Thian Hock Keng is one of the oldest and most important Hokkien temple in Singapore. It was visited by Chinese immigrants giving thanks to Ma Zu (Goddess of the Sea) for their safe voyage. In 1839, under the leadership of Mr Tan Tock Seng and Mr Si Hoo Keh, the Hokkien clan built the temple in Telok Ayer Street. It also housed the clan’s office and served as a meeting venue. The construction of Thian Hock Keng was completed in 1842.
The temple was built in traditional southern Chinese architectural style. The entire structure was assembled without nails. It is an architectual masterpiece of stone, tiles and wood, dragons and phoenixes, amazing carvings, intricate sculptures and imposing columns. Constructed in the temple architectural style of southern China, Thian Hock Keng has a grand entrance with a high step in front. The side entrance gates feature brightly coloured tiles portraying peacocks, roses and the universal Buddhist swastika in green and brown. This symbol represents good luck, eternity and immortality.
Thian Hock Keng which is managed by Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan was gazetted as a national monument in 1973. Over the years, Thian Hock Keng has been restored several times. The most comprehensive one commenced in 1998 and was completed in December 2000. This restoration project won 4 architectural awards, including the most prestigious award from UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage 2001 Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation Building. More info abt this temple: www.thianhockkeng.com.sg/home.html.
History of Thian Hock Keng
In 1840, 21 years after Raffles had established Singapore as a trading post, a Hokkien temple was built on the spot where new migrants came ashore. This temple, known as Thian Hock Keng (天福宫), Temple of Heavenly Bliss, was built in honor of the Sea Goddess Mazu （妈祖). Early Chinese migrants left China in search of opportunities for themselves and for their families who remained in China.
The only mode of transport was by sea and migrants endured the long, uncomfortable and at times fatal journey. They had no control over the elements, the sea conditions or the future ahead of them. Psychologically, their only hope was to ask for the blessing and protection of the sea goddess. Upon their safe passage and arrival in Singapore, their relief can only be imagined and offering their prayers at the Thian Hock Keng was a way to show their gratitude and appreciation for the safe passage.
The Sea Goddess’s altar was originally housed in a small shrine sponsored by these grateful migrants. This humble set-up provided later migrants with an established place for their rituals and prayers, and became a focal point for the Hokkien community up to the early 20th century. After these migrants had settled down in Singapore, the worship of the Sea Goddess continued. Successful migrants contributed to transform the shrine into an official temple.
In 1840, the Thian Hock Keng Temple was founded and served as the center of Hokkien Chinese activities in Singapore. The deities honored in the temple include Mazu 妈祖 (Sea Goddess), Baoshen Dadi 保生大帝 (Deity of medicine), Guan Gong 关公 (Deity of righteousness), and Guan Yin.
The emergence of the new Mazu temple reflected opportunities that awaited new migrants and community spirit of those who succeeded economically. Festive events were celebrated especially events related to the Sea Goddess and other key deities as well as Confucius’s birthday. The celebrations continue to this day.
In 1907, the temple received an Imperial Calligraphic Panel bestowed by the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) of the Qing Court. This Imperial honor reflected the significance of Thian Hock Keng in the lives of migrants as well as the influence of overseas Chinese in China’s political landscape.
It was an attempt by the Imperial court to generate support for the Imperial Conservatives represented by Empress Dowager Cixi against two other political competitors, the Imperial Reformists and the Revolutionaries. Each camp had their respective supporters in Singapore.
Thian Hock Keng and Hokkien Huay Guan
As the population expanded and as more people settled down, new social needs arose. Thian Hock Keng was the meeting place for Chinese community leaders to discuss social welfare issues and led to the formation of the Hokkien Clan Association, 福建会馆. Eventually the Hokkien Clan Association moved out of the temple and set up their office across the street where it continue to stand today.
During the Sino-Japanese war, Thian Hock Keng was a popular performance venue to raise funds for the China Relief Fund. Mr. Tan Kah Kee was the chairperson of Hokkien Clan Association and the China Relief Fund. In 1973, it was gazetted as a National Monument. Today, Thian Hock Keng temple plays multiple functions in multi-cultural Singapore. Religious events continue to be organized for devotees.