Toa Payoh merchants to restore Buddhist tree shrine

Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association vice-chairmen Lim Her Chang and Lim Kok Siong are among business owners who have stepped up to restore the shrine, which pre-dates the HDB estate. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association vice-chairmen Lim Her Chang and Lim Kok Siong are among business owners who have stepped up to restore the shrine, which pre-dates the HDB estate. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

Association raises $70k to renovate shrine destroyed in storm last year

A group of Toa Payoh merchants have banded together to restore a damaged Buddhist shrine at the foot of a tree that is believed to be divine.

The shrine, which houses statutes of the Goddess of Mercy and the four-faced Buddha, will get a new coat of paint, brighter lights and new flooring.

Funds for the renovation effort, estimated to cost about $70,000, came from members of the association and devotees.

The money will also go towards installing fencing and steel cables to stabilise the remnants of the tree, which toppled after a storm last September.

Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, chairman of the Toa Payoh Central Merchants' Association, said they decided to save the tree shrine located in Toa Payoh Central because of its significance to the community.

"We want to do our part for residents and devotees to ensure that they will have a place to pray at," said Mr Yeo.

Called a shen shu, or divine tree, in Chinese, the tree predates the estate and has, for decades, been a gathering point for residents, devotees and 4D punters hoping for a lucky number. Hundreds stop by daily to pray before they go about their activities in the busy town centre.

In January, the merchants' association approached the Housing Development Board for an extension of the shrine's Temporary Occupation Licence.

HDB subsequently approved this, and the licence will take effect for a year from this month. The board has let out the space where the shrine is, between Blocks 177 and 178 Toa Payoh Central, on such a licence since the 1970s.

The tree shrine has a longer history than Toa Payoh, which was developed in 1965. It had previously come under the care of a monk who brought the statue of the Goddess of Mercy, or Guan Yin, from China, and had a habit of sleeping under the tree.

When he died of a heart attack in 1975, his son, Mr Chen Zhou Rong, took over. He took care of the shrine for decades until the tree fell last year, and he returned to his home town in Malaysia.

Mr Yeo said the association will hire a full-time caretaker to oversee the day-to-day management of the site when it is ready.

It also engaged the help of an arborist, who suggested the stabilising measures for the Ficus tree. HDB said the tree will have to be checked regularly for safety reasons. "Moving forward, HDB will continue to work closely with the licensee to ensure that the site is well-maintained and safe," said its spokesman.

The association plans to erect a heritage marker at the site to share with visitors and tourists its history and how the tree had stood tall in the face of bad weather and the developer's axe.

For instance, residents believe the Government split the current development of shophouses into two to accommodate the tree.

Mr Yeo hopes HDB will consider awarding them a long-term licence to use the site. "It has a rich heritage and strong links to the community. We hope the site will be here for a long time to come."

Devotee Foo Hock Seng, 79, who visits the shrine once a month, said he appreciates the effort of the association. He said: "It used to be quite rundown. I look forward to visiting the upgraded shrine."

melodyz@sph.com.sg

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