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.
Before 1840 tua poh was demarcated by South Bridge Road, the Singapore River and the coastline. Being the heart of the early Chinese settlement and trade, most of the streets here were known by Chinese names different from the official versions.
Extract from Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore from an Actual Survey by G.D. Coleman, dated 1839. Source: National Archives of Singapore.
Below is a list of streets in pre-1840 tua poh where Teochews were dominant:
1. Boat Quay
Called 十八溪墘 (tsap poih khoi kiⁿ; 溪墘 means “beside the stream”) or 十八間 (tsap poih koiⁿ), referring to the 18 riverside merchant houses there. Also known as 吻基 (buk ki. i.e. Boat Quay)
2. Circular Road
十八間后 (tsap poih koiⁿ au) – “behind the 18 riverside merchant houses”.
3. Upper Circular Road
This was a place of early concentration for the Teochews and where horse stables were located. It was called 潮州馬車街 (Teochew bhe tshai goi – “Teochew Horse Carriage Street”), as well as 馬車街 (bhe tshai goi – “Horse Carriage Road”) or 拍鐵街 (phah thih goi – “Blacksmith Street”).
4. Carpenter Street
Initially the street where Chinese carpenters lived and worked. It later became part of a vegetable wholesale area that extended to Tew Chew Street and Chin Hin Street until 1979. Carpenter Street was also known as 戲館街 (hi kueng goi – “theatre street”) as the first Teochew opera theatre was reported located here. Its other name was Ghee Hok Street 義福巷, as the main meeting place of Ghee Hock Kongsi, a breakaway of the original local Triad body Ngee Heng, was here. Despite its name Ghee Hok was not a Hokkien group. Its leader was a Teochew gambier/pepper trader and coolie broker named Choa Moh Choon 蔡茂春.
5. Hong Kong Street
Named after Hong Kong island and not migrants from Hong Kong. It was called 棺材街 (kuaⁿ tshai goi – “Coffin Street”)
6. Lorong Teluk
Called bih lang koi in Hokkien (possibly 竹藍街, tek na goi in Teochew) or bamboo/rattan basket Street, because of the bamboo basket shops. Goh Hup Heng, a rattan weaving basket shop at No. 22 Lorong Teluk closed in 2001.
7. Canton Street
Named after the port Canton (Guangzhou) and not the Cantonese people. This part of Boat Quay was called also known as chap sa hang (十三行 tsap san hang, “13 merchant houses”). It was also known as Khoi-kin huen-koi-a (溪墘?街?) (this is reported to be in Hokkien, but sounds Teochew), meaning “small cross street by Boat Quay.
8. South Canal Road / Chulia Street
山仔頂 (sua kia teng – “top of little hill”). Until the 1970s, the Teochews at Chulia Street dominated the import, export and wholesaling of dried seafood products such as dried shrimps, salted fish, sharksfin and sea cucumber. They later moved to North Canal Road
9. North Canal Road
Named after the Singapore Canal (originally a tributary of the Singapore River) that it ran alongside, which was later filled up. Called khoi kia kin (溪仔墘 – “side of the stream”) and 單邊街 (tua pi goi – “one side street”) as there were houses only on one side of the street.
10. Philip Street
Called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), referring to the Wak Hai Cheng Bio