“Divine Custody: A History of Singapore’s Oldest Teochew Temple” by Yeo Kang Shua


In the history of Chinese migration to Southeast Asia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Chinese temples play a pivotal role in serving the spiritual and social needs of the immigrant community. Wak Hai Cheng Bio, the oldest Teochew temple in Singapore, is a rare surviving example of traditional Teochew architecture in Southeast Asia. Yeo Kang Shua’s Divine Custody: A History of Singapore’s Oldest Teochew Temple addresses the history of Wak Hai Cheng Bio, being one of Singapore’s earliest Chinese temples, as a centre with rich religious and cultural meaning as well as site of influence on the immigrant community. The book also provides an excellent discussion of the temple’s most recent architectural conservation and restoration between 2010-2014.

Like most early Chinese temples in the region, Wak Hai Cheng Bio was located near the river since in the early 19th century most Chinese immigrants came by boat. Now surrounded by the skyscrapers of Singapore’s central business district, the temple traces its history back to the earliest days of the colony when it was founded within a plantation near the Singapore River. This explains in part the reason Wak Hai Cheng Bio houses the sea goddess Māzǔ, also known as Tiānhòu (heaven queen), to whom the Chinese prayed for safe passage and protection. The other deity the temple houses is Xuántiān Shàngdì, the mysterious supreme Emperor of Heaven, an important deity in Teochew culture. In relation to the two deities, the temple has a twin-shrine typology, with each primary deity housed in its own shrine.


Divine Custody: A History of Singapore’s Oldest Teochew Temple, Yeo Kang Shua (NUS Press, September 2021)
Divine Custody: A History of Singapore’s Oldest Teochew Temple, Yeo Kang Shua (NUS Press, September 2021)

The book discusses the changing social roles performed by the temple in the 19th and 20th centuries. Other than a spiritual focal point for devotees, Wak Hai Cheng Bio was also the Teochew community’s “public property”, an administrative and welfare center, place of entertainment and a site of inter-dialectal rivalry.

The book also examines the history of early Teochew organisations in Singapore, particularly the Ngee Ann Kongsi and its predecessors. The discussion of the activities of the temple’s management, through both its trustees and organizations established to manage the site, provide insight into the Teochew community in 19th and early 20th-century Singapore. Over time, the temple’s significance has expanded beyond being an important place of worship for devotees. Today, Wak Hai Cheng Bio is also a National Monument, heritage site, a tourist attraction as well as a repository of a wide range of traditional crafts.

Housing figures of deities for public veneration, the power of the sanctuary site derives from the power of its deities. The temple as a site of religious and social power is reinforced through its activities such as rituals, festivities and birthday celebrations of the deities. Since ancient times, Chinese theatre and religion have shared a dialectical relationship, in which theatrical performances were often integrated with religious activities. At Wak Hai Cheng Bio, Teochew opera was often performed during its important celebrations, including the celebrations of the birthday of Māzǔ and Xuántiān Shàngdì. While Teochew opera is performed for the deities symbolically, more significantly, it serves other roles in didactic rituals: it provides a discursive platform for performers to re-enact religious and popular histories for public consumption as well as to ward off evil spirits and bad luck.

Rituals such as the annual Chingay processions organised by the temple in the 19th century enabled social cohesion by uniting various dialect groups through shared religious and cultural symbols and values. The elaborate processions, which started from the temple, involved members of the Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese communities. It was through these celebrations and rituals that Wak Hai Cheng Bio’s societal functions were augmented. These activities provided purpose and meaning to life through the reference to the greater schema of a God-ordained authority and traditional religious understandings of the afterlife.

The author meticulously discusses how various sets of doors including the ceremonial doors and screen doors separate the different prayer halls to create a multi-layered sense of space within the twin shrines of the temple. The changing flooring patterns of the square and hexagonal terracotta tiles further reinforce the impression of layered spaces. The color scheme within the twin shrines follows a preference for a combination of warm tones. Its predominant colors are gold on black, and maroon and green against a white plastered background. Green rafters rest upon maroon-colored purlins and ridge beams with the white underside of the roof tiles visible in the background. The shades of red used in the temple are darker than typical Hokkien temples in Singapore.

The book also interestingly highlighted a darker aspect of the temple as a site of contention between different members of different clan groups or “secret societies”. For instance, in 1871, the regular distribution of the temple’s food offerings fell to the ruffians associated with the secret societies instead of going to the poor. The temple’s vicinity was known as one of the rowdiest parts of the town at the time. A series of serious Chinese riots also broke out between the Hokkien and the Teochew from 1871 to 1873. The temple was chosen as the site of public punishment as it was a place where many people, especially potential troublemakers, gathered.


Wak Hai Cheng Bio has undergone many rounds of renovation and restoration works since the early 19th century. One of the most significant is the reconstruction of the temple that began in 1895. It also underwent a major overhaul in the 1990s when the temple’s owners, the Ngee Ann Kongsi, commissioned a series of measured drawings and photographic surveys which proved to be very important records and useful resources for the understanding of the temple.

The restoration of Wak Hai Cheng Bio between 2010-2014 particularly offers an opportunity for understanding Singapore’s Chinese architecture through a close study of the temple’s material culture. Micro-observations of the temple’s architectural fabric led to further questions about the aesthetics, building technologies, as well as the socio-economic milieu in which it was built. How were the architectural components of the temple made? The 2010-2014 restoration also highlighted traditional Teochew architectural crafts through the repairs, restoration, and replication of architectural elements through traditional crafts, reaffirming the value of these traditions in the 21st century. Different tools and resources including topographical maps, cadastral maps and building plans, land records, court case files pertaining to property suits provided new insights into the temple, and how the very land it sits on has changed hands over time.

Divine Custody intimately recounts the story of a temple that formed and was formed by the early Teochew immigrant community in Singapore. A nation and its people need significant visual signposts, and Wak Hai Cheng Bio is the earliest manifestation of Teochew architecture and identity in the Lion city. Located in the heart of Singapore’s ever-evolving financial landscape, it has earned its keep, anchoring the city with an enduring reminder of its history, and the book makes a sincere attempt to understand what is in danger of being lost. Notwithstanding the temple’s religious symbolism, the book demonstrates that the fine craftsmanship of the temple’s myriad architectural components and its aesthetic principles are indisputably Teochew. It underlines that Wak Hai Cheng Bio is a physical reminder of Teochew identity in Singapore.

Phyllis Teo is an art historian and writer currently based in Singapore. She is the author of Rewriting Modernism: Three Women Artists in Twentieth-Century China (Leiden University Press, 2016).