Singapore has a significant Chinese population (74%). Long ago, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived on the island republic with nothing to their names but hopes and dreams, Chinatown was the epicentre of everything. Today, it spans several blocks within the Outram district and houses numerous heritgae sites and old buildings – an important reminder of the country’s culture and history.
For our Chinatown Tour, we had Shal from Ruby Dot Trails as our guide. And what a guide she was! Visiting places of interest is one thing but having a good guide is another: and Shal really elevated our experience by telling us loads of interesting stories and tidbits. It felt more like having a very knowledgable local friend bringing us around. 🙂
Our first stop for the day was Thian Hock Keng, or the Temple of Heavenly Happiness. Established in 1839, it is the oldest and most important Hokkien/Taoist temple in Singapore. Shal pointed out that the temple sits on Telok Ayer Street, which was so called because the area where Chinatown is right now was actually by the sea (now it’s not due to land reclamation).
Dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea and patron deity of seamen, Ma Zu, the temple was originally a simple shrine located close to the shoreline. Sailors arriving after a long voyage from China would offer their prayers as thanks for safe arrival to Singapore. Eventually they brought over a Ma Zu statue from China and erected a proper temple in 1842, at a cost of 30,000 Spanish dollars.
There are separate entrances to the temple. We entered through the side door, because the main one is only for VIPs. The side doors are painted over with images of two fierce generals, or the ‘Door Gods’, who guard the temple from evil.
The main entrance, on the other hand, has different ‘door gods’, which, according to Shal, are eunuchs (since Mazu is a goddess, so it’s more appropriate).
The main temple. It’s not very large, but it sure is grand. Just look at the elaborate details!
The structure is typical of Chinese temples, with a spacious courtyard and a huge ash urn for joss sticks. Shal pointed out some interesting fixtures for us. If you look up at the beams, there are Indian elements – figurines of Indian craftsmen alongside the usual dragons and phoenixes. During the temple’s construction, Indian craftsmen and workers were brought in to help. As a gesture of thanks, they were allowed to carve their images into the structure. It proved that racial harmony and tolerance were in place, even back in the days. How cool is that?
Even though it wasn’t a very big temple, it was surely an important one. Visitors looking up might notice a large scroll-like hanging at the top of the chamber, which was a decree from a Qing Dynasty emperor – a great honour for a temple in what was considered the ‘boondocks’. The decree has been stored away for safekeeping, but we can still see the replica at the temple today.
Pictures of the main shrine housing the Mazu statue wasn’t allowed, but I wanted to illustrate the story with a picture, so yeah.
Mazu: The Goddess of the Sea
Like many Taoist deities, it was believed that she was an actual person before being deified (is that a word?) Her real name was Lin Moniang, and she lived in 900s Fujian province during the Song Dynasty. An excellent swimmer, she wore red garments while at the shore to guide fishing boats home, even in harsh weather. Her father and brothers were fishermen. Legend has it that a big typhoon arose while they were at sea, and Lin Moniang fell into a trance where she dreamed of them drowning and attempted to save them. She saved her father but her mother woke her up from her trance, thus dooming her brother. The father returned alive and the villagers believed a miracle had happened. It was said that Lin Moniang ‘died’ when she climbed a mountain alone and flew to heaven, becoming a goddess.
Mazu is often flanked by two generals, Cheen Lei Ngan (thousand mile eye) and Soon Fung Yee (with the wind ear), from the legend of the 10 Brothers. They are her eyes and ears, and lookout for sailors or fishermen in trouble.
Chinese temple, but European-style tiles from Holland. The outside gate is Scottish steel.
Side area, housing other deities. There are deities for everything you could possibly pray for – Mazu for protection and blessing, Confucius for kids who are studying, another deity for health, and one for matters related to love.
Another interesting story is that of the Black and White guards of Hell, or the Heibai Wuchang.
Legend has it that they were once two constables of justice, Xie Bi’an and Fan Wujiu. While looking for an escaped convict, they split up and promised to meet at a bridge. Fan Wujiu was on time but due to heavy rain, Xie got delayed. Not wanting to break his promise to his colleague, Fan waited, but the rains swept the bridge away and he drowned (hence the black colouration of the deity, due to decomposition). Upon finally arriving, Xie was so overcome by remorse and guilt that he hung himself (thus the long tongue). Looking down from heaven, the Jade Emperor was impressed by their loyalty and friendship, thus appointing them guardians of the Underworld.
At Thian Hock Keng, Shal explains that devotees pray to these deities if they wish for wealth from ‘unorthodox’ means, ie striking the lottery or such. A closer look at the statues reveal that their tongues and mouths are stained black from opium and more recently, cigarettes – since unorthodox wealth = unorthodox offerings lol. There was a small table with an ashtray and sometimes you’d see beer or alcohol as well. Those with very sick and old relatives also pray to the Heibai Wuchang, to strike the person’s name off the list, since they are soul catchers.
After all that, stepping out from the temple to the sight of towering buildings was a bit disorienting. We are still in the middle of 21st century Singapore!
Thian Hock Keng Temple
158 Telok Ayer St,
Opening hours: 730am-530pm
Entrance: Free – but observe local customs and dress decently.