One of the oldest standing temples in Singapore, Thian Hock Keng is an important Hokkien temple honouring Ma Zu Po, the Chinese goddess of the sea who is believed to protect seafarers and fishermen.
Singapore’s early Chinese immigrants universally arrived by sea, and at the end of a safe journey (or before commencing the trip home) they would visit Thian Hock Keng temple, which started off as a simple joss house in the early 1820s, to make offerings for safe passage. In the mid 19th century, the philanthropist Tan Tock Seng had the temple rebuilt using entirely traditional methods — there is not a single metal nail in the main structure, instead it relies on wooden pegs and the brick base is rests on.
The rebuilding took three years to complete and then saw the birth of Singapore’s largest Hokkien clan association, the Hokkien Huay Kuan. Within the temple, the shrine to the Queen of Heaven occupies prime position, flanked by Guan Gong (the God of War) and Bao Sheng Da Di (the Protector of Life). While very few Chinese now arrive in Singapore by sea, this remains a very important temple for those looking for good favour from the gods.
While it may seem strange to have a temple for seafarers in the centre of the city, it is worth remembering that Telok Ayer Street was once located on the waterfront of Singapore and this temple would have been within easy footfall of the coastline. A massive land reclamation project created the new coast a half dozen blocks to the east — look back from the courtyard and you’ll see skyscrapers towering above.
Gazetted as a national monument in 1973, the temple has been restored a number of times over the years, but the most recent, a massive two-year undertaking from 1998 to 2000, earned the temple a prestigious UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage 2001 Award for Culture Heritage Conservation.
Visit on an auspicious day (see the calendar on their website for details of upcoming festivals) for the full experience. If you prefer peace and quiet, arrive in the early morning to beat the tour groups. No photography is allowed within the central temple, but it is permitted outside.
Thian Hock Keng is on Telok Ayer Street, a short walk from the same-named SMRT.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 25th November, 2014.