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Thian Hock Keng Temple

Thian Hock Keng Temple (52)

You are facing the oldest Chinese temple in all of Singapore: the Thian Hock Keng Temple, or Temple of Divine Happiness.

Before entering this Taoist temple it is important to stand in front of it and look behind you. Isn’t it hard to imagine that just over 100 years ago, this temple was by the sea? In fact, it used to be visited by all newly arrived Chinese immigrants.  They came here to thank the sea goddess and patron of sailors, Ma Zu, for helping them survive their difficult boat voyage. 

Throughout the nineteenth century, the Chinese community filed formal complaints with the government on several occasions for the loss of their proximity to the water. But Singapore’s rapid economic growth has meant that more space was needed and more land had to be created on which to build. The earth used to reclaim the land came from the Wallich and Erskine Mountains and today only the memories of a much older generation, as well as a few details, can give us some clues about the original coast line.   For example, Telok Ayer Street means Bay Water Street in Malay, because this street once ran along the coast. 

The temple was founded by the sailors themselves in 1821 with a small wood and thatch building. As it quickly became more and more popular, the decision was made to build a bigger and better temple. So in 1839 construction began on the present building. It was completed in 1842 and financed by donations from thousands of faithful, most notably Tan Tock Seng and Tan Kim Seng. They managed to raise so much money that they could afford to import many of the necessary materials from China as well as bringing the doors from Scotland and the façade tiles from the Netherlands. Also, parts of the framework and ornaments were recycled from Chinese vessels and pieces of pottery were reused to make many of the details you see today, such as the bird feathers and flower petals.

This worship centre was so important that in 1907 it received a calligraphy panel from the Chinese Emperor Guang Xu of the Qing Dynasty.  A very important honour.

As China's population increased, this temple responded very intelligently to the ensuing new social needs.  The building even housed a school as well being the meeting point for Chinese leaders to discuss social issues.  This led to the creation of the Hokkien clan, that it some form or another still survives on the streets of Chinatown.

In 1973, the temple was declared a national monument and, therefore, today it is not only a spiritual and social centre, but a cultural one as well. Of course, if your stay in Singapore coincides with a Chinese feast, such as Chinese New Year or the Mid-October Festival, don’t miss this church’s colourful and lively ceremonies.

The temple has the same frame as the ones used in southern China. It was assembled without using a single nail.  Even though it is a Taoist temple, it contains Buddhist and Confucian details. Like the city of Singapore itself, this temple is made up of different cultures coexisting in harmony. You can even find some Hindu details, as many of them helped in its construction.

The temple’s main door is flanked by two lions. It's easy to see which lion is the male and which one is the female.  One of them holds a ball that symbolizes the outside while the other holds a glass symbolizing fertility. On the doors you'll see pictures of mythical beasts that combine human and animal parts, as well as the typical door gods who always guard Taoist temples.

Also note the wooden bar that is at your feet, as it is a common feature of these Chinese temples.  While it used to be used to keep high tide water out of the temple, it now serves two other purposes.  On the one hand, it is believed that this wooden bar keeps out wandering ghosts.  On the other hand, it makes all people who enter this temple humbly bow down, as you most likely just did.

Once inside, the sea goddess Zu Man is right in front of you flanked on either side by the statues of the Protector of Life and the God of War. Behind the main hall, be sure not to miss the altar to Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, as well as to the Sun and Moon Gods. 

We recommend you stop and really take the time to examine this temple. Incense, altars, lanterns, sculptures, stone carvings, dragons, phoenixes, black and red lacquer ware with gold script all form a harmonious whole that is as profound as it is artistically decorative. While you are admiring and photographing the sculptures and other details, always respect the fact that this is a place of worship.

Over the years the temple has undergone several repairs, including an important restoration project in the late twentieth century that won several architectural awards, including one from UNESCO.

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