27. Giok Hong Tian, 1887, needs conservation

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My dad used to come to this temple with his mother when he was a kid. He remembers the place was commonly known as Tee Kong Tua. This Tee Kong Tua is very different from the Foochow style Tee Kong Tua in Penang. Anyway, he also vividly recalls that there was a dentist on the same row of shophouses adjoining the temple whom he had visited once in a while. This particular dentist apparently was blind in one eye! There was also a rice shop nearby that my granny used to frequent.

Inscriptions on the stone stele in Giok Hong Tian – Kapitan Cheang Hong Lim

“When we talk about Chinese classical poetry in colonial Singapore, we tend to ignore the inscriptions. The inscriptions in many temples and ancestral halls in Singapore were written in beautiful classical style, and many of them describe the scenery around the buildings. These inscriptions help us reminisce a bygone era of our forebears. The “Jade Emperor’s Hall Stele”, erected in the thirteenth year of Guangxu (1887), is a good example. It contains a wonderful description of the terrain where the Giok Hong Tian was located: “(The temple) is located in Yong Quan Street, backed by mountains and facing the bends of the harbour, it is indeed a scenic spot. The earlier built Qing Yuan Zhen Jun Temple is only about a mile from Giok Hong Tian but is eclipsed by the latter in terms of its architectural form.” The Yong Quan Street mentioned in the article is today’s Havelock Road; the mountain refers to the Cantonese Cemetery Loke Yah Teng; the so-called harbour is the Singapore River that flows in front of Giok Hong Tian.

The Jade Emperor Hall still exists today, but its terrain is quite different from that described in the inscription. The Jade Emperor Hall we see today is surrounded by high-rise buildings, and the scene of “backed by mountain and facing the harbour” has vanished; the Loke Yah Teng Association nearby has also long since disappeared under the urban reconstruction plan!” – Kua Bak Lim, <A General History of Chinese in Singapore>.

Besides giving us an idea of the picturesque settings of Giok Hong Tian once stood in, the stone stele also tells us about the status of the main donor who built this temple. Towards the end of the stone inscriptions, in addition to the year 1887, there is also the title of Cheang Hong Lim given by the colonial government – “Great Britain’s specially conferred rank of Kapitan”. Interestingly, an additional title of “Police Chief” was inscribed in the older Qing Yuan Zhen Jun Temple (Teang Thye temple built by Cheang Sam Teo and expanded by Hong Lim) besides designating Hong Lim as the Kapitan. As for whether the “specially conferred rank of Kapitan” meant that Cheang Hong Lim was recognized as the head of all the Hokkien ethnic groups in Singapore or a headman for the residents in the Havelock Road area requires further studies by local historians.

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