Founding dialect group – Teochew; Main dieties – Mazu (Goddess of the Sea), XuanTianShangDi (God of the Heaven); status – conserved
Of all the Teochew temples in Singapore and Malaysia, this temple is most unique in terms of layout and roof ornamentation. This temple was modelled after a similar temple in Swatow which had two temples built side by side. On the right temple lies the ‘King of Heaven” while on the left is the ‘Goddess of the Sea’. However, if we were to face our back towards the temple, the ‘King’ would be on the left while Mazu would the right. This layout reflects the Chinese belief in the Yang elements on the left while the Yin elements on the right. More interestingly, according to a Taiwanese researcher on Temples in Singapore, the arrangement of the twin temple were closely related to the anti-Qing rebel group ‘TianDihui’ or the ‘Heaven & Earth’ secret society. ‘Tian’ is the first character of the name of the ‘Tianhou’ temple while ‘Di’ is the last character of the name of the ‘XuanTianShangDi’ temple. Incidentally, the worship of ‘XuanTianShangDi’ was a common practice of members of ‘Hong Men’, a branch of TianDiHui. According to temple records, it was already in existence, albeit smaller in scale, in 1820. An attap temple was already present at the same location before Raffles landed in Singapore. Taishanting (now Ngee Ann City), the earlest Teochew cemetery was probably established at around the same time. We could only guess from these sketchy evidence that there were probably some Teochews in Singapore before Raffles landed in Singapore. Most of the Teochews that contributed to Wak Hai Cheng Bio came from Siam and Riau Island battling dangerous sea voyages before arriving in Singapore.
The roof ornamentation is probably the most obvious attraction of this temple as they were mini replicas of favourite Teochew opera scenes in porcelain mosiac! Teochew operas are renowned and much appreciated by opera fans even from other dialect groups. Fastidious wood carves are another trait of Teochew architecture. Fasicia boards, beams and trusses are fully decorated with wood carves of myriad forms, from mythology to operatic scenes. Teochew wood carves boast of a three-dimensionality that is not so often seen in equally fastidious woodwork of the Hokkien temples. Similarly, the ‘jiannian’ or porecelain mosiac of the roof ridges in Teochew architecture exudes a virtuosity and Roccoco quality that is neither matched by Hokkien temples. Indeed, the Teochews in those days were in intense rivalry with the Malaccan Straits Chinese Towkays who setup their base on the same street. Thian Hock Keng had a plaque bequethed by the Qing emperor; likewise, Wak Hai Cheng Bio also had one from the same emperor. However, what Thian Hock Keng did not have, were all the plaques from the other dialect groups found in Wak Hai Cheng Bio. Why is this so? The wealth and population of the Hokkiens in those days were unmatched by the other dialect groups. In order to achieve power balance, politically and financially, the rest of the Chinese dialect groups in Singapore formed an unofficial alliance through Wak Hai Cheng Bio. This alliance was very obvious during the eleventh month of the lunar calender when the image of Mazu would be carried around various Cantonese, Hakka and Hainan temples around town except Thian Hock Keng. I would imagine the procession of Mazu in those days were pretty similar to grand Mazu birthday celebrations still practised in Taiwan nowadays. It would certainly be very interesting to witness such a procession again in modern Singapore, but perhaps Thian Hock Keng should be included after all these years! To get a feel of grand temple celebrations of yesteryear, a trip to Johor Temple across the Causeway during the annual Chinese New Year celebrations is certainly recommended.
The most memorable part of this temple is perhaps the makeshift wayang stage that would be erected in the huge forecourt during festive occassions. It was the first time that I saw a female opera acttress tucked comfortably under the stage in a hammock strung between two Bintango posts! So you see, there is life on stage, and life below stage, literally.
History of Wak Hai Cheng Beo
Date of Construction: 1852-1855 Date of Gazette: 28 June 1996Address: 30B Philip Street Singapore 048696 Founding date (from temple) records : 1738
Also known as Lau Ya Keng in Teochew or Ma Miu in Cantonese, this is one of the oldest Taoist temples in Singapore, this is an important place of worship for the Teochew community which is owned and managed by the Ngee Ann Kongsi (a clan association) since 1845. It served as a communal and social centre for Teochew immigrants in the 19th century, when Chinese temples in Singapore still fulfilled this role. According to temple records, the original temple was established as early as in the 18th century by Lin Pan(林泮)in the Qianlong era(1735-1796) who came to Singapore from the Riau islands in 1735. The attap joss house was renovated three times in 1738. Lin was alleged to have been both a merchant and a pirate and possibly a Qing rebel who got assasinated in China around 1738.
The joss house was initially erected for commemorating the handful of Teochew pioneers that had perished in clashes with the locals on the island. The early worshippers of the early temple were believed to have come from the Riau islands and Siam. In Sengarang, Bintan, the oldest Teochew temple is believed to have been established in 1716 during the period of the Riau Lingga Kingdom. A plaque from Kangxi emperor bares testament to its age. This particular temple was also dedicated to Lau Ya or Xuan Tian Shang Di of Wudang. Legend had it that the facial features of Xuan Tian Shang Di was modelled after the Ming Yongle emperor and hence explains well why Xuan Wu worship was commonly associated with anti-Qing rituals.
The early Teochew community in Senggarang , headed by a Kapitan Cina, worked in Pepper and Gambier plantations. The Kapitan Cina system had existed since Portugese rule in Malacca dating back to 1511. In Riau, before the arrival of Raffles, the Hokkien and Teochew communities each had their own Kapitan Cina. The Kapitan system was adopted by both the Dutch and British in Indonesia and Malaysia. Prominent Chinese leaders include Tan Yeok Nee, who was a prominent Teochew Kapitan Cina of Johor and Tan Kim Ching, who was elected as the Kapitan Cina for the Straits Chinese community of Singapore. Seah Eu Chin was the unofficial Kapitan Cina of the Teochew community of Singapore. Seah also founded the Ngee Ann Kongsi which was established within the compounds of Wak Hai Cheng Bio in 1845. My guess is that the early Ngee Ann Kongsi occupied the two storey building behind the twin temples.
Wak Hai Cheng Bio’s solid structure was built in the 1850s, on the site of the attap joss house built by Lin Pan. Tampines wood was used in parts of the new structure most possibly modelled after Lau Ma Keng temple in Swatow . Newly arrived immigrants visited the temple to give thanks for a safe journey by sea. The present architectural form, especially the unusually decorative roof, dates back to a major renovation in 1895. The temple is dedicated to the deities Xuan Tian Shang Di (玄天上帝/玄武真人) and Mazu (妈祖). Also worshipped there are Cheng Huang Ye and the Eight Immortals. Suspended over the large forecourt are rows of Cantonese style incense coils with the worshipper’s prayer slips hung in the centre. In an earlier period where there was a greater solidarity between dialect groups from the same province, Wak Hai Cheng Bio was a centre of Mazu worship for Teochews, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese.
Teochew architectural style
Characterised by greyish-black clay roof tiles on a roof with a less sloping roof-ridge than the traditional Hokkien roofs . Finial ends of the main roof ridge are styled in “Tang grass” and shard work (剪粘) is typically Teochew. The grass motif is represented by a curly coil of weed. Hokkien style roofs can be distinguished by their “swallow-tail” finial ends in contrast. The exterior columns terminateing under cantilevered granite corbel beams with ends sculpted in the form of ‘dragon heads’ is typically a Teochew style. Although unrecorded, I suspect Teochew style architecture is closely related to Zhangzhou Hokkien style architecture specifically in the use of dragon heads and pumpkin struts.
Architecturally, the temple is noted for its sculptural reliefs, which depict scenes from Chinese opera, and for its heavily ornamented roof decorated with intricate and colourful ceramic shardwork (jiannian) figurines. Scenes of popular Teochew operas which are staged in the large forecourt of the temple become immortalised over the roof. Teochew craftsmen were not only known for their intricate ceramic shardwork, their attention to details extend to wood, stone and plaster reliefs. The animated dragon and tiger plaster reliefs (泥塑) inside the temple reminds us of the colourful statues in Haw Par Villa. In fact, the statues in Haw Par Villa were designed and made by master craftsmen in traditional plaster sculpturing from Chaozhou.
Layout – This temple was likely modelled after the Lau Ma Keng temple in Swatow which had two temples built side by side. Lau Ma Keng in Swatow was built between 1796 – 1826. On the right temple lies the ‘King of Heaven” while on the left is the ‘Goddess of the Sea’. However, if we were to face our back towards the temple, the ‘King’ would be on the left while Ma Zu would the right. This layout reflects the Chinese belief in the Yang elements on the left while the Yin elements on the right (男左女右). In ancient Chinese mythology, the sun was created from the left eye of Pangu whilst the moon came from his right eye. Pangu created the universe. The inner door gods painting reinforces the idea of Yin and Yang. Fairies are painted on the doors facing Ma Zu while male court officials were painted on the doors facing Xuan Tian Shang Di. According to a Taiwanese researcher on Temples in Singapore, the arrangement of the twin temple were closely related to the anti-Qing rebel group Tian Di Hui or the ‘Heaven & Earth’ secret society. ‘Tian’ is the first character of the name of the ‘Tianhou’ temple while ‘Di’ is the last character of the name of the Xuan Tian Shang Di temple. Incidentally, the worship of Xuan Tian Shang Di was a common practice of members of ‘Hong Men’, a branch of Tian Di Hui.
Roof ornamentation – The roof ornamentation is probably the most obvious attraction of this temple as they were mini replicas of favourite Teochew opera scenes in cut-and paste porcelain mosiac. Scenes from ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, ‘The Birthday celebrations of Guo Zi Yi’, ‘The Heroines of Yang Family’ and ‘Journey to the West’ etc. Single coloured Dehua porcelain bowls are cut on site into profiled shards and stuck over plastered figurines. Teochew operas are renowned and much appreciated by opera fans even from other dialect groups. ‘Jiannian’ or cut-and-paste porcelain shardwork of the roof ridges in Teochew architecture exudes a virtuosity and Rococo quality that is vastly different from the simpler Quanzhou style. The protective Eight immortals can also be found in jiannian (shard work) over the main ridge of the entrance gate.
Wood carvings – fastidious wood carving is another trait of Teochew architecture. Fascia boards, beams and trusses are fully decorated with wood carving of myriad forms, from mythology to operatic scenes. Teochew wood carving boasts of a three-dimensionality that brings it to the ranks of the top four wood carving schools in China. The most well-known wood carving areas in China are – Chaozhou gold-leaf gilded carving (金漆木雕), Fujian Longan wood carving (龙眼木雕), Zhejiang Dongyang wood carving (东阳木雕) and Wenzhou Boxwood carving (黄杨木雕) . In the Qing era, craftsmen from southern China would be employed to execute fine carvings for the forbidden city; Northern Chinese craftsmen are noted for their skills in mural painting (南雕北画). Teochew wood carvings are noted for the gilding of gold leaf for wood protection and as a status symbol. At the entrance gateway, one would notice the myriad styles of lotus carved at the ends of the short columns below the high relief fascia board. The struts at the entrance gate which features free-standing carving of prawns, crabs, clams and various sea creatures bears testimony of Teochew virtuosity in traditional wood carving and fondness of seafood. Bamboo basket with sea creatures is a common theme in Teochew carving. The bamboo basket is a symbol of harvest while the ‘ten-legged’ lobster is a pictorial homophone of confidence (信心十足) . The crab which moves sideways is a symbol of success in all endeavours. The dou gong brackets next to assemblage of sea creatures carved in the shape of a phoenix is another stylistic trait of Teochew architecture where the dou and the gong is omitted in favour of a solid stabilising bracket.
Free-standing ( 圆雕) carving is exposed on all sides, except the base.
High relief(透雕) carving is where the most prominent elements of the composition are hollowed out more than 50% against its background.
Bas-relief(浮雕) carving is the quality of a projecting image where the overall depth is shallow.
Sunken relief engraving (阴雕)is where the image is made by carving into a flat surface.
Ruyi symbol (如意纹) – Bas-relief(浮雕) on ganite
The ruyi symbol when combined with a vase means peace and happiness（如意平安). Commonly found in entrance doorways. The ruyi originated from India where monks use it as a holder for Buddhist scripts. The two leaves of the ruyi symbol takes the shape of the heart. Variations also come in the form of cloud profiles.
Crap(螃蟹) strut – Free-standing (圆雕) carving
The crap is a symbolic homophone of ‘bang’ (榜,), the golden list. When a scholar’s name appears in a ‘bang’, it means he has landed himself amongst the top three positions in a Ming or Qing imperial exam (金榜题名). The first is known as the zhuangyuan (状元), the second bangyan (榜眼）and the third tanhua （探花).
Dragon Fish (鳌鱼) corbel bracket- Free-standing (圆雕) carving
This is not one of the Chinese dragon’s nine sons, it is in fact the dragon that has not fully transformed from a carp. The enlarged fins of the carp turns into wings for it to leap over the dragon gate (龙门,禹门). The dragon fish or ‘ao’ is said to spit water and hence a symbol for fire protection. The dragon fish in the Xuan Tain Shang Ti hall is different from those in the Mazu hall, with an addition of the eight immortals. This is a hint that the two shrine halls could have been built by two different teams of craftsmen in a traditional building process known as ‘competitive workmanship’ (对场作).
Pumpkin (金瓜) strut – Free-standing (圆雕) carving
Teochew truss systems are fond of employing struts carved as pumpkins, similar to those used by Changzhou Hokkiens and the Hakkas. Pumpkins, pomegranate, gourds and papayas are fruits with many seeds and are symbolic of having many children for the family. The papaya-shaped struts are much favoured by the Quanzhou Hokkiens. In Shuang Lin Monastery, the struts are in the form of temple blocks whereas in Cantonese architecture, the struts and beams are unembellished with carvings except in important areas.
Dragon and tiger (龙虎堵) granite walls – High relief(透雕)
The green dragon in fengshui is associated with the east direction while the white tiger represents the west direction (左青龙，右白虎).
Wak Hai Cheng Bio (粤海清庙), undated – which means a Guangdong temple overlooking peaceful seas. Note ‘Wak’ is pronounced as ‘wag’ in Teochew
Shu Hai Xiang Yun (曙海祥云),1899 – which means “Peaceful clouds over the Ocean at Dawn”. This plaque was given to the temple as a token of appreciation for Singapore’s Teochew community in raising 6000 taels of silver for Shantung province’s devastating flood in 1899. Tan Seng Poh headed the fund-raising committee. This plaque from the Guang Xu is 8 years older than another one in Thian Hock Keng bestowed by the emperor. Located at the Mazu Hall.
Other notable Teochew architectural-style buildings in Singapore
Tong Xian Tng, 1870, 31 Devonshire Road
House of Tan Yeok Nee, 1882 (gazetted ), 101 Penang Road
Seng Ong Beo, 1905, 113 Peck Seah Street