Monday, July 29, 2013

Thian Hock Keng Temple tour...

Thian Hock Keng temple holds a very important place in Singapore history. After it was built between 1830s-1840s, early Chinese immigrants paid a visit to the temple upon arrival in Singapore to give thanks to Ma Zu (Goddess of the Sea) for a safe sea voyage. One can't see it now, but more than a century ago, the temple's location along Telok Ayer St. gave a view of the sea.

I came to know of Thian Hock Keng (Temple of Heavenly Happiness) at the museum guiding course at the National Museum of Singapore. Thian Hock Keng was briefly mentioned during the session that talked about Tan Tock Seng, the prominent Peranakan businessman and philanthropist who was one of the main donors of the temple.

When I learned that two guided tours of the temple are part of the activities under Singapore Heritage Fest, I wasted no time in signing up for the tours of one of the oldest and most important Chinese temples in Singapore. Not only would it give me additional information that I may use when I do my museum tours, I can also pick up tips/techniques on guiding. Hehe! ;-)

Friday night covered customs and traditions at the temple, while Saturday was an architectural tour. Between the two, I thoroughly enjoyed more the architectural tour given by Prof. Yeo Kang Shua. A professor from the Singapore University of Technology & Design, he knew his stuff very well and had a lot of things to share. In fact, the tour extended beyond the allotted one hour because of the amount of info he has to share.

The tour began with the group gathering on the other side of the road where we all had a good view of the facade of the entire temple. Prof. Shua started by saying that Chinese temples may be discussed and dissected into three parts - the roof, the body and the details.

For example, he explained that from simply by looking at the roof alone, one can already tell whether the temple style is Northern or Southern Chinese architecture.

Southern Chinese architecture tends to have a central ridge in a curvilinear shape compared to Northern Chinese architecture which is usually just a straight line.

From the roof, he moved to the body of the temple. On a quick look, one can say that the temple has three sets of doors. But look again and you will see that there are actually 5 sets of doors. Two are for the commoners; two are for the rich; and the central one is for the Chinese emperor, the monks or the deity.

The next part of the tour involved walking around the temple and dwelling on the details found around the temple.

Among those I found interesting are the following:

1.) How do you know which side to enter? Look for the dragon. Traditional temple entrances usually have a dragon wall painting or stone sculpture on the left side and a tiger on the right side (from the point of view of the deity). From what I read after the tour, the dragon represents entering the temple to pray for luck while exiting the tiger side means the driving away the evil spirits.

2.) Just after the main entrance of Thian Hock Keng, you will see six brackets above the doors. Three are of Buddha designs and the other three carry a floral motif. This tells us that there were two sets of craftsmen who worked on the temple. The temple doors also give an idea whether the deity housed in the temple is male or female. In the case of Thian Hock Keng, eunuchs are painted on the doors for the commoners and the rich. This tells visitors that the main deity of the temple is female. The central door (the one meant for the emperor/deity/monks) is painted with gold-gilded dragons. What's worth mentioning about these door murals is that they were made by local craftsmen. You will see the signature of one of the artists, Mr. Seow Kok Tin, on one of the doors.

3.) The temple has two side wings, which are dedicated to minor deities and to administrative offices. Among the other deities present in the complex are Confucius, the God of Wealth, the God of Health, the Goddess of Mercy Guan Ying, the Sun God and the Moon Goddess. The area where the monks used to stay is now an altar that holds ancestral tablets.

4.) You would also notice that the areas with the most intricate and most elaborate carvings and design are the entrance and the area just before the main hall where the altar of Ma Zu is. The reason for this is quite simple. According to Prof. Shua, these areas are meant to impress the power of the deity on the devotees. Meanwhile, the main hall is kept very simple to ensure that devotees focus their full attention the deity.

5.) There are two statues of Ma Zu found in the temple. The bigger one has a pink face while the other one has a black face. The former represents Ma Zu in her human form, while the black one is supposedly for her suffering for the people. There is a third colour, gold, which depicts Ma Zu in deity form but the temple does not have it. By the way, the black one is the older and original statue brought in from China. The pink one was added during the renovation done in 1998.

6.) Granite tablets may be found on the walls just after the entrance and before the exit of the temple. These tablets document important events related to the temple such as the erection of the steel balustrades, the purchase of floor tiles, the sourcing of materials such as teak. The granite tablets tell us that not all materials were from China. The tiles, for example, are from the UK while another line says that Malay teak wood. The tablets even say the cost of some of the materials.

These are but a few of the things that make Thian Hock Keng a very interesting landmark in Singapore, whether for religious, historic or tourism reasons. I don't know how often tours of the temple are done so I'm really grateful that I was able to join the tours with fellow culture/museum/history fans. Hehe! :)


  1. Very informative lah! can go do museum tours already! :-) where did you or where do you find out about these tours and activities? i seemingly find myself with a lack of things to do in singapore other than the usual orchard, movie or every so often bike here and there...and yeah the musicals. :-)

    1. Haha! :P Thanks, friend! I'll let you know next time. Sometimes, I just Google lang and visit museum websites. Hehe! :)