by Yeo Kang Shua
Published by NUS Press
Teochew-speaking gambier and pepper farmers were early settlers of Singapore at the turn of the 19th century. Wak Hai Cheng Bio, now surrounded by the skyscrapers of Singapore's central business district, traces its history back to the earliest days of the colony. Its two deities - the Emperor of Heaven and Mazu, the Goddess of the Seas, tutelary deities of the Teochew people and travellers by sea respectively, long accompanied the sojourns of Teochew-speakers in the region. No written sources or inscriptions commemorate the founding of the temple, but the author's research in the history of land tenure of Singapore and old maps and title deeds provide new evidence for the temple's foundation.
Just as eloquent as these forms of textual evidence, and the many poetic and commemorative inscriptions that enliven the temple and charge its spaces with meaning, is the testimony of the building itself, its siting, materials, its ornamentation and artworks. The author led the UNESCO award-winning effort to restore the temple from 2010 to 2014, and so is uniquely placed to understand what its architecture can tell us of the legacies and histories of the communities that formed and were formed by the temple. The book is exemplary in the way it uses material culture and architectural history as historical sources, and so will be of interest to heritage studies, history and those seeking to understand the experience of Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
Yeo Kang Shua teaches at the Singapore University of Technology and Design and is an architectural restoration specialist.