FOR more than two years, a team of artisans from China stared at 200 faceless figurines.
Their challenge - to restore the Yueh Hai Ching temple's eroded decorative clay and ceramic pieces to their original form.
This meant recreating the figurines by hand and painting on the faces of familiar characters from Chinese folklore such as Justice Bao, the Eight Immortals and Guan Yu.
Painter Lim Mukun, 63, who worked on 16 murals on the temple's facade, said the work was laborious.
"I had to follow traditional techniques to restore the original. It would have been easier to produce something new," he said.
The result is a Teochew temple that has been restored to its original 1890s splendour. After decades in disrepair, the national monument's intricate carvings and embellishments are now gleaming, its gold gilding has been conserved and its timber structure restored.
The $7.5 million project was bankrolled by the temple's custodian, the Ngee Ann Kongsi, and officially reopened by Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang yesterday.
It is hoped that the renewed national monument on Phillip Street will be more than a place of worship, said Mr Jamie Teo, chairman of the temple's restoration sub-committee.
"It can also be a place where visitors can appreciate Teochew architecture," he said.
The 777 sq m one-storey temple - about the size of a bungalow - has the highest density of craft and ornamentation works of any temple in South-east Asia.
Mr Ji Chuanying, 71, who led a team of 45 craftsmen, said each of the 200 or so clay and ceramic figurines lining the temple's rooftop and interior is unique.
His team worked with five Singaporean consultants including architectural conservator Yeo Kang Shua.
"No two figurines have the same expression. It speaks volumes of the intricate work involved and the level of skill required," he said.
But the efforts paid off.
"We're glad that we got to use our skills to uplift the temple's original beauty and contribute to Singapore's historical landscape," he said.