Handy Guide for Appreciating Chinese Architecture in Singapore

Gable ends


The 5 elements of fengshui symbolically sculpted on the ends of gable ends are found in temples and shophouses in Singapore, Taiwan and Southern China. The most commonly seen gable-end motifs in Singapore would be that of the ‘metal-element’ and the ‘wood-element’ motif that is in the shape of a mount and vertical hump respectively. According to fengshui principles, a wood-element can counter earth-element. Perhaps using fengshui, our early Chinese immigrants wanted to have their assets firmly grounded on unfamiliar soils!

So which temple belongs to what dialect group?

Here are some handy tips for you to tell the difference between architecture of the various Chinese dialect groups in Singapore .

telokblangah.jpg Koon Seng Teng, 1908

Nanyang architecture – our very own architecture, essentially a hybrid between Chinese and shophouse architecture.

Representative Nanyang architecture in Singapore – Koon Seng Teng

sl1.jpg Shuang Lin Monastery, 1903 – 1907

Hokkien architecture – characterised by orange-red terracotta roof tiles. Finial ends of the curved roof ridge sweeps outwards like ‘swallow tails’. Heavy use of granite as Quanzhou is a reknowned export center of granite sculptures.

Representative Hokkien architecture in Singapore – Thian Hock Keng

Video guide to traditional Hokkien architectural style:

waterloo.jpg Old Waterloo Kuan Yin Temple, 1884

whcb1.jpg Wak Hai Cheng Beo, 1820

Teochew architecture -characterised by greyish clay roof tiles. Finial ends of the gently-curved ridge coils backwards like ‘coiled grass’. Exterior beams are often cantilevered and sculpted in the form of ‘dragon heads’.

Representative Teochew architecture in Singapore – Former House of Tan Yeok Nee

Video guide to traditional Teochew architectural style:

tc2.jpg Old Thong Chai Medical Hall, 1892

Cantonese architecture – characterised by sheer height of the halls and shapely gable wall ends. Roof ridge is straight with Shek Wan ceramic decorations appearing like Chinese paintings from far. In the old Thong Chai Medical Hall, the gable ends are fashioned in the  ‘Wok Goi Ee’ gable wall or literally – ears(handles) of the Wok cover! This is actually the form of the water-element. Compared to all the other dialect groups (except Hainanese), Cantonese gable walls enlarges the 5 element motifs across the entire span. This is very similar to the gable walls found in Jiang Nan (Suzhou, Hangzhou etc).

Representative Cantonese architecture in Singapore – Former Thong Chai Medical Hall

fyt1.jpg Foong Yun Thai Chun De Tang, 1882

Hakka architecture – characterised by straight roof ridge and greyish clay tiles. The Hakka temples in Singapore are heavily influenced by Teochew architecture. However, distinction can still be made as Hakka architecture  in Singapore is usually simple and less ornate than the Teochew temples.

Representative Hakka architecture in Singapore – Foong Yun Thai Chun De Tang

Video guide to traditional Hakka (梅县)architectural style:


hainan2.jpg Old Hainan Mazu Temple, 1878

Hainan architecture – similar to Cantonese architecture except that roof ridge decoration uses ornate plaster figurines without ceramic mosiac. The only surviving Hainanese temple built jointly by Teochew and Hainanese craftsmen is the Ban Siew San Temple. The Hainan temple shown above has been rebuilt and incorporated to the rear of the Hainan association building along Beach road.

Representative Hainanese architecture in Singapore – Ban Siew San

Heng Hwa architecture – although belonging to the Hokkien province, the Heng Hwa dialect group shows distinct differences in their language, Taoist practices and architecture. As the emigration of the Heng Hwa people to Singapore happened rather late, all of their temples built in Singapore are less than 50 years of age (based on 2007). Although new, most of the Heng Hwa temples have elaborate interiors modelled after original village temples in China.

Representative Heng Hwa architecture in Singapore -Tioh Hin Cho Beo

Here are some dates according to the reign of the emperors that are commonly found in Chinese temples and courtyard buildings in Singapore :

Dao Guang (Dao Kuang) 1821-1851
Emperor who lost Hong Kong to Britain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daoguang_Emperor

Xian Feng (Hsien Feng) 1851-1862
Emperor who married Cixi, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xianfeng_Emperor

Tong Zhi (Tung Chih) 1826 – 1875
Emperor who died of STD, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongzhi

Guang Xu (Kuang Hsu) 1875 – 1908
– Reformist emperor with tragic end, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guangxu

Xuan Tong (Hsuan Tung) 1908 – 1911
– Puyi, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puyi

Min Guo ( Min Kuo) 1911 – present Taiwan
– Sun Yat Sen, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Yat_Sen


One response to “Handy Guide for Appreciating Chinese Architecture in Singapore

  1. Hi Kent
    I was looking thru’ some old newspaer cuttings just today when I chanced upon a Straits Times article on Passion for the Past” dated 14 Jul 2006 ). So I decided to visit your blog. It is indeed informative and interesting. I have visited a no. of the temples you have written about. Thank you so much for sharing. I do share your views that some of these temples are worth keeping. Cheers

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