Wednesday, November 30, 2005

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 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 practices still found 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!

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 stilt columns! So you see, there is life on stage, and life below stage, literally.

For more information on Teochew architecture (in Chinese), see