170-year-old Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple short of $1.5m for revamp work

Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang in the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple and the heritage gallery (above). The mission wants to raise awareness about the building’s heritage. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang in the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple and the heritage gallery (above). The mission wants to raise awareness about the building’s heritage. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang in the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple (above) and the heritage gallery. The mission wants to raise awareness about the building’s heritage. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang in the Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple (above) and the heritage gallery. The mission wants to raise awareness about the building’s heritage. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

170-year-old Taoist 'national secret' undergoing extensive restoration

The Taoist Mission is appealing for $1.5 million to ensure that the extensive restoration work to save the historic 170-year-old Singapore Yu Huang Gong temple can be completed.

The mission has already spent $2 million restoring the building in Telok Ayer, which was gazetted as a national monument in 2009.

Conditions in the temple were so bad when the work began in July last year that the site was declared unsafe for occupancy.

Returning it to its former glory has proved a financial challenge to the mission, which took over the building for an undisclosed sum in 2010 after the Keng Teck Whay clan association was not able to afford the restoration.

The entire top-to-toe makeover is estimated to cost $3.5 million, excluding a $480,000 grant under the National Monuments Fund.

The mission raised most of the initial $2 million from Taoists and members of the public from 2010; most of it has been spent on work such as infrastructure repair.

The southern Chinese-style building, which used to be called the Keng Teck Whay Building, houses an ancestral hall, a pagoda and altars for some Taoist deities.

Restoration work includes repairing and replicating decorative ornaments and fixtures by hand.

The temple itself, renamed Singapore Yu Huang Gong, or Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor, sits between the Thian Hock Keng temple and a park so all the work on the 219 sq m sitehas to be done manually.

"It's labour-intensive. Heavy timber beams and columns have to be lifted three storeys up by hand because there's simply no room to bring in heavy machinery to do the work," said Taoist Mission president Lee Zhiwang.

A team of specialist craftsmen, including sculptors and artists from Quanzhou, China, is still working on its interiors.

Funds are also needed to restore balustrade walls, a spiral staircase, timber windows and carved doors, fresco wall paintings and gable-end ornamentations among others."We hope people can donate... because it's a national monument and every Singaporean deserves a stake in preserving our heritage," said Master Lee.

The restoration effort of another temple, the 100-year-old Hong San See Temple in Mohamed Sultan Road, cost $3 million. This bagged it an excellence award from Unesco in 2010.

The former Keng Teck Whay building used to be a meeting place for Hokkien Peranakan merchants from Malacca and China.

Master Lee said the restoration work is also an opportunity for the Taoist Mission to participate in a conservation project.

It launched a heritage gallery opposite the temple on Nov 24 to chronicle the restoration process and to help raise funds and awareness about the building's heritage.

The gallery at 125A, Telok Ayer Street is open every Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Admission and guided tours are free.

Fragile artefacts and decorative fixtures such as a pair of dragons and ornaments are on display, including an imperial treasure gourd that used to sit at the apex of the building's Jade Emperor Hall.

"We want to open up places with historical value to the public that have previously been locked away and undocumented," said Master Lee.

The building has been kept behind closed doors since it was built. The public will have access to it for the first time once restoration works are completed by next June. "We hope Singaporeans can donate to the building and help uncover this well-kept 'national secret'."

Those who wish to donate to the Taoist Mission or visit the heritage gallery can call 6295-6112.

melodyz@sph.com.sg