What’s propping a mid 1800s pagoda up on Telok Ayer Street

27 09 2016

A curious sight found at one of Telok Ayer Street’s two beautifully restored mid-19th century Chinese pagodas, the Chung-Wen pagoda or Chong-Wen Ge (崇文阁), are eight figures that are seen propping up the pagoda’stop tier. Referred to rather disparagingly in  colloquial Hokkien as “dim-witted foreigners”, these figures carved from wood have no structural function and are purely decorative features. Similar figures, which are also sometimes made of clay, are apparently, quite commonly used in Minnan architecture and are thought to have their origins in the Tang Dynasty when they may have been used to commemorate the efforts of foreign labourers who were often involved in building projects.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

The Chung Wen Pagoda.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

Support beams for the uppermost tier of the pagoda, which feature carvings of non-Chinese men depicted as lending support to the structure.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

A night-time view of the pagoda.

The eight wooden cravings are just some of an amazing array of decorative work found in the incredibly beautiful pagoda. Built between 1849 and 1852, the pagoda, besides it features that define a strong Chinese flavour, also has features that speak of the influences present in the 18th century Singapore such as a wrought iron sprial staircase that was put in during a restoration effort in 1880 and encaustic floor tiles, which can also be found in other Chinese buildings in the country.

Decorative details.

Decorative details.

The second tier.

The second tier.

The reverse view.

The reverse view.

The wrought iron staircase.

The wrought iron staircase.

Linked with the Hokkien community, whose spiritual centre was at the next door Thian Hock Keng temple, the Chung-Wen pagoda apparently also had the support of other groups within the wider Chinese community. This is evident in one of three steles found on the site. The stele, which commemorates the pagoda’s construction, sees the names of Teochew leader Seah Eu Chin as well as that of a Hakka, Liew Lok Teck, alongside names associated such as Tan Kim Seng, Ang Choon Seng, Wee Chong Sun and Cheang Sam Teo from the Hokkien community.

The stele commemorating its construction.

The stele commemorating its construction.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

A view of the entrance doorway to the Chong-wen Ge from the upper tier of the pagoda.

We also see on the stele that a shrine dedicated to Zitong Dijun (梓潼帝君) was placed on the pagoda’s second tier. Zitong Dijun, also known as Wenchang (文昌), is considered to be the Chinese god of culture and literature, and is a patron deity of scholars. This is a clear indication of the Chung-Wen pagoda’s intended purpose as a place given to promoting learning, although not all experts agree on the manner in which it was done. What is clear however, is that the Chong-Wen Ge was where the written word was venerated. This was carried out through the practice of the burning of papers on which words have been written, in honour of the inventor of Chinese characters, Cangjie (倉頡). The installation of a small paper burning pagoda on the site for this purpose is also recorded on the stele.

A view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay.

Old world gods now surrounded by the gods of the new world  – a view from the pagoda across to the Thain Hock Keng and the former Keng Teck Whay and the financial centre of the city beyond it.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The building which housed the Chong Hock School.

The practice of burning the written word ended in 1910 when the trustees of the Chong-Wen Ge handed control of it over to the Thian Hock Keng temple, although it can be said that the written word was then celebrated in a different manner with the founding of the Chong Hock School for girls in 1915. The school operated in the simple but lovely two storey building adjacent to the pagoda and only moved out in 1985 as Chongfu School.  The school’s building have seen several uses since and now houses the Singapore Musical Box Museum on its upper level. An encaustic tile shop and a Peranakan café is also now found on its ground level.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

A view of the Chong Hock School building from the pagoda.

The Chong-Wen Ge, which translates as the Institute for the Veneration of Literature, was gazetted as a National Monument in 1973 with the Thian Hock Keng. Its wonderfully restored state is the result of its last major restoration effort which was undertaken between 2001-2003. More information on it and other conserved former school buildings can be found in a URA Heritage Schools Pamphlet.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda's second level.

Decorative detail on a door on the pagoda’s second level.

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A view from Telok Ayer Street.

A view from the cafe.

A view from the cafe.


A close-up of the eight “dim-witted foreigners”

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Light at the end of a tunnel

26 09 2016

The tunnel under the circus at Jalan Bahru (now where Jurong Town Hall Road passes under the Ayer Rajah Expressway) was one of three railway tunnels built for the industrial Jurong Railway Line. The line, built as part of the development of Jurong Indistrial Estate in the mid 1960s, was one of the more profitable sections of the Malaysian run railway and fell into disuse in the early 1990s.

Large parts of the abandoned line have since been built over, although several sections of it, including a series of steel and concrete bridges and sections of tracks can still be found. The tunnels, all of which were constructed by Hong Guan Construction Engineering Co. Ltd. and lined with corrugated steel, are also still around. The westernmost tunnel, now under Jurong Pier Circus (previously the junction of Jalan Buroh and Jalan Pabrik) is difficult to reach. A third tunnel,  under Clementi Road, is being extended for the road widening project taking place above it.

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Exploring emptiness: Kamolpan Chotvichai’s Fragility of the Self

23 09 2016

An interesting exhibition that will open at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery at Gillman Barracks this evening is emerging Thai artist Kamolpan Chotvichai’s “Fragility of the Self“. The solo exhibition features thought provoking works each of which is an image of the artist’s body with parts of her anatomy hand-cut into a ribbon like form. The works explore the concept of emptiness in Buddhism, through the process of stripping away her physical form and challenge  at the same time gender based prohibitions.

Ms. Kamolpan Chotvichai at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

Ms. Kamolpan Chotvichai at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery.

The process to create the works is a painstaking one that starts with a sketch and involves a fair bit of detailed planning. The process of slicing parts of the images for which Ms Chotvichai uses an ordinary utility knife, takes two weeks on the average. Ms Chotvichai, who holds a Master of Fine Arts degree, experimented with several techniques to achieve the desired effects prior to settling on her current methods.

Her work has been featured at Saatchi Gallery in London alongside those of renowned Thai artists Rirkrit Tiravanija, Navin Rawanchaikul and Udomsak Krisanamis and was chosen for the cover of the book accompanying the exhibition, Thailand Eye. Ms. Chotvichai was also the youngest artist to participate in Frontiers Reimagined, an exhibition of global art – a Collateral Event of the 56th Venice Biennale.

The exhibition held in association with the 5th edition of the Singapore International Photography Festival, will run until 9 November 2016. Ms. Chotvichai, who is in town for the opening of her exhibition, will be having an Artist Talk on Saturday 24 September 24 at 3 pm for which registration is required through this email address: rsvpsg@sundaramtagore.com. More information on the exhibition can be found at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery’s website.





The rainbow connection

16 09 2016

A rainbow appears over the “Rainbow Flats”, as Rochor Centre is sometimes referred to, as if to say goodbye on the morning of 14 September 2016. Built to house residents and business displaced by urban redevelopment in the late 1970s, the Housing and Development Board built podium residential cum commercial development is due to make way very soon for the construction of the North-South Expressway.  For more on the complex and its last days, do visit an earlier post: Parting Glances: Rochor Centre in its last days.





Mid-autumn at the Siong Lim

15 09 2016

Illuminated by the glow of a one of the more tasteful displays of lanterns I have seen in Singapore, the Siong Lim temple in Toa Payoh (or Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery) provides a most beautiful setting in which to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival. The display, at what is Singapore’s oldest Buddhist monastery, and celebrations held in conjunction with the festival, have been on since Saturday. It will end this evening, the Mid-Autumn Festival proper, with a dragon dance and a mei hua zhuang display, more information on which can be found at the temple’s website.

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Lanterns outside the Mahavira Hall. The hall, which dates back to 1904, is one of two structures within the monastery complex that has been gazetted as a National Monument.

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The 1905 Tian Wang Dian, the second of two structures within the monastery complex gazetted as a National Monument.

The courtyard of the Tian Wang Dian.

The courtyard of the Tian Wang Dian.

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An enlightened reflection

13 09 2016

A sight not to be missed in the Balestier Road area, is that of the large white marble Buddha and its reflection off the polished marble floor the Burmese Buddhist Temple at Tai Gin Road.

Thought to be the largest such Buddha image outside of Myanmar, the 11 feet tall statue dates back to the early twentieth century and was made of a ten ton block of marble obtained from Sagyin Hill near Mandalay – said to be where the best quality Burmese marble is found. The Buddha, which weighed eight tons completed, arrived in Singapore on 10 December 1921 and was placed temporarily at a house at the third milestone of Serangoon Road before being moved into its intended home – the Burmese Buddhist temple at Kinta Road, in 1925.

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The Buddha on the move again on 2 May 1988 when the new temple at Tai Gin Road was being built. A 12 April 1988 article in the Straits Times gives us some idea on the complexity of that move, which required a huge iron cage to be made for it to be lifted.

The temple at Tai Gin Road, laid out in a traditional Burmese style, features a tiered roof that is decorated with woodcarvings made from 19 tonnes of Burmese teak. A golden pagoda typical of Myanmar can also be seen topping the temple. The temple was consecrated in 1991 and serves a community that long has links to Singapore.  More information on the Buddha and the temple can be found at the temple’s website.


More photographs of the temple:

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A pair of lanterns depicting the watermelon playground at Tampines.

The golden pagoda of the temple glowing in the night – as seen from the Wan Qing Yuan.

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A fiery September’s evening

12 09 2016

The fire dragon of Sar Kong came to life last night, making its way in a dizzying dance around the area of its lair at the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee temple.

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Last night’s dance of the fire dragon.

The dance of the dragon has its origins in Guangdong, from where many came from to work in the area’s brick kilns in the mid-1800s. The dance, rarely seen in a Singapore in which tradition has become an inconvenience, came at the close of the temple’s 150th Anniversary celebrations. The celebrations, held over a three day period, also saw a book on the temple’s history being launched. An exhibition on the history of the area is also being held in conjunction with this, which will run until 14 September 2016.

A book on the temple and the community's history was launched.

A book on the temple and the community’s history, A Kampong and its Temple, was launched.

Minister, Prime Minister's Office, Chan Chun Sing - a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

Minister, Prime Minister’s Office, Chan Chun Sing – a former resident of the area, being shown a model of the Sar Kong village area at the exhibition.

The parade of the straw dragon through the streets, is also thought to help dissipate anger caused by the disturbance of the land in the area of the temple being felt by the temple’s deities. The area, is once again in the midst of change – with a huge condominium development, Urban Oasis, just next door. The site of the development, incidentally, is linked to the current outbreak of the mosquito borne Zika virus in Singapore.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon's body prior to the dance.

Lit joss sticks being placed on the straw dragon’s body prior to the dance.

There may perhaps be anger felt at the uncertainty for the future that temple itself faces. The land on which it sits on has long since been acquired for redevelopment by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the temple operates on it only through a Temporary Occupation License. The parcel of land it sits on is one shared with HDB flats that were taken back by the HDB under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) in the second half of the 2000s and it is left to be seen if the temple will be allowed to continue on the site when the area is eventually redeveloped.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.

The dragon offering respects to the altar prior to its dance.


The temple, Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (萬山福德祠), is thought to have its origins in the 1860s, serving a community of Cantonese and Hakka migrant workers employed by the area’s brick kilns, sawmills and sago making factories. The temple moved twice and came to its present site in 1901.

The dance of the fire dragon that is associated with the temple, although long a practice in its place of origin, only came to the temple in the 1980s. The dragon used for the dance is the result of a painstaking process that involves the making of a core using rattan and the plaiting of straw over three months to make the dragon’s body. Lit joss sticks are placed on the body prior to the dance and traditionally, the dragon would be left to burn to allow it to ascend to the heavens.

More information on the temple, its origins and its practices can be found in the following posts:


More photographs:

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