New lease of life for Yueh Hai Ching temple, Singapore's oldest Teochew temple

ABOVE: Architect Raymond Woo (from left), Mr Jamie Teo, chairman of the restoration subcommittee, and Dr Yeo Kang Shua, architectural conservator, at the restored temple. 
RIGHT: A view of the temple exterior taken in 2010, before restoration work be
ABOVE: Architect Raymond Woo (from left), Mr Jamie Teo, chairman of the restoration subcommittee, and Dr Yeo Kang Shua, architectural conservator, at the restored temple. RIGHT: A view of the temple exterior taken in 2010, before restoration work began. ABOVE RIGHT: One highlight of the project was the restoration of the rooftop figurines.PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG, LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE
A view of the temple exterior taken in 2010, before restoration work began. -- PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE
A view of the temple exterior taken in 2010, before restoration work began. -- PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE
ABOVE: Architect Raymond Woo (from left), Mr Jamie Teo, chairman of the restoration subcommittee, and Dr Yeo Kang Shua, architectural conservator, at the restored temple. 
RIGHT: A view of the temple exterior taken in 2010, before restoration work be
ABOVE: Architect Raymond Woo (from left), Mr Jamie Teo, chairman of the restoration subcommittee, and Dr Yeo Kang Shua, architectural conservator, at the restored temple. RIGHT: A view of the temple exterior taken in 2010, before restoration work began. ABOVE RIGHT: One highlight of the project was the restoration of the rooftop figurines.PHOTOS: LAU FOOK KONG, LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE

$7.5m makeover returns ornate national monument in city to former glory

More than two years and a $7.5 million makeover later, Singapore's oldest Teochew temple is ready for a new beginning.

The Yueh Hai Ching temple on Phillip Street will officially re-open on March 31 after an extensive restoration, which involved 45 craftsmen from Swatow, China.

The temple's gold gilding has been conserved, its timber structure restored and its once-dark prayer halls now infused with gentle lighting.

But one of the main highlights of the project is the restoration of the 120 colourful ceramic figurines, which depict scenes from Chinese classics such as The Three Kingdoms, on the temple's roof.

While fairly small, the 777 sq m Yueh Hai Ching, which comprises two shrines, has the highest density of craft and ornamentation works of any temple in Singapore.

Bringing these back to their former glory was the trickiest part. Architectural conservator Yeo Kang Shua said no one carving was the same because different teams of artists and craftsmen had worked on the national monument, in its current form, between 1895 and 1897.

"Each section of the temple features a high standard of skill and artistry," he said.

The entire restoration effort required the expertise of a team of five consultants handpicked by the Ngee Ann Kongsi, the temple's custodian.

The Teochew social welfare organisation also flew in workers from Shantou, where the temple's original craftsmen hailed from, to work on the temple's intricate carvings and embellishments.

For decades, the one-storey building - which was often packed with about 200 devotees on festive days - had been growing dilapidated. It suffered from termite infestation, crumbling plaster work and severely eroded ornaments. Many of its rooftop figurines were faceless and broken.

Most recently, it underwent basic repair and renovation work in 1994 and in the mid-2000s.

But these were insufficient, superficial and not in the spirit of conservation, according to architect Raymond Woo.

"The Ngee Ann Kongsi decided that it was time to bring in the experts to help restore the temple to its original glory," he said.

This was especially important given the temple's significance to the Teochew community, said Mr Jamie Teo, chairman of the restoration subcommittee.

Known as Wak Hai Cheng Bio in Teochew, it can trace its roots back to 1826. That was when a shrine dedicated to Tian Hou, the Goddess of the Sea, was first built by Teochews from Guangzhou, China, in a hut facing the sea.

It served as an important stop for Chinese immigrants, sailors and traders who had just landed on Singapore's shores. They would visit the shrine to thank the goddess for a safe journey.

The shrine was believed to have been moved to Phillip Street, and in the mid-1850s, a concrete building was constructed to house it. It underwent expansion, and the temple as it stands today was originally built in the mid-1890s by a group of businessmen.

Now surrounded by skyscrapers and office complexes, it is a haven in the midst of the bustling Central Business District.

Office workers stop to pray during lunch. Devotees also make it a point to visit the temple at the start of each new year to give thanks and ask for blessings, said Mr Teo.

"It has become part of the cultural heritage for many of us Teochews," he said.

Features that were lost over the years have also been restored as part of the restoration works, which began in October 2011. These included maroon balustrades which line the temple's exterior and panelled screens separating the main halls from the prayer halls of its two shrines.

Care was taken to ensure that the modern fixtures were installed such that their wires ran discreetly through the old building.

Coffee seller Toh Cheng Tiea, 53, who works across the street and worships at the temple, said that it is now "more beautiful".

He said: "The crowds will return in full force once they realise that the long restoration work is finally over."

melodyz@sph.com.sg