Telok Ayer: Street of Diversity

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View from Mount Walllich
Telok Ayer Bay in a rare panoramic view in 1872 taken by Bourne & Shepherd on Mount Wallich. Mount Wallich was named after Nathaniel Wallich, who was instrumental in the 1822 founding of Singapore’s Botanical & Experimental Garden, the forerunner of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Mount Wallich was levelled in 1885 for the reclamation of Telok Ayer Bay to form the area where Anson and Robinsons Roads now lie, linking Collyer Quay to Tanjong Pagar. From this vantage point, one can see the old Telok Ayer Market, St. Andrew’s Church (later St. Andrew’s Cathedral) and Johnston’s Pier (later Clifford Pier). c1872. Image from National Museum of Singapore.

Telok Ayer Street is one of the oldest roads in Singapore and was once the coastline and the first landing point for migrants who arrived by sea. Today, reclamation projects have pushed the coastline further from Telok Ayer Street, but the place and stories have remained.

A view of Telok Ayer Bay
This is a view of the Telok Ayer Bay (mid-late 19th century), an area set aside by Stamford Raffles for the Chinese community in 1822. In this photograph, two iconic structures could be seen in the distance— the old Telok Ayer market by the sea and the Thian Hock Keng temple to the left. The temple, which still stands today, was built by early Chinese immigrants in gratitude to the deity Mazu for their safe passage across the seas. Image from National Museum of Singapore.

As the first landing point for immigrants, the early communities built their respective places of worship on this street (facing the waterfront) to express gratitude to their deities for their safe passage through the harsh voyage. Although the Telok Ayer area was designated for the Chinese community according to the Jackson Town Plan of 1822, the location of these places of worship made Telok Ayer a multi-cultural space where different communities co-existed.

Chinese Temple Singapore 1842
A lithograph of Thian Hock Keng and the early communities along Telok Ayer Street. 1842. Image from National Museum of Singapore.

Some of these places of worship have been gazetted as National Monuments by the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division under the National Heritage Board. In fact, Telok Ayer Street is the street with the most National Monuments – six.

The National Monuments of Telok Ayer Street
At the intersection of Telok Ayer Street and Cross Street is the Ying Fo Fui Kun (No.98 Telok Ayer Street).

This is the home of Singapore’s oldest Hakka claan association, which was founded in 1822 to cater to the Hakka community from the Guangdong province in China. The building itself was constructed by 1844 with notable Hakka architectural influences.

Did you know:
In Hakka architecture,  ground-floor windows are positioned high above an adult’s height to prevent intruders from entering the compound.

Further down to No. 140 where Telok Ayer Street meets Boon Tat Street is the eclectically-styled Nagore Dargah Indian-Muslim Heritage Centre. It is a visually striking building with elaborate plasterwork on its façade. The building was constructed by 1830 in remembrance of a holy man Shahul Hamid. The original Islamic shrine was built by Chulia immigrants from the Coromandel Coast of Southern India.

Nagore Durgha and Thian Hock Keng
Nagore Durgha present-day Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre, seen on the right of the picture, is a Muslim shrine built between 1828 and 1830 by South Indian Muslims. Erected along Telok Ayer Street to commemorate the visit of a holy man - Shahul Hamid Nagore - to the area, this shrine is easily recognised by its distinct fluted Corinthian pillars.

At No.150 Telok Ayer Street is the Singapore Yu Huang Gong. This was the former Keng Teck Whay Building, which housed the Keng Teck Whay association that was started by 36 Peranakan merchants in 1831. It is the only surviving Peranakan ancestral hall and clan complex in Singapore. Today it is a Taoist temple in honour of the highest divinity in Taoism, the Heavenly Jade Emperor.

The iconic Thian Hock Keng temple is a few steps away at No. 158 Telok Ayer Street. Little needs to be said about one of the most well-known temples in Singapore. This is Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple, and was established even before the arrival of Raffles. The grand ornate edifice, which replaced the older joss house in 1842, was where Chinese immigrants thanked Mazu, the Goddess of the Seas, for their safe sea passage. This temple is also the recipient of an UNESCO Honourable Mention.

G.R. Lambert & Co. albumen print of the Thian Hock Keng Temple at Telok Ayer Street
Thian Hock Keng Temple (Temple of Heavenly Bliss) is one of the oldest Chinese places of worship in Singapore. Constructed between 1839 and 1842 with donations from devotees, the temple's main hall was dedicated to Ma Zu Po, a deity widely regarded as the Goddess of the Sea. Early devotees went to the temple to seek blessings from and give thanks to the Goddess for safe sea voyages. The site was designated as a national monument in 1973. G.R. Lambert & Co. albumen print of the Thian Hock Keng Temple at Telok Ayer Street, 1880s. Image from National Museum of Singapore.

Walk down the five-foot-way to No.192 Telok Ayer Street. The Al-Abrar Mosque was established as early as in 1827 as a thatched hut. It is also known as Masjid Chulia, for the Indian Muslims from the Coromandel Coast of southern India. Many of these Indian immigrants continued to live and work in the Telok Ayer area, either as traders or money changers.

Al-Abrar Mosque at Telok Ayer Street
The Al-Abrar Mosque was established in 1827 as a site of worship for the Chulias, who were Tamil Muslims from South India. As such, it was sometimes referred to as ‘Masjid Chulia’ (Malay for ‘Chulia Mosque’). Given that the mosque was also known as ‘Kuchu Palli’ in Tamil (meaning ‘Hut Mosque’), the original structure was likely to have been a simple thatched hut. A brick building was constructed in its place between 1850 and 1855, which has a unique facade consisting of two small minarets flanked by two larger ones. c1950s. Image from National Museum of Singapore.

The last monument, Telok Ayer Methodist Church, stands at the end of Telok Ayer Street at No. 235. Originally founded in 1889 in a shophouse clinic, the church moved to this permanent home at Telok Ayer in 1925. A Chinese Style pavilion roof is emplaced atop the church building to welcome a largely Chinese congregation. Like Al-Abrar Mosque, the church incorporates a five-foot way in its design. The wall is noticeably thick as it was reinforced during World War Two, when the church was a refuge for hundreds. The wall protected those within from stray bullets and shrapnel.