Singapore’s Street of Religious Harmony (Part II) – Waterloo Street

One of Singapore’s oldest streets, Waterloo Street came into existence as early as the mid-19th century. It was originally known as Church Street, but there was a clash of names as there was another Church Street at Raffles Place. Hence, in 1858, the Municipal Council decided to change the name of the road to Waterloo Street to commemorate the famous Battle of Waterloo in 1815, in which the Duke of Wellington scored a decisive coalition victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army.

Waterloo Street is located at the downtown area between Rochor Canal and the mouth of the Singapore River. In the past, the local Chinese called this area “soi po” (小坡), and, for convenient sake, named the parallel roads in the vicinity (North Bridge Road, Victoria Street, Queen Street, Waterloo Street, Bencoolen Street, Prinsep Street and Selegie Road) in numerical order. Waterloo Street was therefore also known as the fourth road, or “si beh lor” (四马路), in Hokkien.

Waterloo Street was once well-known for its Indian street hawkers. Some of the stalls were decades old, passed down by the hawkers’ fathers and grandfathers who had already operated there before the Second World War. However, the popular gourmet attraction that had many of the locals’ favourite Indian rojak, mee goreng, mee rebus and mee siam vanished in the late seventies when the street hawkers were relocated to the hawker centres at Boat Quay and Empress Place.

In 1997, a 100m-long section of Waterloo Street, in front of Sri Krishnan Temple and Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, was closed permanently for the conversion of the vehicular road to pedestrian walkways. They were part of an unique open-air and pedestrian-friendly Albert Mall, designed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple (1884-Present)

Currently there are four places of worship along the 550-long Waterloo Street, the most famous being the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, or more popularly known as si beh lor guanyin beo. Currently one of Singapore’s oldest Buddhist temples, it started as a simple temple in 1884, built to dedicate to Kwan Im or Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Today, the temple also worships Shakyamuni Buddha and other Chinese deities.

Except for several minor upgrades, the temple remained largely the same for many decades, even surviving the air raids during the Second World War, when it provided refuge for many victims. Between the late seventies and 1982, a new temple building was constructed to replace the previous one that was almost 80 years old.

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple has always enjoyed a large following of devotees. Many visit the temple during the birthday of the Goddess of Mercy and other important religious dates in the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year is another period in which tens of thousands of devotees can be seen visiting the temple and offering prayers for an auspicious start to the new year.

Such is the popularity and influence of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple that many shops dealing with religious goods have been established at the nearby Albert Centre and Cheng Yan Court. It is also common to see devotees buying lotus flowers, joss sticks and candles from the street florists or getting their divination lots analysed by the fortune tellers at the compound in front of the temple.

The design of Cheng Yan Court, the Housing and Development Board flats built in the eighties, is inspired by Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. The public housing, situated just in front of the temple, has incorporated typical Chinese temple’s architecture design in the motifs of its balcony railings and has similar jade-green tiled pitch roofs.

In 2001, Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple was listed by the National Heritage Board as one of Singapore’s historic sites.

Sri Krishnan Temple (1870-Present)

There was a large Hindu migrant community living at the Victoria and Albert Streets in the mid-19th century. It was said that in 1870, a rich devotee named Hanuman Beem Singh set up a statue of Krishna, the God of compassion and love in Hinduism, in a little shrine under a Banyan tree at Waterloo Street. The shrine eventually developed into a makeshift temple with a significant following, and Waterloo Street became known to the local Hindus as Krishnan kovil sadakku, or “street of Krishnan Temple”.

In 1880, Hanuman Beem Singh passed the management of Sri Krishnan Temple to his son Humna Somapah. The temple’s management was passed again in 1904, this time to Joognee Ammal, Humna Somapah’s niece. Joognee Ammal oversaw the construction of the main shrine building with a rising roof (Vimanam) and conducted the consecration ceremony (Maha Kumbabishegam) in 1933. The same year also saw the addition of the temple’s dome, which, at 8m tall, was the highest point of the temple.

Vayloo Pakirisamy Pillai (1894-1984), well-know local Indian businessman, philanthropist and community leader, took over the management of Sri Krishnan Temple in 1935 and expanded the temple with a main shrine building. A concrete roof was added in 1959, and another consecration ceremony was carried out.

Sri Krishnan Temple was further renovated and expanded in the late eighties and 2000s, and two more consecration ceremonies were conducted in 1989 and 2002.

The temple, designed in classic South Indian style and the only Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, has become an important place of worship for the local Hindu community, especially during the celebrations of Deepavali and Krishna Jayanthi.

Sri Krishnan Temple was gazetted for conservation on 6 June 2014.

Church of Saints Peter & Paul (1870-Present)

Gazetted as a national monument on 10 February 2003, the Church of Saints Peter & Paul sits between Waterloo Street and Queen Street. It is, however, better known as the Queen Street Church.

The Church of Saints Peter & Paul was initiated by Father Pierre Paris to cater to the local Chinese and Indian Catholic followers. Named after St Peter and St Paul of Tarsus, the church building was completed in 1870 as the sister parish of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, located at the junction of Queen Street and Bras Basah Road.

In 1888, the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was built to cater for the local Indian Catholics, and the Church of Saints Peter & Paul became exclusively for the Chinese Catholics.

In the following 100 years, the church underwent several major renovations and expansions, notably in 1891, 1910, 1969 and 2001. Today, it is Singapore’s second oldest Catholic church after the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.

Designed in Gothic style that features both St Peter’s and St Paul’s statues, two of the church’s main attractions are its century-old stained-glass windows and bronze bells that were specially fabricated and imported from France and installed in 1869 as part of the church building.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue (1878-Present)

Another place of worship along Waterloo Street is the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, whose name means “Shield of our Fathers”. It is one of the two synagogues in Singapore – the other is the Chesed-El Synagogue located at Oxley Rise.

The oldest synagogue in Singapore as well as Southeast Asia, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue was built and consecrated in 1878 with the aid of Sir Manasseh Meyer (1846-1930), a wealthy and influential Jewish businessman and community leader.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue became an important religious and social centre for the local Jewish community since its completion. Over the years, it had underwent several renovations and restorations. The synagogue’s premises was expanded in 1924, and it was used as a gathering base for Jews to exchange news and information during the Second World War.

In 1998, Maghain Aboth Synagogue was gazetted as a national monument. The seven-storey Jacob Ballas Centre building is the synagogue’s latest addition, having completed in 2007.

Middle Road Church (1894-1930)

The Middle Road Church building was initially used as a Christian Institute, founded by a British army officer called Charles Phillips, to promote Christianity in Singapore. Built in 1872, the small wooden Gothic-style building first functioned as a Christian social centre for young men.

The building was later used by the Methodist missionaries, before it was converted into the Tamil Girls’ School (later Methodist Girls’ School) during the weekdays, and leased to the Foochow Chinese Mission for their Sunday worship services.

When it was inaugurated as the Middle Road Church in 1894, it became the first Methodist Church in Singapore for the Straits Chinese community, where its services were conducted in Baba Malay. British Methodist missionary William Girdlestone Shellabear(1862-1947) was appointed as the church’s first pastor.

By 1897, the church’s attendees had grown to almost 1,000, largely made up of children. A year later, the church bought over the building from the Methodist Girls’ School, and had it dedicated by the Bishop Warne of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1901. By then, the church was popularly known as the Baba Malay Church or Middle Road Church.

In 1930, the church was relocated to Kampong Kapor, and the building was sold to local tycoon Eu Tong Sen (1877-1941). At its new premises, the church was renamed as Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

For the next few decades, the former Middle Road Church building was either left vacant or used for other purposes – for example, it was converted into a motor workshop in the eighties. Since the nineties, the former church building has been largely utilised as an art or exhibition centre. It was declared as a historic site by the National Heritage Board on 22 January 2000.

Other than the religious landmarks, Waterloo Street of today is also home to many art organisations, such as the Singapore Calligraphy Centre, Chinese Calligraphy Society of Singapore, The Theatre Practice (formerly YMS Art Centre) and Dance Ensemble Singapore. At the junction of Waterloo Street and Bras Basah Road also lies the national monument of the former St Joseph’s Institute (1867-1988), currently occupied by the Singapore Arts Museum.

Also read Singapore’s Street of Religious Harmony (Part I) – Telok Ayer Street.

Published: 25 November 2017

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