Category Archives: 7. Cantonese Architecture

Cantonese Architecture

Ning Yeung Wui Kuan, 1821, demolished

Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee, 1876, needs to be gazetted 

Map 124 Sims Drive (S) 387379

Kwong Fook Gu Miu, 1880, demolished

Peck San Theng, 1891, rebuilt

Old Thong Chai Medical Institution, 1892, gazetted

Map 50 Eu Tong Sen Street (S) 059803, Tel 6222 2221

Unidentified Temple along North Bridge Rd, demolished


4. Ning Yeung Wui Kuan, 1848, demolished


Ning Yeung Wui Kuan is the oldest Chinese clan association in Singapore. Established in 1822 in an attap building, it catered to Cantonese immigrants from Toi San County in Guangdong. The pictures above shows the its subsequent reconstruction based on traditional Cantonese architectural style in 1848 and 1906.  Its founder, Cho Ah Chee, is believed to be one of the very first Chinese immigrants to Singapore in 1819. He was Raffles’ carpenter onboard the Indiana which left from Penang in a quest for a new port south of Malacca. According to oral tradition, Cho landed on the mouth of Rochor River and recced the vicinity to make sure that there were no Dutch presence before planting the British flag on forbidden hill to signal safety clearance. As a reward for Cho’s bravery, No. 1 Lavender street and a plot in South Bridge Road was given to him by the East India Company. The plot in South Bridge Road was where Ning Yeung Wui Kuan originally stood. Unfortunately, this beautiful building was demolished in 1962 to make way for a modern 5-storeyed new association building. In a strange twist, the new modern building was also demolished due to urban redevlopment.

Chinese clan associations, or Wui Kuan in Toi San dialect, played a key role in the Chinese migrant community. Ning Yeung Wui Kuan was initially run as a temple and meeting hall for people. Its role gradually expanded to include welfare services, employment, housing and education for the Cantonese already in Singapore as well as new immigrants. A night school called “Ning Yeung Night School” was started in 1906 within the premises of the old association buiding and operated until the late 1950s. Like Ning Yeung Wui Kuan, most clan associations were organized along blood or dialect lines. Their wide kinship network was an invaluable source of support for new immigrants, providing a community that new persons could easily fit into. The host community was much like home; the same language was spoken, the same were customs practised and the same occupations pursued. In times of shortage, clan associations stepped in to help in cash or in kind. Ning Yeung Wui Kuan is now located at 39 Ann Siang Rd in 1995.






18. Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee, 1876, needs conservation


Text by Victor Yue

This temple is probably more well-known for its Fire Dragon dance. The Fire Dragon 火龙 is another form of the more commonly seen and known Dragon, which is usually made of cloth material. The Fire Dragon (Huo Long) is made from straws from the padi (also known as Straw Dragon or Tau Chao Long 槄草龙). In Singapore, it is said that only the Man San Fu Tat Chi 万山福德祠 (or Wan Shan Fu De Ci in Mandarin) in the Sar Kong (Sha Guang 沙冈) village – which is now just recognised as Sims Drive – has this Fire Dragon as part of its traditional temple event.

It is in fact quite rare to see such a dragon and the performance with this dragon. So, it was fortunate for me to be able to witness this interesting event. I think we can say that this is a Cantonese tradition. This year, on the 2nd of 2nd Lunar Month, the temple celebrates the birthday of Tu Di Ye Ye with this Fire Dragon, 6 lions and a three-day Cantonese Opera from Hongkong.

Some 3 months before this date, the only expert in Singapore started making the Fire Dragon with padi straws imported from China. He had to make parts of the body hard with these straws to allow sticking of the bigger than usual joss-sticks, and flexible ones to link between sections of the body. The head and the tail are probably the more difficult ones. It is another form of art. And for the performers, this would still be slightly different compared to the normal dragon.

The event started with temple members and devotees lighting the big joss sticks and stick them firmly onto the head, body and tail of the dragon. The 88 metre long dragon must have had hundreds of joss sticks stuck in its body. There was also the pearl ball which is also stuck with joss sticks.

After the ceremonly of bringing the dragon to “alive” by marking the vital parts of its body by the guest of honour, the dragon came alive. Under the able hands of the leader and troupe members, it was awesome the way the dragon floated in the air, twirling and swirling in the tight courtyard. On the dim road the dragon radiated its lights from each and everyone of the joss sticks stuck on it and the smoke gave an impression of the dragon cruising amongst the clouds. The occasional rubbing of the body gave rise to “sparks” adding on to the sparkles of the dragon.

After a walk along the “kampung” (village), the dragon came back to the temple and after paying its final respect to the Deities, was put to rest outside the temple. Here, they waited and let the joss sticks bring flame to the dragon, sending it off to the heavens with all the ills posted by the devotees. Indeed, over half an hour or so, the dragon was engulfed with flames and to the cheers of “Huat ah, huat ah”, the smokes went up as the ashes fell down. An event that not many Singaporeans are even aware of.


On borrowed time: Mun Sun Fook Tuck Chee

21. Kwong Fook Gu Miu, 1880, demolished

kwongfook3.jpgkwongfook2.jpgkwongfook1.jpgkwongfook stage Founding dialect group – Cantonese ; Main diety – Monkey God ; status – demolished,1880 bronze bell and statue of the Monkey diety  at Peck San Theng. A Cantonese temple located at Lavender Street but since demolished. This temple functioned as a temple as well as a guild house for the various trades practiced by the Cantonese then (in Penang, there is the ‘Lu Ban’ temple which act as a carpenter’s guild). A little sidetrack, there was a more historical shophouse neighbouring the temple. This two-storey clan house was founded by a guy called Chow Ah Chi who was a carpenter cum translater (probably spoke Bahasa & English) recruited by Raffles in Penang before Singapore was founded. So Chow sailed with Raffles alongside with 30 Indian convicts to form the first recce party in search of a better port to rival the Dutch perhaps. Local legend has it that it was Chow who landed on Singapore first and planted a flag (Union Jack or East India Co., nobody knows….I doubt if even Chow himself could have told the difference) on a hillock 200km from mouth of Rochor River.Raffles saw the glorius flag and landed soon after. Nobody knows where, historians were not the least interested. Legend continues that as a reward for braving unchartered territories – such as lions, crocodiles, mosquitoes, Orang Lauts and above all ,the Dutch – Chow was given a plot of land near the landing spot. That plot of land eventually became No. 1 Lavender Street, the clan house of Chow, the Toi San Cantonese carpenter from Penang. The clan house was also demolished. Reference: 火眼金睛的孙悟空在火城

29. Peck San Theng, 1891, rebuilt

bishan map_edit

Founding dialect group – Cantonese ( Guangfu, Huifu, Zhaofu); Main deity – Kuan in; status – rebuilt

My maternal grandfather was cremated here and my great-grandmother’s ashes are housed in the columbarium. It was in my university days that I first saw the old temple, amidst the burning incense papers & smoke. The second time I visited this place, hoping to see more of ‘Cantonese’ architecture, it had already been rebuilt. The last time I visited it, it has become a spanking new temple. It was during this last visit that I witnessed my first encounter of a marriage ceremony for the departed. Two paper effigies were made to bow to each other and the heavens like in any traditional Chinese marriages. The paraphernalia that came with the wedding ceremony was grand – there were cars, dvd players, clothes TVs, etc I am sure the couple will be quite happy below, or up there, wherever lah. Just wondering if they burnt any marriage contract, just in case.
The initial setting up of the temple could really be made into a Hong Kong movie. Story goes that much trouble were made by the local thugs when the Kwong Wai Siu Clan decided to build a burial ground and temple here. Volunteer vigilante ‘guardians’ protected the vicinity from these malevolent forces.A grand memorial in the compounds was erected to commemorate these ‘7 heroic gentlemen’. Gradually, a primary school, a market, a tea house, a factory and even a factory sprung around the temple compounds. This was how Kampong San Teng came about. Bishan was named after Bek San, the Mandarin version that is.


Of Beetles and Chinese Cemeteries

30. Old Thong Chai Medical Institution, 1892, conserved


Cantonese-style lattice screens
花罩 (fa chiu)

We can still find 4 shophouses along Smith street that have retained this feature, nowhere else in Singapore can you find shophouse balconies decorated with these curtain-like timber lattices. Former Thong Chai Medical Hall ( pic from Roots) has a very elaborate one. Such screens were used as decorative devices to demarcate different spatial zones. The fanlights above the doors in old Thong Chai were called butterfly windows (蝴蝶窗) in Cantonese . This was a common feature in traditional houses in Guangzhou’s Sai Kuan district.

“Wok handle” gable walls
镬耳墙 (wok yee cheong)

Another key feature of the former Thong Chai Medical Hall is the use of Cantonese-style “wok handle” gable walls 镬耳墙 (wok yee cheong). The version here is of the ‘water’ element based on fengshui principles usually used on ancestral halls and temples. Other unique elements of Cantonese architecture includes the emphasis on vertical height as a means to convey solemnity – tall granite columns and bases in the entrance and double-volume main hall is where the dispensary used to be located. If this was a clan hall, a provincial diety altar or ancestral tablets would be placed in the centre. Fascia boards of old Cantonese buildings in Singapore were usually richly decorated with bas-relief carvings gilded in gold leaf. The gildings have somewhat faded in Old Thong Chai. Also missing is a traditional screen door at the entrance hall.

“Antique-shelf” roof ridge
博古脊 (pok ku zek)

As opposed to Hokkien and Teochew curved roof ridges, Cantonese style roof ridges are straight and often decorated with shek wan ceramic figurines or high-relief stucco. In old Thong Chai, you will find large landscape stucco panels divided by openings with vases. The ends are decorated with zic-zac stucco motif known as the ‘antique shelf’ pattern (博古纹). On these zic-zac treasure shelfs, a variety of fruits and other auspicious objects are placed. A common trio would be the buddha-hand, peach and promegranate symbolic of prosperity, longevity and procreativity. Authentic Cantonese style architecture uses grey terracotta roof tile and brick walls, old Thong Chai is plastered white instead due to lack of such bricks in Singapore when it was built.

“Prawn” beams
虾公梁 (ha kong leong)

Most distinctive of Cantonese style architecture. You will find a pair of granite ‘prawn’ beams at the front entrance of old Thong Chai as in all Ming and Qing dynasty Cantonese buildings of important status. A direct descendant of the Tang dynasty rainbow beam (虹梁) and Song dynasty moon beam (月梁) , the ‘ha kong leong’ is a colloquial term in Cantonese which relates to its stylised shape resembling a prawn. Perhaps the food loving Cantonese people much preferred the imagery of something edible over the poetic symbolisms of rainbows and moons.

Unidentified Temple along North/New Bridge road, demolished


This taoist temple has been demolished. Judging from the architectural style, this is a Cantonese Taoist temple or association built in a courtyard-style. Ning Yeung Wui Kun, Kwong Fuk Gu Miu and Thong Chai Medical Hall  were three other Cantonese courtyard halls in Singapore. As for the Teochews, there used to be four traditional Teochew courtyard-houses in Singapore. Sadly, there is only one left now. River house at Clarke Quay was a warehouse strictly speaking, but was occupied by Tan Yeok Nee for a while before he finally retired in Swatow. There was one traditional Hokkien courtyard-house at Sin Koh Street near Kallang belonging to Goh Sin Koh, it used to be known to Hokkiens as the Rochore Tua Kongsi. Unfortunately, Sin Koh Street doesn’t even exist now. This unidentified temple is abit of a mystery. Perhaps there are some plans in the archive that would give some clues to what temple this was.