9. Thian Hock Keng, 1842, conserved


Hokkien style architecture (Zhangzhou and Quanzhou)

Characterised by orange-coloured unglazed clay roof tiles, bricks and terracotta floor tiles. Finial ends of the curved roof ridge sweeps outwards like ’swallow tails’ with  ‘twining weed’ decorations only used above the upturned eaves. The generous use of granite typifies the Hokkien style as Quanzhou is a renowned center for granite sculptures and carvings. Elaborate symbolisms through paintings and carvings on various parts of the timber-bracketed (斗拱) structural system is easily distinguished from the Northern Chinese style which is mostly painted. The presence of chihu gong (螭虎拱) pumpkin-shaped struts suggests the likely use of Zhangzhou (漳州) craftsmen in the construction of the temple. Yet, the imposing group of winged-fairies dou gong (飞天斗拱) above the main entrance indicates the possible involvement of Quanzhou (泉州) craftsmen in the carving of secondary timber members.

Civilian architecture in the Qing dynasty was only allowed to use unglazed clay tiles that were dark grey in colour. Fujian, architecture, except in Fuzhou, was the only exception which boldly made used of bright terracotta roof, floor and wall tiles.  The orange-coloured unglazed clay roof tiles used in traditional Southern Fujian houses and temples were suggested to have been influenced by colonial architecture in 16th century Philippines. Another theory claims that it is the rich iron oxide deposits in the clay of Southern Fujian that is responsible for the orange tint. The original tiles of this temple were unglazed terracotta tiles finished with glazed drip tiles in green. This original roof colour scheme can be seen in Eduard von Ransonnet’s 1869 coloured lithograph of the temple. The use of green-glaze drip tiles, possibly Shek Wan tiles from Guangdong, can also be found in Tainan temples established by the local Qing government. In 1906, a major renovation brought new Edwardian decorative features to the temple – cast iron gates from Glasgow, Minton encaustic floor tiles and Art Nouveau majolica wall tiles with swastika motifs. The use of finest imported building products reflects the eclectic taste of the early Peranakan Hokkien Towkays who commissioned and ran the temple.

History of Thian Hock Keng

Date of Construction: 1839-1842 (Thian Hock Keng), 1849 (Chung Wen Pagoda), 1913 (Chong Hock Pavilion)  Date of Gazette: 28 June 1973                  Address: 158 Telok Ayer Street Singapore 068613

Thian Hock Keng was built between 1839-1842, sitting on a site of an earlier joss house where immigrants Fujian province (Zhangzhou , Quanzhou Nanan and Quanzhou Yongchun) offered thanks for a safe voyage. Built at a cost of 30,000 Spanish silver, Thian Hock Keng is the oldest temple within Singapore built in traditional Hokkien style. The temple is sited along a SE-NW orientation, fronting a former bay area which had been reclaimed by the British, with Ann Siang Hill on its rear side – evidence of the application of Fengshui principles in its planning. The pillars of iron wood and granite, stonework and building parts used for this temple were imported from China and constructed by craftsmen from Fujian province. The chief deity, Ma-Cho-Po (Mazu) or Goddess of the Seafarers, was brought from Meizhou and enshrined at the main hall in 1840.  Names of the original donors were inscribed on several plaques inside the temple complex.  Tan Tock Seng was the biggest donor of temple amongst several other trustees who had migrated from Malacca. Tan Tock Seng was succeeded by Tan Kim Ching, his eldest son, as head of the Hokkien Association, who was also the designated Kapitan Cina of the Straits Chinese community. The Hokkien Association was initially housed at the temple in the East wing where the Confucius Hall stands today. Marriages between Hokkiens were registered at Tan Kim Ching’s office within the temple precincts.  Situated on the right side of Thian Hock Keng Temple is Chong Wen Pagoda donated by Mr Tan Kim Seng, another notable Chinese pioneer in Singapore, in 1849. This was the first private Chinese school in Singapore.

Pictorial Homophones and Symbolisms


Round windows with five fortunes (五福临门

Dragons encircling incense burner (螭虎团炉) with bats at four corners. These hornless dragons are one of the Chinese dragon’s nine sons. Chi Hu motif dates back to the Shang dynasty. The incense burner is a pictorial symbol of longevity. Bat motifs are commonly used as pictorial homophones for good fortune. Four bats bring good fortunes (四蝠=赐福). Five bats represent five fortunes arriving at one’s doorstep. The Chi Hu dragon incense burner is a symbolic homophone in the Hokkien dialect for the bestowing of good fortunes (螭虎炉=赐福禄).

Dragon and tiger (龙虎堵)

In Chinese temples, the left wall next to the entrance is often decorated with a green dragon while the left with a white tiger (左青龙,右白虎). While both animals are traditionally associated with warding off evil and bad luck, fengshui principles usually recommends that building entrances should be south-facing. The green dragon in fengshui is associated with the east direction while the white tiger represents the west direction. Thian Hock Keng temple faces the south-east direction. Both dragon and tiger wall features a younger offspring, signifying the continuation of the family line. Traditionally, one should enter a temple through the door next to the dragon (入龙门), relating to the transformation of the carp through the dragon gate. Exiting through the door next to the tiger wall (出虎口) signify the dispelling of all misfortunes.

 Door stones – Dragon Stone drums (椒图抱鼓石)

Drums were originally placed outside of the magistrate’s court house. Over time, it became incorporated into the design of stone supports of the timber entrance door. The spiraling pattern on Thian Hock Keng’s stone drum represents Jiaotu (椒图) one of the Chinese dragon’s nine sons which has a snail-like features and are said to be good guardians. The nine sons of the dragon are as follows: 赑屃bìxì (base of wall skirting and legs of furniture), 狴犴bì’àn, 蒲牢púláo, 囚牛qiúniú, 椒jiāotú,螭吻chīwěn(same as Chihu 螭), 狻猊suānní (similar to the Indian Kirtimurka, good at swallowing fire), 睚眦yázì, 饕餮tāotiè..

Door stones  – Stone Lions (石狮)

In imperial Beijing, lions were often displayed outside the homes of Chinese state officials where the number of curls on the lion’s back indicated the official’s rank in the bureaucratic system. The use of lions with thirteen curls was restricted to the imperial family and officials of the first rank, and the number of curls dropped by one with each level. Officials below the seventh grade (seven curls) were forbidden to display stone lions at all. The female lion are traditionally not allowed to have the mouth opened wider than the male lion and holds a lion cub as a symbol of the woman’s role in the family. The male lion is often depicted with coins as a sign of being the breadwinner of the family.

Plants , objects and animals

 Blooms of the four seasons (四季平安)

– Spring Peony(春牡丹), Summer Lotus(夏荷), Autumn Chrysanthemum(秋菊), Winter Plum(冬梅)

Tang grass (卷草/唐草) – strength and resilience, can be seen in Dun Huang grottoes

Phoenix and Peony(凤凰牡丹) – good luck and prosperity (吉祥富贵).

Peony, Deer and  Egret (福禄寿) – Happiness, prosperity and longevity

Nine Carps leaping over dragon gate  鲤鱼跳龙门– success comes with perseverance

Magpies  and  Plum blossom(喜上眉梢) – good tidings

Hidden Eight Immortals (暗八仙 ,道八宝,)  

Chao Guo Jiu – castanets   Chang Guo Lao – fish drum  Han Chong Li – fan    Han Xiang Zi –  flute

He Xian Gu – lotus Lan Chai He – basket  Tie Guai Li– gourd   Lu Dong Bin – sword

Ming Eight Treasures (明代杂八宝)

Pearl – brightness, Overlapping rhombus – eternity, Chime – joy, Rhinoceros horn – victory, Coin/ingot/tael – wealth, Books/scrolls – knowledge, Artemisia(Wormwood) leaf – dispels spirits & disease

Others – Coral, Linzhi, Urn, Banyan leaf, Ruyi, Zither, Chess, Books, Painting

Taoist deities and human figures

Door gods Shen Tu and Yu Lei (神荼,郁垒)

The most common generals used as door gods are Shen Tu/Yu Lei and Qin Shu Bao/Wei Chi Gong pairs. The easiest way to tell the which pairs are used is by looking at the weapons. Shen Tu/Yu Lei duo carries long weapons while Qin Shu Bao/Wei Chi Gong pair carries short weapons. The legend of the brothers Shen Tu and Yu Lei can be traced back to the period when Huang Ti ruled China. The two brothers were said to be expert ghost hunters and would feed any captured demons to a tiger. Shen and Yu are the earliest known door gods used in China since the Han dynasty. Traditionally, one general would be dark-faced while the other fair-faced. The style of Shen Tu/Yu Lei carrying long axes dates back to the Song dynasty. Thian Hock Keng features Shen Tu/ Yu Lei that has been confused with Qin Shu Bao /Wei Chi Gong.

Door gods Qin Shu Bao and Wei Chi Gong (秦叔宝,尉迟恭)

From the legends of the ‘Journey to the West’, the spirit of a slain dragon was haunting Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty. Greatly disturbed, the emperor summoned general Qin and Wei to guard the palace gates. The spirit of the dragon never returned. The emperor Taizong thereafter got painters to reproduce the general’s image on the palace doors. This practice eventually got adopted by the common people. Wei is usually depicted as a dark-faced door god with piercing round eyes while Qin as fair-faced with small eyes.

Door gods – dragons and eunuchs

Traditionally, Eunuchs and palace handmaids became popular since the Song dynasty. Usually, one would see a young and old eunuch combination. In Thian Hock Keng, the gold-leafed eunuchs can be observed as middle-age Indian guards dressed in Ming-styled court robes with each holding a protective hand mudra. Upon close scrutiny, the initials of ‘Kok Tin Studio’ can be found in the skirt of one of the eunuchs. This is the initials of Mr Seow Kok Tin, the artist who had repainted the door gods in 1977. Mr Seow was also involved in the mural paintings  of Hong San See temple. In the central spirit way, the doors are painted with beautifully gold-gilded dragons with five claws. This set of gold leaf door murals were painted by a local craftsman in the 1970s. The entrance doors to the Chong Wen pavilion are also painted with Eunuchs with one holding an imperial seal and the other an imperial scroll. Only temples recognized by the emperor are allowed such symbolisms.

Telamon (憨番力士)

Male version of caryatids which were used as supporting structures in the form of human figures. Telamons in Buddhist sculpture probably first appeared in the Kushan kingdom of Gandhara around the first century AD. The earliest found Telamons in China dates back to the Tang dynasty in various stones bases of pagodas. These appeared in the form of Mahayana Buddhist Devas known as Narayanas (金刚力士). Narayanas can still be seen in stone pagodas of Kai Yuan Si of Quan Zhou, Fujian, built in the Tang dynasty. In Qing dynasty, the Devas were replaced by images of foreign invaders in China as a sign of discontentment of the people towards foreign occupancy especially in Taoist temples. The Hokkien term ‘gong huan’(憨番) literally means ‘silly barbarian’. The telamons in Thian Hock Keng include Europeans, Mongolians, Nubians and the various ethnic races in Singapore.

Winged-fairies dou gong (飞天斗拱)

The most beautiful structural artwork in the temple depicts a group fairies hovering above the main entrance doorway of the temple. Each fairy on the topmost tier carries an intricately woven basket and flowers of different designs. The fairies in the middle tier carry a pearl each whilst riding on a phoenix. Each phoenix on the lower tier carries a Peony flower representing prosperity (吉祥富贵). The use of winged fairies can be seen in Quanzhou’s Kai Yuan monastery, founded in the Tang dynasty. Winged fairies, like the telamons, can be traced back to Greco-Buddhist art that had travelled to China from Gandhara via the silk route. Gandhara situated midway between China and India, was an important trading post towards the end of the Han dynasty

Eight immortals strut (八仙斗座)

Sitting above the main altar of Mazu / Tianhou(妈祖 /天后), these life-like immortals from Taoist legends are both symbolic and structural. Four immortals can be seen to the right and left above the altar of Mazu. The immortals are depicted as riding on the celestial qilin, lion and the toad.

Notable plaques

Bo Jing Nan Ming  (波靖南溟), 1907 – Emperor Guang Xu of Qing dynasty-era China presented this  imperial plaque to Thian Hock Keng, a year after its first major restoration works. The inscriptions can be translated as “Waves to be gentle over the South Seas”. The plague was bestowed to the temple as a recognition of the Hokkien community in Singapore for donating ten thousand dollars as relieve fund for the 1905 flooding in Quanzhou. The original scroll by Guang Xu had been authenticated by experts from the Palace Museum in Beijing and is now kept with Singapore’s National Museum. Located above the statue of Mazu in the central hall.

Ze Bo Gong Fu (泽被功敷) – Given by Tan Tock Seng. Kept by Hokkien Huay Kuan.

Xian Che You Ming (显彻幽明) – Written by Zuo Bing Long (左秉隆), Qing government’s first consul to Colonial Singapore. The consulate was initially housed in Tan Seng Poh’s grand mansion next to the Armenian Church. Located above the statue of Cheng Huang at the City God hall.

2 stone steeles erected by Tan Tock Seng anf Tan Boon Liat (1906) respectively.

Other notable Hokkien architectural-style buildings in Singapore

Hong San See (gazetted), 1836, 31 Mohamed Sultan Rd

Po Chiak Keng (gazetted), 1876 15 Magazine Road

Siong Lim Sian See (gazetted), 1903,184E Jalan Toa Payoh


One response to “9. Thian Hock Keng, 1842, conserved

  1. Very informative. Thank you.

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