Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple; Life in the 1970s

SSA1208: Everyday Life of Chinese Singaporeans (NUS)

Kwan Im Temple is one of the most well-known Buddhist Temple to date in Singapore. It encompasses a rich and solid history that will definitely captivates one. 

A combination of oral history and research that I have conducted previously, this is an account on what life was like then for my Singapore Studies Module, SSA1208 (Everyday life of Chinese Singaporeans) in NUS.

It was dawn, just before the day was breaking. Waterloo Street was slowly filling up with people and vehicles, many heading towards the direction of Kwan Im Temple.

Kwan Im Temple is a Taoist Temple in Waterloo Street since 1884. The temple was first built dedicating to worshipping of Goddess of Mercy, for the migrant of the Chinese population in Singapore. It is one of the most popular temples among the Buddhist and Taoist, especially among the local devotes of Kuan Yin.

It was the first of the lunar calendar. People with all sorts of attire squeezed through the entrance of the Kwan Im Temple. The pleasing smell of incense burning wafting above everything else was the first to greet the crowd. In fear that the soot of the incense offerings may stain the inner ceiling of the temple, it was only allowed outside the temple hall.

Free joss sticks were available on both of side of the entrance, while some devotees entered the temple with joss sticks bought by them. After lighting of there joss sticks, worshippers prayed in all directions, some facing outside the temple, looking into the sky, some facing the temple hall, towards the statue of the Kuan Yin.

Almost immediately after one offered incense in the urn for incense offerings, which is placed in the center of the temple outside the temple hall, the volunteers of the temple would remove these joss sticks to make room for other devotees. The overwhelming crowd would force one to move away from the urn for incense offerings before one could sigh and feel that it was a waste for offering incense for less than ten seconds.

The devotees know the rules clearly where all would remove their shoes before stepping into the temple hall. A hall with pillars entwined with dragons made of wood , devotees would collect a cylinder (brass can) filled with 100 divination sticks (wooden sticks) and a pair of jiaobei blocks (moon-liked blocks), before proceeding to the center of the hall. Here, devotees would kneel on the red carpet, in front of the statue of deities and whisper their prayers. “Chuck, chuck, chuck …”, the clanking of the constant rhythm from the cylinder of divination sticks filled the entire hall.

When their prayers and questions are being answered, upon a fallen divination stick (or Qian) of the cylinder and verified by the jiaobei blocks facing opposite directions , devotees would bring that stick to the counter and to return the cylinder and blocks as well. The volunteers at the counter would issue a piece of divination slip – a fortune telling messages from deities to the believers - correspondingly to their divination stick.

The statue of the three main deities were placed separately on different altars – Kuan Yin on the center, Ta Ma Tan Shith on the left and Hua Tuo (the Chinese patron saint of medicine and healing) on the right. A large image of the Sakyamuni Buddha was placed in the rear hall. Some worshippers stood in front of the deities and offered flowers, some prayed silently with two-palms together, others sat on the chairs provided at the rear hall to reflect or simply to rest. Finally, some offered a donation and drop it in the box in front of the altar of Kuan Yin for the temple.

Devotees are to exit the temple with the either two smaller exits doors at the side, so as not to obstruct the traffic of those entering through the main door. With their divination slips, devotees would crowd around those elderly providing interpretation service just outside the temple. A single slip of divination slip could have a variation of outcomes depending on the type of questions being asked. Devotees commonly enquire about their health, career, marriage and pregnancy. A few dollars was offered to the elderly for the service, commonly interpret these divinations with a book in accordance to the ancient classics.

During the first or the fifteen of the lunar calendar thousands of devotees will make their way to visit the Kwan Im Temple. During Chinese New Year when the temple is kept all night long, many worshippers turned up to thank Kuan Yin for her blessings for the past one-year, and or to offer incense for Kuan Yin for an auspicious year ahead.

The street outside of the temple was packed. It was the first of the lunar calendar. Vehicles were moving in and out of the road, with flowers vendors busy selling incenses and flowers. The flower vendors would set up their stalls at the side of the road, sometimes moving to the center to get more customers. “Flowers for you? Miss, do you want to purchase joss-sticks?” they would call out (in Chinese). The selling of vegetables for a living at the street was no longer in sight after the World War II Period. Groups or pairs of elderly were loitering along the street. Waterloo Street is a common meeting ground for many. They were also fortuneteller stalls, accompanied with varying small statues or pictures of Buddha and lighted incense, some with long queues.

One of the most auspicious street in Singapore, Waterloo streets are filled with many religious buildings – Sri Krishnan Temple (Hindu Temple), the Church of St. Peter and Paul, the Maghain Aboth Synagogue and the Malabar Muslim Jama-Ath Mosque. It is a fine example that illustrates the multi-ethnic and religious prospects of Singapore. Some of the devotees of the Kuan Yin would also proceed to offer incense at the Hindu Temple next door as a form of respect and acceptance and to ask for more blessings.

Kwan Im Temple is very well known for blessing. This is the very reason that the temple is so popular, with crowds even on any other usual days. Through word of mouth, the temple gained more worshippers every year, and hence it renovated to increase the size and accessibility of the temple. There is also a myth that went viral among the believers of the Kuan Yin. In the late 1930s, Japanese dropped a bomb in the Waterloo Street and Kwan Im Temple was the only building that suffered minimal damage. It was a miracle and believers believe that it was due to the blessings and protection from the Kuan Yin and hence, an increase in the number of devotees after.

Twilight fell. The sky turned to a light, dusky purple as the stallholders started to pack their stalls. The crowd were dispersing themselves and soon the temple is closed for the day. The comforting view of the quiet street was all that was available on the Waterloo Street thereafter.

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