The Geylang area as many know is one that is associated with the seedier side of life, great food as well as the many houses of worship it plays host to. It is unfortunate that the seedier aspects does dominate the impressions we have collectively formed of the area. Geylang does, despite its appearance, have a lot more to offer than that, being rich not just in its architectural heritage, but also where some aspects of its history (as well as that of Singapore’s) have been preserved. Strategically located in the area where the Kallang and Geylang rivers meet, a large part of Geylang’s more recent history lies in the industrial development that took place around the Kallang Basin which also drew many from afar to seek their fortune to the area.
The stories of these migrants and that of the area’s industrialisation are now all but lost and it is in the old buildings and in the houses of worship that these forgotten stories are to be discovered. One of the houses of worship that has a story to tell is a Taoist temple, Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), that now lies somewhat isolated in a quiet corner off the Geylang we now see – a story that all too soon may be totally forgotten. The temple is one that now sits on a site that it occupied since 1901 as a guest, a guest that may soon overstay its welcome. The site – an obscure corner of what used to be Geylang Lorong 17, now Sims Drive, is on land that the HDB now owns, land that will be possibly be redeveloped with the cluster of public flats next to it that find themselves the victims of the relentless pace of redevelopment in Singapore.
Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee sits in a quiet corner at the end of what was Geylang Lorong 17 (the part that is now Sims Drive).
A portal to a forgotten past.
My introduction to the temple and its origins was via a guided tour of it that one of our local experts on temples in Singapore, Yik Han, was kind enough to give at the end of a short walk of discovery I did with some friends through Geylang’s streets of sin and salvation. The temple’s history, I was to learn, goes back beyond 1901, to the second half of the 19th Century (the 1860s). It owes its establishment to the Cantonese and Hakka coolie population that had found work in the brick kilns that thrived by the banks of the Kallang River due to the availability of clay that was of a quality suitable for brick making. The temple is closely associated with a village on the banks that was referred to as Sar Kong (沙崗) or ‘Sand Ridge’ and had moved a few times before finding itself in its current site.
Yik Han giving an introduction to the temple’s history.
A member of the temple’s committee speaking of the temple’s origins …
… some of which is captured on a tablet.
In the temple’s name, one can perhaps find a reference to its origins. The name ‘Mun Sun’ is thought to be transliteration of the malay word bangsal, the Malay word for ‘shed’ or ‘workshop’ – a reference to its industrial origins. The temple which is dedicated to the Taoist deity Tua Pek Kong (大伯公) does, besides its interesting history, contain several interesting articles that await discovery. One is a carved altar table that bears the markings of the craftsmen who made it. On closer inspection of one of its legs, there are the marks left by the craftsmen which include the Chinese characters ‘牛車水’ – ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or the Chinese name for what we call Chinatown today. What this points to is that the craft was carried out not as one might have expected in China – where there was a tendency to commission such work, but locally.
The main altar to Tua Pek Kong. The carved wooden altar table in the foreground is one that was crafted off the streets of ‘Ox-Cart Water’, 牛车水 or 牛車水 in the traditional script. A carved inscription on one of the legs bears evidence of this.
Close-up of characters carved on the table. The Chinese characters ‘牛車水’- ‘Ox-Cart Water’ or ‘Kreta Ayer’ or the Chinese name for Chinatown in Singapore, indicate that there were furniture craftsmen present in Singapore’s Chinatown who made the table at a time when a lot of such work would have been commissioned in China.
The temple plays host to several other deities including the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人). That she is the patroness of child-bearing won’t escape notice with the 12 nannies tending to young children that accompany her on the altar. One deity whose name escaped meat the side of the temple takes a curious form – that of a mannequin that is used to represent it.
The patroness of child-bearing, the Golden Flower Lady (金花夫人) with some of the 12 nannies who flank her on the altar.
A close-up of one of the 12 nannies.
Te deity which has a mannequin representing him.
The temple’s building also holds a clue to its origins. In the course of his introduction, Yik Han pointed out a little known fact – that the building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese style temple architecture in Singapore. It is also interesting to note that the temple had also at some point, housed a school, as well as a sports club, the sports club being started to provide a channel for alternative pursuits other than addiction to opium.
The temple’s building is one of the rare examples of Cantonese temple architecture.
The part of the temple where the school operated, now houses the lion dance troupe that probably is the temple’s claim to fame. It is the troupe that performs the fire dragon dance which uses a dragon that is made out of padi straw and lit up with incense sticks. A fire dragon from the temple featured in this year’s Chingay parade. The dragon that was used lies quietly in a room on the right side of the temple.
A ‘fire’ dragon made from padi straw that was used in Chingay 2012. The temple is known for the Fire Dragon dance.
Despite the temple’s significant links with the history of immigration into and the industrial development of the area, the future of the temple on its current site is one that is uncertain. The blocks of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats that have cast a shadow on it for over three decades have been vacated – part of a on-going programme to renew some of the older public housing neighbourhoods known as the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) that will see them demolished and replaced by newer apartment blocks. This may mean that the temple at its current site may soon see its final days and with that … one of the last reminders of the area’s early industrial history will be one that like the area’s past that it represents, be forever lost.
Coils of incense on the ceiling.
Blessings that will be attached to the incense coils.
See also: 19th-century temple at risk of demolition (Sunday Times 26 January 2014).