Category Archives: 5. Hokkien Architecture

Hokkien Architecture

Fuk Tak Chi, 1820, gazetted 

Map 76 Telok Ayer St, (S) 048464

Soon Thian Keng, 1821, demolished

Hang San Teng, 1828, destroyed by fire

Hong San See, 1836, gazetted

Map 31 Mohamed Sultan Road (S) 238975

Kim Lan Beo, 1839, demolished & relocated 

Map 119A Kim Tian Road (S) 169263

Thian Hock Keng, 1842, gazetted

Map 158 Telok Ayer Street (S) 068613

Wu Cao Da Bo Gong, 1847, needs to be gazetted 

Map 249 Balestier Road (S) 329708

 Qing Yuen Zhen Zun Miao, 1849, demolished

Chwee Eng Chinese School, 1854, needs to be gazetted 

Map Amoy Street (S) 048773

Siang Cho Keong, 1869, needs to be gazetted

Map 66 Amoy Street (S) 069886

Po Chiak Keng, 1876, gazetted

Map 15 Magazine Road (S) 059568

Hougang Dou Mu Gong, 1881, gazetted

Map 779A Upper Serangoon Road (S) 534648

Giok Hong Tian, 1887, needs to be gazetted 

Map 495 Havelock Road (S) 169635

House of Goh Sin Koh at Sin Koh Street, 1896, demolished

Hoon San Temple, 1903, needs to be gazetted

Map 27 Jalan Lim Tai See (S) 268360

Siong Lim Sian See, 1903 – 1907, gazetted & expanded

Map 184E Jalan Toa Payoh (S) 319941

Bukit Purmei Shun Thian Keng, 1905, demolished

Hock San Teng, 1906, demolished & relocated

Tang Gah Beo, 1907, needs to be gazaetted 

Map 6 Bukit Purmei (S) 099866

Leong San See, 1913, gazetted 

Map 371 Race Course Road (S) 218641

Kusu Tua Pek Kong Temple, 1923, needs to be gazetted 

Map Get Ferry at Harbourfront Centre

Qing Long Gong, 1938

Map 98A Lorong 23 Geylang (S) 388397

Tioh Hin Cho Beo, 1961

Map 121A Langsat Road (S) 426774

Sian Keng Tong, 1965

Map 216 Changi Road (S) 419736

Kiew Lee Tong, 1979 

Map 5 Jalan Tambur (S) 576778

Seng Pang Tua Pek Kong, demolished

Unidentified Temple along Thomson Road, demolished

Mohammed Sultan Tua Pek Kong Temple, ?, demolished

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2. Fuk Tak Chi, 1820, conserved

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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.

Symbolisms

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.

Architectural elements

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.

Notable plaque

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

 

3. Soon Thian Keng, 1821, demolished

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For more info of the relocated temple in Geylang, see http://travel.zaobao.com/spore/pages/food030700.html (in Chinese)

6. Hang San Teng, 1828, destroyed by fire

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Founding dialect group – Hokkien; Main diety – Tua Pek Kong; status – destroyed by fire

This was a cemetery temple for the Hokkien community built by the wealthiest Hokkien leader then – Mr See Hoot Kee. Malaccan-born, See was a pioneering leader of the Hokkien community in Singapore. He was also a predecessor of Tan Tock Seng and Tan Kim Seng. Not only was he a major contributor to this temple and Thian Hock Keng, he was also a president of Cheng Hoon Teng in Malacca in his later years. The main diety of this temple was Tua Pek Kong. To his right stood the City-god diety and to his left was the Goddess of birth. In those days when there were no such thing as KK hospital, people(mostly women folk) will pray to the Goddess of birth in fertility matters. It would the third oldest Tua Pek Kong Temple if it were still standing today. In one of the granite tablets which was also destroyed by fire in the 90’s, a total of 108 donors were recorded. The number 108 strongly suggests an underlying clandestine nature of the founding members. Were they anti-Qing or just another secret-society, nobody knows. I have visited this temple in the 80’s when it was already in a derelict state. The timber details were simple, robust and somewhat reminded me of Cheng Hoon Teng. The dieties were all recessed behind a secondary timber-framed wall fashioned in a form of traditional folding doors. I was shocked to recieve the news in May 1992 when it was besieged by fire. Some say the gods were angry as the temple had become so decrepit that they would rather raze it to the grounds. The site now is an empty plot of turfed ground, like any other grassy patch you would see in Singapore. Buildings, fashion and people in Singapore comes and goes, nobody gives a damn.
– Kent Neo

I believe it was the oldest (along with Wak Hai Cheng Beo) as it was there when Raffles arrived. It was built and lived in by the keeper who looked after the thousands of graves on the Hill of Teng – that the British exhumed to build the General Hospital. One of the Temple Keepers 100 years ago was carried off by a tiger!In their front courtyard they had two very rare Dragon Claw Trees – greenish-yellow flowers with curly petals a bit like orchid that looked like Dragon Claw – very good Feng Shui – but obviously not good enough to allow the temple to burn down!
-Geraldene Lowe

Went to Bollywood Veggies with Geraldene today and guess what? I’ve finally seen the legendary Dragon Claw tree! According to my mum, in her kampong days, the fragrant flowers were offerings for dieties.  She calls it Eagle Claw tree though. Apparently, the fragrant flowers of this tree is also used in French perfumes.
-Kent , 27 Nov 2005

eagle claw

Found another Eagle Claw tree at Kuan Yin San Temple along Dunearn Road, looks like a Cantonese Buddhist temple less than a 100yrs, anyone know more about this temple can leave your comments here . Kent – 20 Oct 2007

Reference:

从碑文资料看恒山亭 – http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5de4db230100cbt6.html

道光年古墓群现荒山老林 – http://go2.10086.cn/www.zaobao.com/sp/sp121223_012.shtml

 

7. Hong San See, 1836, conserved

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Reccomended links –

http://bukitbrown.com/main/?p=4935

http://thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/the-temple-on-phoenix-hill/

 

 

8. Kim Lan Beo, 1839, demolished & relocated

 

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Founding dialect group – Hokkien (Quanzhou, Yongchoon); Main diety – Qing Shui Zhu Shi ; status – relocated & rebuilt

This temple has got an interesting beginning – it was the gathering place of a secret society known as the ‘Choo Soo Kong Hoe’. The brotherhood of society members can be seen by the titles of the donors inscribed in the original stone tablets now rehoused in the rebuilt temple at Kim Tian Road. Titles of ‘gor’ and ‘hup’ were titles frequently used in secret societies then. In fact, the name of the temple itself suggests a place where ‘brotherhood’ were sworn in. ‘Kim Lan’ are two words that originate from the famous ‘ I-ching ‘. ‘Kim’ stands for gold,while ‘Lan’ stands for orchid. In the parable in ‘I-ching’ about the virtues of friendship, it goes something like this – ‘….when two hearts are one, they are strong enough to break gold; the words from two hearts in unison are like the fragrance of orchids’.
My paternal grandfather’s ancestral tablet is kept in the new temple according to my dad.

9. Thian Hock Keng, 1842, conserved

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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

Animals

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