HERITAGE SPOTLIGHT

Teochew roof, Hokkien layout

Devotees in the main prayer hall of the Tang Gah Beo temple are greeted by stone deity statues painted in gold (above) at the entrance.
Devotees in the main prayer hall of the Tang Gah Beo temple are greeted by stone deity statues painted in gold (above) at the entrance. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Colourful sculptures dot the roof of the temple (above).
Colourful sculptures dot the roof of the temple (above). ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Colourful sculptures dot the roof (above) of the temple.
Colourful sculptures dot the roof (above) of the temple. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Bukit Purmei's Tang Gah Beo temple features a mix of building styles

In the Bukit Purmei neighbourhood, the brightly coloured Tang Gah Beo Taoist temple stands out from the neighbouring pastel- hued HDB blocks and white facade of the Church of St Teresa.

The most striking features of the temple, which has orange terracotta exterior walls, are on its roof. There are colourful plaster sculptures of deities floating on clouds, pagodas and characters depicting Chinese mythology - all looking rather disproportionately large in scale.

Three multi-coloured lions protrude from the gable on the sides of the temple's front pavilion.

Every temple has a unique gable and the shape is based on the Chinese belief in geomancy, which takes into account the temple founder's geomantic figures, zodiac sign and the siting of the temple.

Tang Gah Beo temple - named after Dong Yue Mountain, one of five sacred mountains in China - was believed to have been built in the early 20th century and founded by a Buddhist, Venerable Master Biyu, from Fujian, China. It was gazetted for conservation in June 2014 and sits on a 15,381 sq ft plot of land.

Dr Yeo Kang Shua, 41, assistant professor of architecture and sustainable design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, says craftsmen "likely took artistic

licence" with the roof ornamentation and exaggerated their handiwork.

Discovering the temple's features throws up delightful surprises. While the roof ornamentation is Teochew in style, Dr Yeo notes that the layout and structure of the temple's main hall are Hokkien in nature.

The main hall in the middle is flanked by two buildings. They are believed to have been added in 1961 and 1979 - around the same time as the roof's ornamentation, although he cannot confirm the exact date.

Another sign that the temple is Hokkien in style is its front pavilion, where a giant urn sits. Dr Yeo notes that this feature, called the bai ting or prayer pavilion, is more commonly found in localised or vernacular temples than those in the city centre.

The temple's original timber bracketing system in the main prayer hall is a common feature in Chinese timber construction, but he says the thrust system, which holds up the roof beams, is squarish and not as elaborate as others. The span, a term used to refer to the distance between timber supports, is also "quite large and unusual".

He observes that the squarish timber columns are smaller and slender, compared with those in other Hokkien temples which are rounded in the middle. This would mean that the timber used would have to be "quite strong", he adds.

As there is scant literature about the temple or its history, much of the information Dr Yeo has obtained has been through oral history and inference. He compared different architectural styles and talked to the temple's 65-year-old caretaker, Madam Guo Xiu Ru, who has lived there since she was a baby.

Ms Ang Li Shian, 25, a conservation planner with the Urban Redevelopment Authority, says: "Apart from Tang Gah Beo, other Chinese temples conserved in the past two years include Leong San See in Race Course Road and Kew Lee Tong in Jalan Tambur. Many of these Chinese temples are key markers of our shared heritage and are products of cultural hybridisation."

•This is a monthly column on heritage buildings.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2016, with the headline 'Teochew roof, Hokkien layout'. Print Edition | Subscribe