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Retro-chic temple took care of orphans, abandoned girls

Khoon Seng Tng Temple in Telok Blangah would not look out of place on trendy young people’s Instagram feeds. Temple caretaker Molly Chua, 57, who was adopted when she was only a month old, looks back on her childhood in the 140-year-old temple.
Left: Madam Molly Chua (centre), who now works as a property agent, helping to prepare vegetarian meals as temple volunteers and devotees look on. The temple serves free vegetarian meals on the first and 15th of each month of the lunar calendar. Abov
Khoon Seng Tng Temple in Telok Blangah Drive exudes a retro-chic aesthetic with its pastel pink facade and ornate architecture. Founded in 1880 as a vegetarian hall, it was home to nuns who followed a strict diet. They adopted orphaned, destitute or abandoned girls as their daughters. Today, it is a regular temple, with devotees coming to pray and to give thanks for prayers answered. The temple has been earmarked for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
Left: Madam Molly Chua (centre), who now works as a property agent, helping to prepare vegetarian meals as temple volunteers and devotees look on. The temple serves free vegetarian meals on the first and 15th of each month of the lunar calendar. Abov
Madam Molly Chua with her adoptive mother Chua Peng Nyet. Madam Molly Chua was adopted as a month-old baby and grew up in the temple. Though she has married and moved out, she has taken over her mum's caretaker responsibilities after the latter had a fall eight years ago. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
Left: Madam Molly Chua (centre), who now works as a property agent, helping to prepare vegetarian meals as temple volunteers and devotees look on. The temple serves free vegetarian meals on the first and 15th of each month of the lunar calendar. Abov
Above: A statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, in the courtyard of the temple in Telok Blangah Drive. Devotees often visit the temple to pray for safety, good health, fertility and academic success. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
Left: Madam Molly Chua (centre), who now works as a property agent, helping to prepare vegetarian meals as temple volunteers and devotees look on. The temple serves free vegetarian meals on the first and 15th of each month of the lunar calendar. Abov
Above: Madam Molly Chua (centre), who now works as a property agent, helping to prepare vegetarian meals as temple volunteers and devotees look on. The temple serves free vegetarian meals on the first and 15th of each month of the lunar calendar. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Khoon Seng Tng Temple's pastel pink facade and ornate architecture would make it stand out on any trendy person's Instagram feed, but the retro-chic aesthetic belies a rich 139-year history.

While it functions today as a regular temple, with devotees visiting to pray for safety, good health, fertility and academic success, the temple in Telok Blangah Drive was once a safe haven for orphaned and abandoned girls.

Founded in 1880, it was originally a vegetarian hall, or zhai tang in Mandarin, and home to nuns known as zhai gu. The nuns kept to a strict, meat-free diet.

They also adopted orphaned, destitute or abandoned girls as their daughters.

The temple's first caretaker was known only as Madam Tay. She was followed by Madam Chew Nee Loke, a Nonya woman from Penang who died in 1971, aged 92. Madam Chew's influence on the temple can be seen in its architecture, including the Peranakan-style tiles.

The next caretaker was one of Madam Chew's adopted daughters, Madam Chua Peng Nyet, who has been living at the temple since the age of five.

Now 97, Madam Chua is the last of its vegetarian nuns. In 1962, she adopted a month-old girl whose family was too poor to raise her. The baby grew up in the temple and took Madam Chua's surname.

Today, 57-year-old Madam Molly Chua looks back fondly on her childhood in the temple, despite being subject to the strict discipline of her adoptive mother and the other vegetarian nuns.

Madam Molly Chua recalls how she was made to kneel for the length of time it took for a stick of incense to burn - about 30 minutes - after she broke an offering cup. Telling lies resulted in being locked up in a dark room.

 

While she was scared at the time, she says, she grew to appreciate how the punishment made her a better person and inculcated good values in her.

She says she felt loved by Madam Chua, recalling the times she came home to the temple to find a swing and a black-and-white TV set - a luxury at the time - after her mother noticed she enjoyed playing on a swing and watching television at a friend's house.

She also appreciates that the temple paid for her schooling and did not put limits on her freedom.

Madam Molly Chua was not pressured to conform to the lifestyle of the vegetarian nuns. She also met her birth family when they visited the temple to look for her when she was a primary school pupil.

Although she has married and left the temple, her ties remain strong. When her mother had to relinquish her caretaker duties after a fall eight years ago, Madam Molly Chua gave up her office job and took over most of the responsibilities.

She now works as a property agent as the flexible schedule allows her to be at the temple. Getting there from her home in Ang Mo Kio takes about 90 minutes by bus and train, a trip she makes around five days a week.

"I am very grateful to this place, to the people here and to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, for nurturing me and making me who I am today," she says in Mandarin. "And I will continue to give back to this place even as I grow older."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2019, with the headline 'Retro-chic temple took care of orphans, abandoned girls'. Print Edition | Subscribe