Celebrating SG50 and a heritage gem

14 08 2015

One of the joys of living in Singapore, a melting pot of immigrant cultures for over two centuries, is the diverse influences seen in the architecture on display across the city-state.  One area where a concentration of this can be admired is in and around Telok Ayer Street, a street once fronting the bay after which it was named and a point of landing for many of modern Singapore’s earliest immigrants.  Along the street, stand two gorgeously adorned pagodas, possibly the oldest in Singapore, both of which were erected by Hokkien immigrants, one of which takes one from earth to heaven and houses an altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor within what was once the home of the Keng Teck Whay.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

The former Keng Teck Whay, now the Singapore Yu Huang Gong.

A second pagoda - Thian Hock Keng's Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way's pagoda.

A second pagoda – Thian Hock Keng’s Chong Wen pagoda, seen across the roofs of the Hokkien temple from the Keng Teck Way’s pagoda.

The Keng Teck Whay, a mutual-aid society, was founded in 1831 by 36 Hokkien Peranakan (Straits Chinese) businessmen from Malacca whose origins can be traced back to Chiang Chew (Zhangzhou), China. The association, membership of which passed from father to eldest son, erected what can be said to be a clan complex around the mid 19th century. Being a very exclusive association, the complex and the fine example of southern Chinese architecture found within it, was kept well hidden from the public eye for much of its long existence.

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders - one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions - a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

The ancestral hall where a tablet bearing the names of 35 of the 36 founders – one was apparently ejected. 36 places are however set at the table where food offerings to the ancestors are laid out during the sembayang abu or ancestral prayer sessions – a practice that is now continued by the Taoist. Mission

A National Monument since 2009, the former Keng Teck Whay building – the only surviving example of a Straits Chinese clan complex, has since been taken over by the Taoist Mission. The complex, which was in a state of disrepair when the mission took possession in 2010, was painstakingly restored over a two and a half year period by a team of experts appointed by the Taoist Mission at a cost of some $3.8 million. Having first opened its doors to the public as the Singapore Yu Huang Kong or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor early this year, the newly restored complex was officially opened on 9 August, the day independent Singapore celebrated its golden jubilee.

A view of the central door and the door gods.

A view of the central door (reserved for the Deity) and the door gods.

A view through the opened Deity door.

A view through the opened Deity door.

The opening of the former Keng Teck Whay as the Yu Huang Kong, which was officiated by Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, was a celebration in many ways. Marking the the end of the restoration effort, the ceremony, which also included the commemoration of National Day, was also a celebration of Singapore’s unity in diversity with representatives from Singapore’s many faiths also in the audience.

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There is also much to celebrate about the beauty of the complex and its traditionally constructed structures and decorations. Laid out along a north-south axis, the complex features two courtyards, separated by its rather interesting pagoda. The beautifully constructed pagoda, laid out on a square base with octagonal plan upper tiers, said to represent Earth and Heaven respectively, is thought to have been modelled after the pagoda structures seen in temples to Confucius. It is on the second level of the three tier pagoda that the altar dedicated to the Heavenly Jade Emperor is found. The ancestral hall, housed on the lower level of the rear two storey building, lies across the inner courtyard from the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

Another view of the pagoda.

The entrance building.

The entrance hall.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The altar to the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

The iron spiral staircase of the pagoda.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

Doors, frescos and architectural details of the pagoda, beautifully restored.

The ancestral hall, would have been where the main focus of the gathering of members five times a year to conduct ancestral prayers or sembayang abu, was. The hall is where a tablet inscribed with the 35 names of the association’s founding members can be found. While the name of the 36th founder, who was ejected for reasons unknown, is missing from the tablet, 36 places were still somehow set at the sembayang abu food offering table – a practice that the Taoist Mission continues with. More information on the Keng Teck Whay and the sembayang abu food offerings be found at this link:  http://peranakan.s3.amazonaws.com/2005/2005_Issue_2.pdf.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The curved roof ridge of the entrance hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

The upper level of the rear hall.

Further information on the Keng Teck Whay can be also found at the following links:


More photographs of the Opening and SG50 National Day Commemoration ceremony

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More photographs of the beautifully restored Singapore Yu Huang Kong

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A gem of a find in the heart of Joo Chiat

17 04 2012

Set in the heart of an area that is synonymous with the Chinese Peranakan community in Singapore, Joo Chiat, is a little gem of a place that awaits discovery – The Intan, which in Malay translates to ‘rose-cut diamond’. The Intan is a Peranakan home-museum which is owned by an antique collector, Alvin Yapp and is set in a somewhat nondescript house that is typical of the area. It is only in stepping through the door that the pure delight of the place becomes evident as one sets foot in a world where the rich culture of a forgotten time awaits discovery.

The Intan is a home-museum owned by an antique collector, Mr Alvin Yapp, located in the heart of the Joo Chiat area.

The entrance of The Intan as seen from the loft.

The ancestral altar is one of three altars usually found in a Peranakan house.

The house that The Intan is set in, is typical of houses that are associated with the community. It is long and narrow – an architectural feature that takes one back to a time when taxes to be paid were determined based on the number of windows a house had. Once inside, the soft light that filters through its narrow openings and skylights reveals the wealth of what The Intan holds – a superb collection of all things unmistakably Peranakan. This includes larger items of furniture, very distinctly coloured Peranakan pieces of porcelain, as well as personal items that include jewellery, embroidery and kasut manek (beaded slippers).

The long and narrow showcase of all things Peranakan that is The Intan.

A view of the loft.

Beaded slippers or kasut manek.

Old tiffin carriers form part of the collection - the trophy is a personal item on which Alvin has an interesting story to share.

The collection and the acquisition of knowledge of the culture for Alvin started when back as a teenager, watching a play triggered an increased awareness of his cultural background. This brought about a quest to understand a sub-culture that was fast being diluted by the gravitation towards a common Chinese identity. With requests received from friends first to view his collection which extended to requests to sample food from the kitchen, the idea to convert his home – then a flat in Marine Parade, into a museum. The Intan itself was started in 2003 and today hosts visits (by appointment only for a minimum of eight persons) for tea or dinner which includes a guided tour of the house, a sharing of insights into the Peranakan culture as well as a sharing of some fascinating personal stories. The Intan also hosts private functions, art sales and small concerts. More information on The Intan, which was invited to become a member of the Museum Roundtable and won the Best Overall Experience Award at the Museum Roundtable Awards 2011, is available at their website www.the-intan.com. Appointments can be made by calling +65 6440 1148.

Alvin Yapp shares his passion for all things Peranakan.

The Intan is open for visits by appointment which include either tea or dinner (for a minimum of eight).

Porcelain pieces on the ancestral altar. The Peranakans commissioned uniquely and very distinctly coloured porcelain to be made in Jiangxi, China. Colours displayed also have a significance - with the blue and white pieces displayed during periods of mourning.

A wedding altar from Penang.

The collection includes quite a few pieces of Peranakan furniture which features intricately carved floral and phoenix motifs.

Furniture details.

Bead work on display on the altar.