Courtyard of Thian Hock Keng Temple

Photo by Joel Chua DY

You would not know it, but in the 19th century, Telok Ayer Street faced the beach and sea. This waterfront was the starting point for Singapore’s colonial town planners, and Chinatown expanded inland from here.

While the shoreline has since been reclaimed, Thian Hock Keng Temple (or "Temple of Heavenly Happiness") still stands amidst the street's cool bars and restaurants—an ornate reminder of Chinatown's beginnings.

Interior of Thian Hock Keng Temple

Photo by Joel Chua DY

Built in 1839 with the support of prominent members of the Hokkien community, such as philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, Thian Hock Keng Temple is Singapore's oldest Chinese temple.

Dedicated to Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea, early Chinese immigrants came here to give thanks for their safe passage across the vast waves of the South China Sea.

The temple even attracted the attention of the Qing Emperor Guang Xu, who presented a calligraphy plaque with the phrase bo jing nan ming (‘Gentle Waves Over the South Seas’ in Chinese) in 1907. It is now permanently exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore

Ornate motifs

At the temple, take in the remarkable architecture in the traditional southern Chinese style.

Keep an eye out for the detailed carvings and sculptures of dragons, phoenixes and deities, as well as the colourful broken porcelain on the roof ridges, a Fujian decorating technique.

Amazingly, not a single nail was used in the original construction of the temple, which is now a gazetted national monument and managed by the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan.