Telok Ayer Street is truly Singapore’s representative street of religious harmony. Several major places of worship – a mosque, Indian Muslim shrine, Chinese temple and church – have made this street, a short 350m-long stretch between Boon Tat Street and Cecil Street, their home for more than a century.
All the four religious buildings – Al-Abrar Mosque, Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre (formerly the Nagore Dargah shrine), Thian Hock Keng Temple and the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church – have been gazetted as Singapore’s national monuments. In addition to the Telok Ayer’s conservation list are the Ying Fo Fui Kun Building and Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple.
Telok Ayer Street
In Malay, telok means bay and ayer is water, referring to the seafront where Telok Ayer Street once ran past. It was one of the earliest streets in Singapore, and it took the form of a road as early as 1836. The Telok Ayer vicinity was designated as a Chinese district by Sir Stamford Raffles in the 1820s and its seafront and docking bay had served as one of the earliest landing sites for Chinese immigrants, especially the Hokkiens from the Fujian province of Qing China.
With their arrivals at Singapore in waves, the Chinese immigrants soon formed the largest community at Telok Ayer. Chinese religious buildings and clan associations popped up rapidly. During Chinese festivals, Telok Ayer Street would be adorned with colourful banners and flags, where thousands of spectators crowded along the street to watch the interesting performances by the Chinese processions, acrobats, and marching bands.
The street in the 19th century was shared by the Chinese, Indian and Muslim immigrants. The Indian immigrants would work as milk traders – many could be seen walking along the street with buckets of milk slung across their shoulders – or labourers at the harbours, loading and unloading cargo from the merchant ships docked at the Telok Ayer Basin.
By the late 19th century, Telok Ayer became a commercial and trading centre. But the issues of pollution and overcrowding bothered the street. In 1891, a large fire destroyed many shophouses and other properties. The merchants began to move out of Telok Ayer for other suitable trading places along the Singapore River, resulting in the declining importance of the street.
In the mid-19th century, Indian convicts were roped in for the land reclamation from the Singapore River mouth to Telok Ayer. By the early 1900s, the area known as Shenton Way today was formed. Telok Ayer Street no longer faced the waterfront; the coastline was shifted several hundreds of metres away.
Today, rows of refurbished pre-war shophouses line up along both sides of the street, witnessing the tremendous changes of Telok Ayer in the past 150 years.
The Al-Abrar Mosque, also known as Masjid Chulia, had its roots all the way back to 1827, when it began in a simple hut. In the 1850s, the mosque was upgraded to a brick building to serve as the primary place of worship for the South India’s Tamil Muslims who worked and lived around the Singapore River area.
The architectural setting of Al-Abrar Mosque blends easily into the facades of the shophouses at Telok Ayer Street. The Indo-Islamic architectural styled mosque faces the direction towards Mecca, but like other shophouses, it also has a five-foot way. A second storey, jack roof, prayer room and an upper gallery were added to the mosque building in a $1-million renovation project in the late eighties, but the mosque’s most iconic features belong to its twin octagonal minarets, each topped with a crescent and star.
The Al-Abrar Mosque was gazetted as a national monument on 19 November 1974. Today, the mosque premises can accommodate up to 800 worshippers, many of them working in the offices nearby.
Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre (former Nagore Dargah Shrine)
Completed in 1830, Nagore Dargah is a memorial or cenotaph, in the shape of an Indian Muslim shrine, built by the Chulias from South India. The shrine commemorates Sayyid ‘Abdul Qadir Shahul Hamid (1490-1557 or 1579), a South Indian saint and Islamic preacher who was widely respected for his propriety and holiness.
Initially known as Shahul Hamid Dargah, the limestone building was designed and built as a replica of the original shrine in India. Like Al-Abrar Mosque, Nagore Dargah Shrine was gazetted as a national monument on 19 November 1974, and underwent major restoration works in 2007. The shrine’s most eye-catching features – its four corner minaret towers topped with small domes – were carefully restored and touched up.
Officially reopened in 2011, the shrine was converted into an Indian Muslim heritage centre that has galleries and exhibitions showcasing the pioneers of the Indian Muslim community in Singapore.
Thian Hock Keng Temple
Thian Hock Keng, whose name means “palace of heavenly happiness” in Hokkien, first existed in the early 1820s as a small temple located at the seaside of Telok Ayer Basin. It was dedicated to Mazu, the sea goddess believed by its devotees who would give blessings and protection to the seafarers.
In 1842, with the generous funding from various local Chinese businessmen such as Tan Tock Seng (1798-1850), a larger and much more elaborated Thian Hock Keng was built. Costing almost $30,000 (in Spanish silver dollars), the temple was completed with all building materials and skilled craftsmen imported from China. It was said that not a single nail was used in the construction of the temple.
Thian Hock Keng was later added a Chung Wen Pagoda, Chong Boon Gate and Chong Hock Pavilion. In 1907, the temple received its recognition from the Qing Empire when Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908) bestowed on it an imperial scroll with the words “Bo Jing Nan Ming” (波靖南溟, “The waves are calm in the South Seas” in Chinese).
Thian Hock Keng was also home to the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (clan association), founded in 1840 to provide assistance such as accommodation, jobs and burial services to the early immigrants. On 28 June 1973, Thian Hock Keng was added to the national monument list, while major restoration works were carried out at the temple premises in the late nineties.
Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church
The Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church joined other religious places of worship at Telok Ayer Street in 1925. The church, however, was established much earlier in 1889. Founded by Benjamin Franklin West, a doctor and missionary, in a rented old shophouse at Upper Nanking Road, the church reached out to the Chinese immigrants, especially the opium addicts, with sermons and services in Hokkien. Hence, in its early days, it was known as the Hokkien Church.
The church expanded in the late 19th and early 20th century, accepting members of different dialect groups. With its increasing number of followers, the church had to look for larger premises. Therefore, it was relocated several times to Boon Tat Street, Neil Road and eventually its current location at the junction of Telok Ayer Street and Cecil Street, where it bought the land for $3,600. The Chinese Methodist Church at Telok Ayer started as a tent and zinc hut, before they were replaced by the current building, designed with a unique mixture of European and Chinese styles.
During the Second World War, a buffer wall was added to the church building as a protection against stray bullets and bombs. As many as 300 Chinese took refuge in the church, and members were encouraged to attend the Sunday services during the harsh and difficult Japanese Occupation.
On 23 March 1989, the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, on its 100-year anniversary, was preserved as one of Singapore’s national monuments. Today, it is the oldest Chinese-speaking Methodist church in Singapore.
Telok Ayer Street in the Past Century
Published: 14 September 2016
Updated: 25 November 2017