Category Archives: 6. Teochew Architecture

Teochew Architecture

Wak Hai Cheng Bio, 1820, gazetted

Map 30B Phillip Street (S) 048696

Tang Suahn Kiong San Soh Hoo Chu, Henderson Road, 1858, demolished

Tong Xian Tng, 1870, needs to be gazetted 

Map 31 Devonshire Road (S) 239851

House of Tan Yeok Nee, 1882, gazetted 

Map 101 Penang Road (S) 238466

River House, 1880s, needs to be gazetted 

Map 3A River Valley Road (S) 179020

Waterloo Kuan Yin Temple, 1884, rebuilt

Seng Ong Beo, 1905, needs to be gazetted 

Map 113 Peck Seah Street (S) 079332


1. Wak Hai Cheng Bio, 1820, conserved


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.

Architectural elements

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.

Carving terminology:

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).

Notable plaques

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

15. Tong Xian Tng, 1870, needs conservation


Most people would not have believed that there is actually a beautiful Teochew-styled Chinese temple around Orchard Road. Nestled amongst shophouses and backed by a condominium, Tong Sian Tng is one of the very few remaining private temples and abode for lay practitioners of of Buddhism. The entrance gateway is perhaps the most elegant in Singapore with walls shaped in a cloud-like form. Compared to Wak Hai Cheng Beo, the scale of this temple is much smaller but shares similarity in the artistry of the woodwork. The individual perimeter buildings remind me of the smaller shrine architecture found in the oldest Chinese temple in Johor opposite the Indian temple. It is no coincident for this temple to be built in traditional Teochew house form, the founder of this temple, or grand teacher Ma, was a Qing scholar from Teochew. If you ask for permission to visit the residential quarters right at the back of the compound, you should be able to see the portrait of Ma on the second level of the building. The rear building of Tong Xian Tng is probably the only double-storey residential building built in the traditional Teochew fashion still in use as residence. The right wing of Tan Yeok Nee’s house and River house at Clarke quay are other examples of double-storey Teochew architecture. In terms of form, the residential building has a striking resemblance to the rear hall in Shuang Lin Monastery which was built in the Hokkien tradition. According to the present temple guardian, we can tell that Tong Xian Tng is a ‘Kuan Yin’ temple from the layout of the temple – with Kuan Yin placed in the front hall. Personally, I was quite impressed by a plaque mounted on the ceiling of the front hall. On the plaque reads ‘Wan Shan Tong Gui’, literally translated as ‘all good ends in the same path’, a pleasant welcome greeting for all who goes to the temple.

24. House of Tan Yeok Nee, 1882, conserved


Made some interesting ‘discoveries’ today at the visit to Chicago School of Management. Firstly, I’ve come to a conclusion from my own research, this building is indeed the only domestic Teochew style courtyard house in Singapore/Malaysia and  perhaps even in the whole of Asia (In Taiwan, courtyard houses are built in Hokkien style). Features such as gargoyles in the form of carps and full-height plaster reliefs on exterior walls in the form of fruit trees were something I’ve not
seen before. The overall timber carve work is of exceptional quality, and bigger in propertions than those in Thian Hock Keng. The lion supports in the timber truss work somewhat reminds me of those found in Fuk Tak Chi museum in Telok Ayer. If I am not wrong, I think the timber work in Fuk Tak Chi is Teochew(and not Hokkien as I’ve thought previously). In Fuk Tak Chi, the granite column base and the temple layout is Cantonese.

According to a staff in CSM, a daughter of Tan Yeok Nee came visiting before and revealed that the building was used as a Ancestral hall for two years before it was sold to the Railway master who operated the station behind the house. Incidentally, according to Geraldene Lowe, Tan Yeok Nee stayed a while in River House (Clarke Quay) after shifting out of this house (due to the noise pollution created by the steam train running behind his house) and finally returned to Swatow for his final years. Now that I know that there are still descendants of Tan Yeok Nee around, it may be quite interesting to tap on their memories of living in a aristocratic courtyard house in tropical Singapore.

Other interesting architectural features include the imposing five bay entrance elevation, the plastered scenes of traditional stories near the entrance door, plastered beam relief on the wall where the timber beams terminate and the elaborate mosiac work on all the roof ridges. Anyway, hope that this building, like many of others that have been sold to private properties can be opened for public viewing especially during special occasions like Chinese New year, Heritage festival, racial harmony day, etc. Otherwise, like Thong Chai Medical Hall, River House, Chwee Eng Free School and Fuk Tak Chi, they will become street props you find in Asian Village in Sentosa. 

25. River House, 1880s, conserved

riverhse.jpg  img029River House, 1880s, Tan Yeok Nee’s first mansion Also known as Lian Yi Xuan, River House was Tan Yeok Nee’s first house which was later converted to a clan hall, residence and warehouse. Built in the 1880s, the double-storeyed house most likely modelled after Seah Eu Chin’s which was built a decade earlier. Looking at the large forecourt, there was probably also an entrance doorway similar to Seah’s house. Unfortunately the entrance doorway was replaced by a single floor structure as can be seen in Ronni’s picture taken in the 1980s.  The dilapidated house was restored in 1993 and was converted to an art gallery and Chinese restaurant in the beginning. It is now the venue of an eclectic Chinoiserie bar and restaurant known as “Forbidden City”. What an irony considering Tan Yeok Nee was rumored to have kept his mistress here. A mistake was made during the restoration by painting the granite carvings black. Sadly, the original timber trusses within the building have been replaced by concrete beams. However, if you do visit “Forbidden City”, do take some time to admire the roof ornamentation, granite carvings and the two narrow lanes on either side of the building. These narrow lanes are a typical feature of traditional Teochew houses used for fire escape. Sometimes, you can find wells in these lanes! The Four Great Teochew mansions There used to be four great Teochew mansions known as See Dai Cu. Except for Tan Yeok Nee’s mansion which still survives and has been converted into the Chicago School of Management, the other three mansions had been  demolished and forgotten. Through searching of pictures from the national archives and other sources, I will attempt to give an idea how the demolished Teochew mansions looked like.

  • House of Tan Seng Poh (1869). It was located at the junction of Loke Yew Street and Hill Street, no. 58 Hill Street. In this picture taken in 1863 (which is before Seng Poh’s ownership of no. 58), Armenian church is on the far left, followed by no. 59 (Albion Hotel and by 1909 changed to Waverley Hotel) and no. 57 on the far right (Tan Bin Cheng’s house later). Tan Seng Poh’s no. 58 mansion served as the office for the Qing appointed consul to Singapore , Cheong Fatt Sze,  between 1895 – 1900. By about 1903, Tan Seng Poh’s house has been replaced by a 3-storey shophouse building. No pictures of Tan Seng Poh’s mansion have been found yet. It is possible that the existing bungalow bought over by Tan Seng Poh was modified with a Teochew-style roof and entrance gate.

    Seah house

  • House of Seah Eu Chin (1832-1834, 1872). Located along North Boat Quay, the site is currently the field in front of the Parliament House. The house was originally built between 1832-34 for Yeo Kim Swee, a Peranakan towkay who Seah Eu Chin worked for.  Upon Yeo’s death, Seah Eu Chin inherited the house . The grand entrance gate both in front and at the back of the house, together with other additions were likely made in 1872 by Seah Cheo Seah. The mansion consists of 2 Teochew-style grand entrance gates (one front and one back), 3 courtyards and 2 double-storey houses. The general style and layout was adopted by Wee Ah Hood’s mansion built 6 years later. As Seah Eu Chin’s Qing official title was 中憲大夫, a fourth rank civil mandarin, this house was thus named according to Qing imperial decree as Zhong Xuan Di (中憲第).


  • House of Wee Ah Hood (1878) also known as Da Fu Di 大夫第 in Chinese. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry bought over the mansion soon after it was formed and remains on the site since then. However, it was replaced by a new building in 1961. Modelled after Seah Eu Chin’s house.

Related Teochew style architecture in Singapore Sian Teck Tng Vegetarian Convent, 1902 Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, founded 1884, reconstructed 1895

26. Waterloo Kuan Yin Temple, 1884, rebuilt


33. Seng Ong Beo, 1905, needs conservation