“in through the dragon gate, see the temple, out through the tiger gate! the tiger will eat all your bad luck!” said the helpful gentleman in the red tee shirt. he also did a little tiger leap and and bit on air, to underscore his meaning.
i felt as if at last i had found what i had come looking for.
may not be a good idea to go for a walk with a preconceived notion of what you might get out of it. but it was the third day of chinese new year and we had decided to walk around chinatown, see what’s going on, look at the decorations, feel the vibe, say hello to the goat. and i had hoped i’d catch a glimpse of real celebration of this most auspicious time in the chinese calendar in one of the oldest parts of the city. chinatown sits toward the southern part of singapore and once upon a time the sea came right up to it.
i have always enjoyed the quaint air of this place. rows of shophouses painted in many shades. ornamental decorations with their chinese, malay, pernakan and other motifs and tiles. stand alone little shops selling all sorts of things, from linen from china to chinese medicine to antiques, gold, jade, and of course supreme kitsch. in between, there are indian temples, chinese temples, buddhist pagodas, mosques and terrific eating places. there are the old hdbs too and several new buildings with shops and offices.
some roads are considered “trendy”, such as club street, ann siang, duxton; while others are “touristy” like smith street. new bridge road, south bridge road, eu tong sen are the main wide thoroughfares in the area. and most interestingly, this very old, low rise quarter merges without any problem or insecurity about age with the glass and concrete skyscraper dotted downtown. it’s literally a ten minute walk to shenton way from the heart of chinatown.
i was so looking forward to a happy walk through colour and feeling.
after almost half an hour, i started to admit to a lack of connection. everything was too pretty, too painted. “cool” sounding companies and restaurants had taken up real estate everywhere. the residential bits were clearly meant more for expats with a penchant for quirk and quaint. and on the road, everyone seemed to be a tourist, not a chinatowner.
of course, that was bound to be i guess, those who were celebrating had things to do, people to visit, bring in a whole new annum. why would they be out on the road just hanging about. i looked up at the rows of windows of an old hdb block with a funny yearning. the real thing was all in there. i’d perhaps never be part of it.
right behind me was the famous hawker centre, maxwell, which gordon ramsay had visited just a while ago. i have never eaten there i moaned to my companion, aj. he was ready to rush in for a bite instantly. i declined and forged ahead. something had to out there, even if not the truth. this was chinatown, it couldn’t feel this light and tinny.
we passed the massive new residential complex, the pinnacle@duxton. suddenly, aj was running… he had spotted right behind it, the block his parents lived in when he was born. i gloomily thought, at least one of us is happy and looked balefully at some more so called “interesting” (said with a false sounding high pitched voice) alterations and additions around me.
the walk was over, we had tea and coffee at this nice indian biriyani place, taj. you should try their crisp spicy prawn and chilli… taj mix. an ex colleague of mine introduced me to it. we ordered some and got out to catch a taxi.
standing there on the kerbside, i asked aj if he’d seen the oldest chinese temple in singapore.
a taxi driver had pointed it out to me a few years ago. he had said, when poor chinese immigrants looking for a better life finally reached the shore in their small little boats after facing all the perils of the high and fairly unkind sea, they came and prayed to the goddess of the sea here, thanking her for a safe journey, for bringing them to dry land, to the land of opportunity.
aj replied he had not seen it and something made me say, “let’s walk down a little bit to that side there, i am pretty sure it’s somewhere there on ah moy street or telok ayer.”
it was on telok ayer street and today it was not a quiet old temple tucked away in a narrow street just behind a mosque. red lanterns hung in rows, bright and colourful over the pavement in front. real deep red. the colour itself said happiness. there was the bustle of people everywhere. all the doors to the temple were open. inside, there was a sense of time captured and kept carefully. despite the artificial flowers and the shiny red gold decorations, the deity, the altar, the pillars, the space, the joss stick holder, the massive dragons and other creatures painted on the doors, and the quiet movement of worshipers, their unhurried silent praying, everything said real, authentic, no trace of plastic or put on.
i went in through the central large door and accosted one of the volunteers. he was, like the others, wearing a red tee shirt. he didn’t raise his eyebrows at my track pants and casual shirt, i was definitely not dressed for the occasion.
i asked was this the oldest chinese temple in singapore, he shook his head and said it was the oldest hokkien chinese temple in singapore, thian hock keng temple. oh, okay. it was beautiful. i looked around a bit and came out.
at the entrance i was asking my friend to take a picture of the burnished old door, when the same man came by, smiled a little a said, that was not the right door to enter through. the custom was to step in through the smaller dragon door on the side and…
“what!” i exclaimed, “the tiger will eat up all the bad luck? then i better go that way.” again i was in the temple.
this time i stood before mazu and prayed, i thanked her for bringing me home safe to this island that was an utterly new world to me and where i sensed all sorts of joy and opportunity. i took a little loan of money from her, a coin in an envelope that you were meant to pick up and take with you and pay back within the year.
the young girl who had explained the rituals to me said i could just put in some money there and then and the loan would be repaid. i said, no, i’ll be back. then i stepped out through the tiger gate and let the roaring one get a good bite of all my bad luck.
wiki says, “wang dayuan visited singapore (then called temasek or dan ma xi) in 1330 and recorded that there was a chinese community. this would make singapore one of the oldest chinatowns, as well as the largest.”
thian hock keng temple was built between 1839 and 1842.
some of the pictures are taken by aj… thanks so much, aj.
road to singapore, chinatown, new bridge road, neil road, everton park, duxton hill, maxwell road, south bridge road, cross street, telok ayer street, 20/02/2015 #SG50
end of 1997, we moved to singapore from india. in 2015, the country celebrated fifty years of independence. singapore has given me much and i am fascinated by the spirit of this gutsy city state with hardly any land or resources, but oh what dreams and chutzpah (the finest interpretation of the word), the ability to reach big, hunker down and hold and strategise and act and grow. despite my many years here, i haven’t seen a lot of the island, which started out at only 28 miles by 18. now of course it’s bigger, thanks to that spirit i spoke of. so anthony john or aj as i call him, my walking partner, and i decided to do fifty walks in the island to celebrate #SG50. well, we didn’t stop at fifty; couldn’t. there was still so much to see and feel and also how not to let the hot, merciless, climate-change sun not have its way with us. so the walks continue, as does the walk talk. hope you enjoy, try to bring an umbrella.