in building and supporting their respective communities. It is these communities which have provided the foundation on which Singapore’s success is built and which makes Singapore that wonderful celebration of cultures and religions that it is today.

The grounds of the synagogue.

Resources on the Jewish Community, Sir Manasseh Meyer and the Chesed-El Synagogue:

Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Jewish Community in Singapore (on The Jewish Times Asia)
Sir Manasseh Meyer (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on infopedia)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on The Jewish Community of Singapore)
Chesed-El Synagogue (on PMB’s website)


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.