Wak Hai Cheng Bio 粵海清廟 on Philip Street, the oldest Teochew temple in Singapore, first existed as an attap joss house on 山頂仔 (a hill around Chulia Street / South Canal Road).
Undated old photo of Wak Hai Cheng Bio (Source: from Internet)
According to temple records, it was erected in 1735 by Teochew settlers from Riau led by merchant-cum-pirate Lim Phueng 林泮to offer prayers for a few kinsmen killed earlier by the natives. Lim Phueng who hailed from Thenghai county Tseung Lim 澄海樟林 (the main trading port of Teochew before Swatow became Treaty Port in 1860) was said to be killed by Qing officials after he returned to China in 1738.
By around 1820 Wak Hai Cheng Bio became a temple dedicated to patron goddess of the sea Ma Tsou 媽祖 (also known by her imperial bestowed title Thi Ao 天后, Heavenly Queen) and was administered by Buan Si Sun Kongsi 萬世順公司, an entity formed by two men from Anbou 庵埠 Heng Khim 王欽 and Heng Hongsun 王豐順. Philip Street was near the sea before land reclamation in 1887 extended the coastline beyond Cecil Street and Robinson Road.
An adjoining temple for Hieng Thi Siang Di 玄天上帝 (literally “Mysterious Heavenly Lord”), patron deity the Teochew faction of Ngee Heng, was added in 1826. (Hieng Thi Siang Di is the chief resident deity of a Teochew temple in Sengarang, Bintan built in circa 1716, as well as the Old Temple in Johore Bahru.)
The unique “twin temple” layout of Wak Hai Cheng Bio was retained when it was rebuilt between 1852 and 1855, and given a major facelift in 1895. It is mirrored by Lao Ma Geng 老媽宮, the central temple of Swatow’s old city quarters, which houses Ma Tsou and Kuan Gong 關公 (instead of Hieng Thi Siang Di that the Triads worshipped). As the Swatow temple was built circa 1822 and rebuilt 1879, it cannot be said for sure whether Wak Hai Cheng Bio was the original or the copy. Because of the temple, Philip Street was known to the Teochews as 大老爺宮頭/口 (tua lau ya gheng tau/kao – front of the temple) or 孖廟街 (ma bie goi – Twin Temple Street),
Photo of Lao Ma Keng in Swatow, circa 2013. (Credit: 黄显,《汕头市老市区沿街建筑现状调查 ——基于汕头市金平区“小公园”片区的调查研究》)
The importance of Wak Hai Cheng Bio extended beyond the Teochews. From mid-19th to early-20th century, a schism separated the Hokkiens (backed by wealthy Peranakan merchants) from the Guangdong province communities (including the Teochews, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese). Wak Hai Cheng Bio (Wak Hai means “Sea of Guangdong”) served as a rallying point for the Teochews and their allies, just as Thian Hock Keng was the symbolic centre of the Hokkiens/ Peranakans.
Every year the Teochews, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese combined to hold an elaborate procession of deities around Tua-poh in what was the original form of the Chingay parade in Singapore. (The Hokkiens held their own Chingay once every three years.) A Straits Times news article on 19 December 1887 recorded the route to be from Philip Street through South Bridge Road to Tanjong Pagar Road, and back. While Wak Hai Cheng Bio was clearly the start and end-point, the procession bypassed altogether the Hokkien enclave along Telok Ayer. Another Straits Times article on 30 November 1872 reported that the procession route extended to River Valley, Back Road, Tank Road and Orchard Road – areas coinciding with the landholdings of Seah Eu Chin. This territory-marking activity stems from an ancient Teochew custom of Ian Lao Ya 營老爺, which is still practiced in the villages in Teochew.
News articles about the combined Teochew/Cantonese/Hakka/Hainanese Chingay:
Read more about the early Chingay processions in Singapore here.