The Balestier Road’s Chinese temple, albeit relatively small in size and stature compared to other Chinese temples in Singapore, has a long history that dated back to the mid-19th century. Named Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple, it was established in 1847 by the Hokkien labourers working at the vicinity’s sugarcane plantations.
In the mid-19th century, large areas of lands at Balestier were used to cultivate sugarcane, and were largely owned by Joseph Balestier (1788-1858), the American consul to Singapore from 1836 to 1852. Joseph Balestier hired many Chinese immigrants to work at his plantations, and the temple, located at the fringes of his estate, served as a religious solace for the workers, who had to endure harsh conditions at the plantations plagued with mosquitoes, snakes and even tigers.
Joseph Balestier’s sugarcane plantations were also known as the Balestier Plantation. By 1848, a declining sugarcane industry and also due to health reasons, Joseph Balestier sold his properties and left Singapore for the United States, although he still retained his American consul position until 1852.
The road that ran along Joseph Balestier’s plantations was later named Balestier Road. The ownership of the lands changed hands and were converted for other uses, but the Chinese temple survived, witnessing the vast changes of its Balestier surroundings for the next one-and-a-half century.
Bearing the name Goh Chor, which refers to Rochore, the name of the vicinity located next to present-day Balestier, the temple has a typical southern Chinese style that consists of a low tiled roof with ornate ridges decorated with elaborated creatures in dragons, phoenixes, fish and flowers. It is a Chinese belief that these roof ornaments can ward off evil spirits and protect the temple against fires.
The eye-catching red exteriors of the temple is due to the red-painted plasters that resemble terracotta wall tiles, a traditional Hokkien architectural style. Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple was renovated in 1920 and 1928 respectively, and is currently under the trusteeship of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.
The worshipping of Tua Pek Kong in Singapore possibly started in the early 19th century, even before the arrival of the British, by the early Chinese immigrants working at the gambier plantations. Literally means “Grand Uncle”, Tua Pek Kong is unique to Southeast Asia, especially Singapore, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia, where devotees pray to him for prosperity, well-being and good fortune.
In Singapore, Tua Pek Kong was initially worshipped by the early Hokkiens, but was gradually accepted as part of the Chinese folk religion by the other major dialect groups such as the Cantonese, Teochews and Hakkas. By the sixties and seventies, dozens of Tua Pek Kong temples could be found in many parts of Singapore, especially at the rural areas where it was worshipped as the protection god for the villagers, including Tuas, Tampines, Changi, Toa Payoh, West Coast, Pulau Tekong and Kusu Island.
Today, the deity remains popular with a large following of devotees, and has more than 50 temples dedicated to his worship.
One of the unique features of the temple is its accompanying wayang stage. Many Chinese temples in Singapore used to have wayang stages, but they were gradually phased out due to the waning interest in Chinese opera performances and the increasing cost in maintenance.
Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s wayang stage was constructed in 1906, sponsored by Tan Boo Liat, a Hokkien businessman and philanthropist. The century-old stage continues to serve its purpose today. It is used during the annual Hungry Ghost Festival for stage performances by the invited Chinese opera troupes. The temple, meanwhile, also sees large crowds during the chap goh meh (fifteenth night of Chinese New Year) and the birthday of Tua Pek Kong (14th of the eighth month on the lunar calendar).
Only three surviving wayang stages are left in Singapore. Other than Goh Chor Tua Pek Kong Temple’s wayang stage, the other two are the wayang stages of Pulau Ubin Tua Pek Kong Temple and Tan Kong Tian Temple, located at Jalan Kebaya off Holland Road.
Published: 12 August 2019