On borrowed time: Mun San Fook Tuck Chee

19 06 2012

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).


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.