Founding dialect group – Cantonese/Hakka; Main diety – Tua Pek Kong; status – conserved, converted into street museum, diety evicted
This was the oldest Topekong Temple in Singapore. Built in 1824, 25 years after the oldest Topekong Temple in Malaysia, the Tanjong Tokong Tua Pek Kong Temple. The siting of the temple did not quite follow the conventional fengshui instructions of a master, but rather, a more colourful tradition of spirit worship (nonetheless, fengshui was good as the temple was facing the sea and backed by hills in the early days). The tale goes that in about 1820, a corpse floated on the banks of the present site of the temple. A joss house emerged gradually as more and more people paid respects to the deceased elder. In folk Chinese beliefs, the spirit will wreak havoc if not appeased by joss and other offerings. In return, favours can be asked from the spirits. Perhaps the numerous prayers from sinkehs of Hakka and Cantonese origins did get answered and a proper temple was duly erected by 1824 (incidentally, the second oldest Topekong temple in Singapore, Palmer road Topekong Temple, shared a similar founding story at the same period). The local name for the temple was extremely poetic – it was known as the ‘Lips-of-the-Sea’ temple. Architectural wise, the temple has a Cantonese temple layout with two tiers of entrance doors. In the past, the inner doors will be closed except on festive occasions as these doors were meant for the spirit diety and not for people like us. The granite columns were of Cantonese origins. Due to its popularity, even Hokkiens contributed to the temple (which is strange as immigrants from Guangzhou and those from Fookien were in intense rivalry) .The expansion of the temple in 1869 was attributed to Cheang Hong Lim , a Hokkien tychoon). The beautiful Hokkien timber trusses and the gently sloping roof profile was the result of this expansion, although the roof decoration is distinctly Teochew in nature. The lips of the sea have receded far from the temple now and in place of the image of Tua Pek Kong is a model of a Chinese junk. This temple has been converted into a street museum cum teahouse. Who would have known that this used to be the oldest Tua Pek Kong Temple in Singapore ? Perhaps its better to erase our coolie past, its got no value in a meritocratic society.
Hokkien Zhangzhou/Cantonese/Teochew syncretic architectural style
The syncretic influences of architectural elements from different dialect groups was a result of the various renovations that took place over time. Architecturally, the building reflects proportions and layout of a Cantonese temple. Inner screen doors were used in Cantonese, Teochew and Hakka architecture. In the past, the inner screen doors of the temples will be kept closed except on festive occasions when these doors opened for the deities’ palanquins. The granite column bases and entrance doorway are in the style of the Cantonese, where the proportion is more vertically extended compared to the other dialect groups.
History of Fuk Tak Chi
Date of Construction: 1824 Date of Gazette: Not gazettedAddress: 76 Telok Ayer Street Singapore 049959 Founding date: 1820
This was the oldest Tua Pek Kong (大伯公) temple in Singapore. Built in 1824, 25 years after the oldest Tua Pek Kong Temple in Malaysia, the Tanjong Tokong Tua Pek Kong Temple. The location of the temple was not based on conventional fengshui principles, but rather, a more colourful tradition of spirit worship (nonetheless, fengshui was good as the temple was facing the bay and backed by hills in the early days). Legend had it that in about 1820, a corpse floated on the banks of the present site of the temple. A joss house emerged gradually as more and more people paid respects to the deceased elder. In folk Chinese beliefs, the spirit will wreak havoc if not appeased by joss and other offerings. In return, favours can be asked from the spirits. Perhaps the numerous prayers from sinkehs of Hakka and Cantonese origins did get answered and a small temple was erected by 1824 ( the second oldest Tua Pek Kong temple in Singapore, Palmer road Tua Pek Kong Temple, has a similar founding story . The local name for the temple was extremely poetic – it was known as the ‘Lips-of-the-Sea’ temple (海唇福德祠). Co-founded by seven Cantonese and Hakkas clans, the former temple’s syncretic architectural style bear witness to the crossing of dialectic boundaries. This is perhaps due to the popularity of the tutelary deity housed in the temple.
The expansion of the temple in 1869 was attributed to Cheang Hong Lim , a local Hokkien tycoon whose family originated directly from Zhangzhou. The distinctive Hokkien Zhangzhou style timber trusses with its pumpkin struts and the gently sloping roof profile was the result of this expansion. While the ridge finials are distinctly Teochew in nature, the fascia board’s bas relief hints of Cantonese workmanship. The lips of the sea have receded far from the temple now and in place of the image of Tua Pek Kong is a model of a Chinese junk. The former temple was converted into a street museum in 1998, part of the Far East Square development.
Carved Fascia board (双龙交泰, 多子多孙) – two intertwined dragons, grapes and pumpkins symbolizing fertility and linage. Fascia board in bas-relief is a Cantonese feature.
Gold-leaf Ming-style eunuch door gods (太监门神) – ceremonial longevity locks(长命锁)and ruyi (如意) symbolize longevity and happiness. Popular in the Ming and Qing era, longevity locks were used mostly by children (a talisman was kept in it) and imperial officials in ceremonies as a symbol of longevity. The head wear sports suspended extensions resembling those worn by the Ming empress. The palace robe, designed in a same manner as the python robe, consists of clouds and waves with no dragons indicate this is a low-ranking palace attendant. In the Ming dynasty, Qi Jiguang(戚继光) having defeated invaders was bestowed the python robe (蟒袍).The mangpao (python robe) was stitched with pythons resembling dragons with four claws. Other symbolic animals include the flying fish and the ox. Only the emperor was allowed to wear the dragon robe (龙袍). In the Qing dynasty, the mangpao became an official ceremonial robe with the number of dragons and claws determining the rank of the Mandarin. The lined patterns at the edges of the robe are known as ‘water legs’(水脚).The vertical waves(立水)are topped by horizontal waves(平水).Tide rhymes with court in Mandarin and hence the lined patterns are used only in court wear. Court officials would have a double-tiered mountain above the horizontal tide. This design motif is known as the ‘mountain over the tides’(江牙海水). The magical symbols of the Eight Immortals can also be found on the Eunuch’s robes.
The use of eunuch as door gods was most likely popularized in the Ming dynasty with their increasing political influence in China’s imperial system. The chronicles of Zheng Ho with his expeditions around Asia fired the imaginations of the people in the Ming and Qing dynasty. Singapore’s Eunuch door gods dating from the late Qing period are all found in Telok Ayer. Two pairs are found in the entrance gate of the Chung Wen Pagoda, another two at the entrance of Thian Hock Keng temple and one pair at Fuk Tak Chi Museum. Directly leading to the alters within, these door gods are specific guardians to higher ranking deities in the altars. Although the tutelary diety of Fuk Tak Chi is not regarded as a deity of high status in the Taoist pantheon, there was a large statue of the City God placed in the main alter in the past. This strongly suggest that the pair of gold-leaf Ming-style eunuch door gods were meant to be the guardians of the City God, and not Tua Pek Kong.
Incense burner strut (双龙团炉) – two intertwined ‘Cihu’ dragons forming an incense burner symbolize good health and longevity.
Three legged toad (三脚蟾蜍) mock plaque-supports – wealth and protection. The auspicious toad related to Chinese mid-autumn legends. According to an ancient book (淮南子), Chang’er was turned into the toad for stealing the elixir from Houyi. The toad in the moon pounding medicine over time evolved into the rabbit in the moon. Ancient Chinese believed that the toad is a yang element as it consumes the chopped moon (yin) by the woodcutter in the moon. Li Bai poetically expressed this nature’s cycle as ‘toad drinking moon’s reflection’(蟾蜍饮月影). The toad is also a symbol of abundance and fertility with its ability to lay strings of eggs. The male toad here holds a pearl while the female is depicted with shut mouth – a reflection of conservative Confucian values where women were not allowed to speak when men opened their mouths.
Door rivets (门簪/门当/门印/户对) – in Beijing, 2 numbers for 5th – 7th grade officials/deities; 4 numbers for 1st – 4th officials/deities. Men dang originally refers to the drum stones. The rivets here are carved as a pair of lotus leaves – a symbol of fertility and as a matching design for the pair of toads above.
Scroll/Artemisia leaf/Fan/castanets (八宝/暗八仙) on the truss fronting see tiam kim – the Artemisia leaf is traditionally hung in households during the dumpling festival. It is said that it has the ability to dispel spirits and disease while modern science has declared it as the anti-Malaria herb. Symbols of the Eight treasures are combined with the Eight immortals. The opposite truss feature a rhinocerous horn, zither and a gourd.
Gourd over roof ridge(葫芦) – magical weapon of Tie Guai Li said to be able to absorb all yin energy and trap evil spirits.
Tang grass (卷草/唐草) finial ends – strength and resilience, can be seen in Dun Huang grottoes.
Phoenix and Peony(凤凰牡丹) shard work– good luck and prosperity (吉祥富贵).
Deers and Cranes (鹿鹤同春,六合同春) – symbolic homophone of heaven, earth and the four directions in Spring. 鹿鹤(look hock) is homophonous with 六合 (look hup) in Cantonese, a different interpretation from the Hokkien version.
Threshold (门槛) – the high threshold is inherited from the northern Chinese courtyard house tradition for preventing sand and drafts from entering the building. Another saying ascribes the height of the threshold to a ritualistic function where devotees entering the temple naturally bows whilst watching over their step.
Granite floor slabs in the air-well – if the slabs date back to 1824, they were most likely used as ballasts in the junks. Granite was only quarried in Pulau Ubin from 1850 onwards.
Air-well(天井) – literally a well towards the sky.
Gu Ta Zeng/Ox-trodden terracotta floor tiles (牛踏砖) – literally ox-trodden tiles.
See Diam Kim/ tapering columns (四点金/梭柱) – first appeared during the Southern and Northern Dynasties. These cigar- shaped columns reminiscent of those seen in Greek temples, continued to be used in Southern Chinese architecture in the Ming and Qing dynasty while they have vanished in Northern China after Song dynasty. The origins of these tapering columns could possibly be ascribed to Indo-Graeco Buddhist architecture brought into China via the silk route.
Pumpkin strut (金瓜筒) – the presence of the pumpkin strut found above the truss below the inner entrance ceiling suggests Zhangzhou Hokkien workmanship. The Hokkien pumpkins are straighter than those by the Teochews.
Moon Beam (束仔/月梁) – crescent-shaped beams that are common in Southern China but not in Northern China where the preference is on straight linear lines.
Dou Gong(斗拱) – timber bracketing system that has been used in Chinese architecture since the warring states (over 2000 years ago). Less elaborate in Southern China compared to the North where eaves of the roofs are cantilevered by ‘dou gong’ at a great distance from the building. In the North, the brackets extend in four directions while in the South, their extensions are usually in one or two directions. The interlocking cross lap joint method of building elaborate truss systems (without the use of nails) ensured flexibility when the building is hit by strong winds or earthquakes. The picture above shows a Southern-style bracketed truss system extending in one direction. The bracket truss system and other parts of a traditional Chinese building structure in Singapore are usually prefabricated by skilled carpenters in Southern China to be shipped and assembled on site.
Lai Ji Xia Qu (赖及遐取), 1824 – oldest timber plaque in Singapore. Located above the inner lattice doors.
Couplet flanking the entrance doorway (福著伯权彰异城德昭公位耀唐山) – gift from Hoo Ah Kay (Whampoa) in 1858. Whampoa, who spoke impeccable English, was the first Asian member of the Legislative Council in Singapore and held Consul positions with Russia, China and Japan.
Notable Cantonese architectural-style buildings in Singapore
Former Thong Chai Medical Institution, 1892, (gazetted) , 50 Eu Tong Sen Street