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Palmer Road Tua Pek Kong Temple June 25, 2006

Posted by kentneo in Architecture.
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Address: 50H Palmer Road

Nearest MRT: Tanjong Pagar Station 

Property status: Temporary Occupation Lease 

Survival status: Endangered/Digitised


Built by Hakka immigrants from the districts of Jia Ying, Fong Shun, Yong Ding and Da Bu, ‘Foot Tet Soo'(Hakka translation) is in fact the oldest living Tua Pek Kong temple in Singapore. Established as early as in 1819, the present temple was built in 1844 and expanded several times throughout its history. Most of the building components of this temple were shipped from Teochew (Chaozhou) with local workers finishing the assemby (not unlike how Suzhou gardens are being exported to the whole world nowadays). One may wonder why a Hakka temple should be fashioned in Teochew architectural style. The answer is simple, the Hakkas who built this temple mostly came from Hakka districts that were within the Teochew district. Incidentally, the Teochew district has always been considered as part of the Guangdong province. Chinese academics usually refer to the Teochew district as ‘Yuedong’ (east of Guangdong). If we go further up north-east from the Teochew district, we will find ourselves ending in the walled Hakka settlements in Yongding, Hokkien province.

Legend has it that an elderly beggar had been found dead under a tree near the temple’s present premises. Unfortunately, there is no sign of that tree anymore. A josshouse possibly built in an ‘attap’ form was established in around 1819 due to the increasing worshippers attracted to the ‘blessings’ from the spirit of the deceased vagrant. According to historical records, many of the early Hakka and Cantonese immigrants had come to Singapore via Penang. Many of them were carpenters, plasterers and members of the Hai Shan secret society. Of course, judging from the temple’s seafront location, many of these Hakka sinkehs also arrived from Chinese junks. Chow Ah Chi’s accompaniment to Raffles’ founding of a new free port could also have attracted more Hakkas and Cantonese from Penang to Singapore. Basing on the skills that are already available in the Hakka/Cantonese community in that era, it is quite safe to assume that this temple were actually built by these skilled workers from Penang. The layout of the temple reflects a typical Teochew courtyard house known as ‘See Tiam Kim’ (the Beijing hutong houses are knwon as Siheyuan). Two other common Teochew house forms known as ‘Xia Shan Hu’ (the tiger descending from a hill) and ‘Si Ma Tuo Che’ ( carriage drawn by four horses). There are no records of  the ‘Xia San Hu’ temple form in Singapore or Malaysia. An elaborate version of ‘See Tiam Kim’, or ‘Si Ma Tuo Che’ can be found in Clemencceau Avenue, in the Chicago School of Management. The present building meant for MBA courses used to be the House of a rich Teochew ‘towkay'(merchant) known as Tan Yeok Nee. Two other century-old Hakka temples built in the ‘See Tiam Kim’ form are the ‘Wu Shu Yi Ci’ at Holland Close and ‘San Yi Ci’ at Holland Link. Other variations of the Teochew ‘See Tiam Kim’ forms include ‘Seng Ong Beo’ at Peck Seah Street, ‘Wak Hai Cheng Beo’ at Phillip Street and ‘Tong Xian Tng’ at Devonshire Road. If you cross over the Straits, you will find an old ‘See Tiam Kim’ temple in Johor’s Chinatown not far from the Hindu temple. This temple, although built in traditional Teochew-styled architectural form, belongs to all the major Chinese dialect groups in Johor.

The architectural features of Foot Tet Soo is hidden with suprises. The finial ends of the roof ridge know as the ‘juancao'(curly grass) is textured with cockle shells (seehum)! Now this is truly a product of local taste! Cockles are served in a variety of Chinese food in Singapore. You find them in Laksa, Satay Beehoon and not to forget, Teochew Char Kuey Teow. If you perceptable enough, you should be able to spot a phoenix and peony flowers along the elaborately decorated roof ridge. These decorative elements are composed laboriously by a ‘cut-and-paste’ (jiannian) method which was perhaps influenced by Muslim mosiac work. Porcelain bowls and wares are broken and cut out to form three-dimensional decorative mosiac work on ridges and over figurines on the roof. The Minnan (Hokkien) version and possibly the original version (Quanzhou architecture was influenced by Muslim architecture through the silk route), is much simpler. The finial ends of the ridge also differ from Hokkien version. Whilst the Teochew are fond of ‘juancao’ (curly grass) form, the Hokkiens much prefer ‘yanwei'(swallow’s tail) form. This temple has only one main courtyard (Yiluo or Yijin), with the main hall facing the entrance directly. Comparing the granite columns towards the entrance and those towards the main altar, you will find that the columns around the altar are round and tapered at the ends! These granite tapered columns (shuozhu) are unique in Singapore as most other columns of this fashion are in timber. The other known granite ‘shuozhu’ in Singapore can be found in the main altar area of the ‘Ying Fo Fui Kun’ along Telok Ayer Street. Tapered columns are popular in the Sung dynasty and continue to appear in Souther Chinese architecture even after its collapse. There could have been Roman influence in ‘Shuozhu’ as rounded columns are a common feature of Roman columns which in turn was borrowed from the Greeks. This is highly possible due to the heavy trade and cultural exhanges through the silk route. In the Acropolis (Athens), the marble columns of the Parthenon are rounded and tapered to correct a visual error of narrowness of the centre portions from far. The granite columns of Foot Tet Soo’ are of important research value as there are possibilities that the granite could have been quarried locally as opposed to the commonly assumed ‘shipped-as-ballasts’ theory.

Moving on to the main hall, the remarkable architectural features can be found on the roofs, defined by a bigger ‘tai-liang’ roof and a ‘juanpeng’ roof. ‘Tai-liang'(supported beams)truss system are usually employed in offical and religeous spaces in both Northern and Southern Chinese architecture. The truss system in ‘Foot Tet Soo’ is very similar to the one found in the second floor of ‘Ying Fo Fui Kun’. According to the temple official, the building materials of both buildings were purchased at a similar period and from a similar source. Known as ‘San Zai Wu Mu Gua’ or ‘San Tong Wu Gua’, the ornate yet functional truss system is found commonly in both Hokkien and Teochew architecture. This system consists of three traverse beams supported by five pumpkin-like struts. Pumpkins or ‘KimKueh’ are a Hokkien/Teochew favourite and can be found in their traditional food. Zhangzhou(Hokkien district) architecture features pumpkin struts quite commonly too. At the base of the pumpkins are leaves that are carved in claw-like manner. Towards the end of the primary roof facing the courtyard is a secondary roof known as ‘juanpeng’ (curly roof). As the name suggests, it is a small roof extension that is semi-circular in form. Also using a ‘tai-liang’ system, only this time the pumpkins have been replaced by playful lions. The live-like lions are carved in a meticulous technique know as ‘yuan-diao’ (three-dimensional carving) while the decorative supports between the column and beam employs a technique known as ‘tou-diao’ (positive-negative carving). Such carving techniques are a Hokkien and Teochew sepcialty in traditional southern Chinese architecture. However, in terms of ornateness (or baroqueness), the Hokkiens are slightly not as fastidious in comparison. Another feature that is chracteristic of Teochew architecture is the finial treatment of the traverse beams. If you spot a dragon head (longtongji) at the ends of beams, with the column stopping abrubtly below this beam, this would indicate that you are likely to be inside a Teochew heritage building. Sadly, we only have a handful of Teochew styled architecture left in Singapore, if we do not begin to appreciate the layers of histories that are contained within them, these memories will only be erased together with other rich customs that have already been replaced by modern conveniences.

Please add articles with the following categories in relation to this temple or the Hakka dialect group. As a registered writer, you may post the articles under the respective categories that has already been setup. I will link your relevant article from here (so that every heritage building have the same format in terms of related heritage issues).