New chapter for temple

Just six months after moving into its new home in Telok Ayer Street in 2010, the Taoist Mission (Singapore) had to move out.

The Keng Teck Whay building – built in the 19th-century and gazetted as a national monument in 2009 – was declared unsafe for occupancy after a picture showing its damaged roof rafters appeared in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao.

This marked the start of a four-year-long preservation project, which cost about $3.8 million and transformed the building into Singapore Yu Huang Gong, or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor, in honour of the highest deity in Taoism.

The temple was opened to the public in 2015.

This restoration process will now be documented through a collection of 200 photographs in a book the Taoist Mission is launching in March next year, it announced on Tuesday.

Titled Heavenly Blessings, the book also includes information about Taoism, its culture in Singapore and the history of Keng Teck Whay, a private mutual aid Hokkien Peranakan organisation first established in 1831.

Only 1,600 copies will be printed, of which 300 will be luxury editions bearing title plaques inscribed on slabs of partially damaged wood removed from the building during its reconstruction.

The Taoist Mission hopes that the book, a recipient of the National Heritage Board’s (NHB) Heritage Project Grant, will be a useful resource for people interested in traditional Chinese architecture.

The mission, which promotes orthodox Taoist teachings and disciplines, was founded in 1996 and currently has 18 operation members.

As the former Keng Teck Whay building is a national monument, it had to be restored in accordance with its original design.

For example, the intricate, polychromatic paintings adorning the temple’s doors and wall panels are a distinct feature of the architectural style in Quanzhou, Fujian province, and a team of artists from the region was flown in to restore the drawings and murals to their original splendour.

The team also worked on the ornamental sculptures of dragons, birds and flowers on the roof ridges, which were made using the jian nian (cut and paste) technique.

It also had to deal with structural damage to the building, which was mainly due to termite infestations and the rotting of wood.

True to traditional Hokkien style, the building was constructed entirely from interlocking beams of timber without the use of nails.

“The beams are stacked like Lego,” said Master Lee Zhiwang, president of the Taoist Mission. “We removed each piece from the top to the bottom, replaced the damaged ones, and then assembled them again.”

As Yu Huang Gong is sandwiched between a park and Thian Hock Keng temple, there was little space for heavy machinery. The construction team had to carry in the beams manually or up with a pulley system.

During the restoration, the team found the roof’s original brown terracotta tiles, which had been hidden by layers of plaster and paint from repairs made over the years.

“It was an interesting discovery for us because everyone thought the tiles were glazed green,” says Master Lee. “We even had to send a piece down to NHB’s Preservation of Sites and Monuments division to explain why we were reverting the colour of the roof to brown.”