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Historic icon keeps alive ties within Hokkien community

From places of worship to educational institutions to the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings here have been gazetted as national monuments. This is the eighth in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history.

From the top of the steps at Hong San See temple, one used to be able to see the bustling Singapore River.

"Around 30 years ago, we could see into the distance, as the buildings in front weren't so tall," said temple secretary Lim Liong Kee, 60. "The area behind used to be nothing but forest."

That view is now blocked as the Chinese temple in Mohamed Sultan Road is dwarfed by posh condominiums and surrounded by stylish bistros and hipster pubs.

Hong San See, which means "phoenix hill temple" in Hokkien, was founded in 1836 by migrants from Nan'an, a county in the Fujian province in China. The temple building was originally located in Tras Street in Tanjong Pagar, where 31 tombs bearing the names of people from Nan'an were sited, said Mr Tan Aik Hock, 47, chairman of the Singapore Lam Ann Association which maintains the temple. The association was formed in 1926. Lam Ann is Hokkien for Nan'an.

Migrants who had cleared quarantine after arrival would go straight to the temple to meet relatives who were living here, said Mr Tan. The temple also provided an avenue for them to mingle, celebrate happy occasions such as weddings, or get help for their problems.

"They returned to the temple when they needed medical help or when they were homesick and wanted to return to China," said Mr Tan. "The temple also helped when they passed away and the bodies had to be sent back to China."

LINK TO THE PAST

It feels really nostalgic being in this temple, knowing that it is the same thing that my ancestors had experienced.

MR TAN KER VIN, 19, a real-estate business student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Hong San See moved to its current location in 1913 after it vacated its Tras Street premises to make way for road widening in 1907.

The new temple covers more than 50,000 sq ft, including the adjacent Singapore Lam Ann Association building. The $56,000 construction cost was funded by architect Lim Loh, whose son Lim Bo Seng was Singapore's war hero during World War II.

Two teams of carpenters worked on the building at the same time, said Mr Tan. "They drew a line down the middle, so you can see the left and right sides of this building are very different, in terms of crafting and structure."

According to the National Heritage Board's heritage website roots.sg, the lanterns hanging on one side are decorated with chrysanthemum flowers carved into their bases, while those on the other side have lotus motifs.

Hong San See was gazetted as a national monument in 1978.

From 2006 to 2009, the temple underwent major restoration works. Based on conditions set by the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), about 90 per cent of the building is original.

"For example, the pillars that were corroded, instead of replacing them, we actually dug into them and treated them instead," said Mr Tan.

Other artefacts include a 120-year-old brass urn on the altar and an intricately carved lantern dating from the 19th century.

"When the lantern was being refurbished at a shop, some European tourists offered to pay $200,000 for it. But of course, we didn't sell it," said Mr Tan.

The temple won an Award of Excellence from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2010, and the Architectural Heritage Award from Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2013.

Hong San See was built in the traditional Hokkien architectural style. A courtyard separates its entrance hall and main hall, and it is aligned along the north-south axis, with the entrance facing south.

Exposed structural elements are also richly decorated. For example, on the entrance hall's roof ridge, two dragons flank a hulu, or bottle gourd, which supposedly wards off evil spirits.

While the courtyard catches rainwater and drains it away, it also serves a more divine purpose. "It is where deities descend during our temple celebrations," said Mr Lim.

The temple's patron deity is Guang Ze Zun Wang, who was a filial son, said Mr Tan. So filial piety - and loyalty to the country - are values that Hong San See embraces.

During the second and eighth months of the lunar calendar, the temple holds week-long events that include prayer ceremonies and dinner banquets to celebrate the birth and death of Guang Ze Zun Wang.

The temple receives about $4,000 a year from the PSM, which it uses for termite control. It also relies on public donations as well as corporate and individual sponsors for other works such as touching up the paintwork and carvings. "Sixty individual and corporate sponsors donate $1,688 or more each year during our patron deity's birthday celebrations," said Mr Tan.

The temple plans to repair the steps next. "Those stairs... are made of granite and the sand inside tends to slowly wash away. We are going to repair them next year. The last time we did it was six years ago," Mr Tan said.

Apart from worshippers, 300 to 400 people - tourists as well as locals - visit the temple each month to sightsee. Foreign visitors come from countries such as India, Japan, Ireland and Israel, said Mr Lim.

While the temple played a big role in uniting and helping the early Hokkien community here, it also focuses on promoting family ties.

"We have a lot of youngsters. About 20 to 30 per cent of our members are in their 30s to 40s," said Mr Tan, adding that the older members are in their 80s.

"When we hold dinners, families attend together for a multi-generational celebration. This is good."

Among the younger members is polytechnic student Tan Ker Vin, 19. He said: "It feels really nostalgic being in this temple, knowing that it is the same thing that my ancestors had experienced."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline 'Historic icon keeps alive ties within Hokkien community'. Print Edition | Subscribe