In the 1800s, Telok Ayer Street was the first stop in Singapore for many of our forefathers. These early communities built places of worship and clan associations, six of which have been gazetted as national monuments by the National Heritage Board.
Welcoming a better life
To many of our early immigrants, Telok Ayer Street represented the beginning of a bright future, a hope for great riches, and the first step of a journey that would last generations. It was here they built places of worship or shrines facing the waterfront to express their gratitude to their deities.
Although this area was first designated to the Chinese Community according to the Jackson Town Plan of 1822, this landing spot was home to different communities and hosted a rich diversity of multicultural activities.
Today, six of these buildings have been gazetted as National Monuments by the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division under the National Heritage Board. Let’s take a walk down this historical street and explore these sites.
Ying Fo Fui Kun, No. 98 Telok Ayer Street
At the intersection of Cross Street and Telok Ayer Street is the home of Singapore’s oldest Hakka clan association. It was built in 1844 as a community centre for Hakka immigrants from the Guangdong province in China, and helped thousands of our forefathers settle in upon arrival.
Interestingly, Hakka architecture included high ground-floor windows, built to prevent intruders from looking or climbing in. You can easily spot them on Ying Fo Fui Kun’s facade.
Nagore Dargah Indian-Muslim Heritage Centre, No. 140 Telok Ayer Street
Walk a little further down the street and you’ll be greeted with the visually striking architecture of Nagore Dargah Indian-Muslim Heritage Centre. The elaborately carved pillars and walls incorporate elements from mosques, Corinthian and Doric styles from ancient Greek and Roman architecture and French-style windows.
It was constructed in 1830 as a shrine built by Chulia immigrants in remembrance to the Tamil Sufi preacher-saint Shahul Hamid. These South Indians first came to Singapore as traders and moneychangers, and many of them were Muslims and devotees of the saint.
Singapore Yu Huang Gong, No. 150 Telok Ayer Street
Just a few doors down is the former Keng Teck Whay Building, the only surviving Peranakan ancestral hall and clan complex in Singapore.
Built in 1831, the building was built by a group of 36 Peranakan merchants and served as a place of worship, meetings, and funding headquarters for financial assistance of their families. Today, it is a Taoist temple honouring the Heavenly Jade Emperor, the highest divinity in the religion.
Thian Hock Keng, No. 158 Telok Ayer Street
Walk a few more steps and you’ll arrive at the ‘Palace of Heavenly Happiness’. The iconic Thian Hock Keng is one of the most well-known temples in Singapore. What used to be a small makeshift shrine for Mazu, the Goddess of Seas, was rebuilt in 1842 and is believed to be the oldest Hokkien temple in the country.
The building was restored between 1988 and 2000, and earned an honourable mention from the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
Al-Abrar Mosque, No. 192 Telok Ayer Street
Continue along the same five-foot way and you’ll see the Al-Abrar Mosque, also known as Masjid Chulia. It was established as early as 1827 as a thatched hut as a place of worship for the Indian Muslims from the Coromandel Coast of southern India.
If you explore the Telok Ayer area a little more, you’ll get to see the descendants of many of our Chulia immigrants, who continue operating businesses and trade till today.
Telok Ayer Methodist Church, No. 235 Telok Ayer Street
At the end of the street stands the Telok Ayer Methodist Church, originally founded in a shophouse clinic in 1889, and moved to its current site in 1925.
The unusual Chinese-style pavilion roof was put in place to welcome a largely Chinese congregation in its founding days. Take a closer look and you’ll notice that the walls are noticeably thick, as they were reinforced during WWII to protect the hundreds seeking refuge in the church, protecting them against stray bullets and shrapnel.