Ban Siew San (Temple of Longevity) – 万寿山寺
Quite a hidden gem in an estate where I live and work. The temple, known as Ban Siew San is located at the junction of Henderson Road and Telok Blangah Road half way up the hill where the Telok Blangah Estate is established. Ban Siew San means ‘Longevity Hill’ while the temple is also known to the Cantonese as Koon Yam Tong (Hall of the Goddess of Mercy), and is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy). The temple has been around since 1880. I have been living in this area for more than 10 years and has never visited the temple until when I found out that a friend was involved in a painting project to restore some of the murals within the temple. I was curious to find out about the project and decided to pay my friend a visit while she worked on the murals. This was during the end of November last year in 2015. The project involved repainting 4 murals of Buddha and some deities, with each mural measuring more than 2m tall, at a height of 2.5m above ground. So when I saw my friend at the temple, she was inevitably standing on a scaffolding way above my eye level thus I have to crank my head to say hi to her.
The process was painstaking as she would use her fingers to even out the enamel paint after she applied with her brushes. Out of curiosity I climbed up the ladder beside the scaffolding just to see what it was like to be up there and of course to take a closer look at the Buddha mural she was working on. After a short conversation with Hnin Phyu (her name) at eye-level, I decided to give myself a tour around the temple. The temple is located about a quarter way up the hill that leads to the Telok Blangah Estate, the latter which means “cooking pot bay”. And yes, we are about one to two kilometres from the coast, now reclaimed as West Coast Park. The west coast leading up to Clementi to the west of Singapore is predominantly used as shipping ports. In the past, also known to the Chinese, the hill on which the temple was built, was known as Longevity Hill, as how the temple was also named. Visitors would have to climb a long flight of steps before they could reach the first entrance of the temple. I painted the temple from below the hill. Ban Siew San Temple has an outer court. The feature I included in my painting is the door way to the outer court. This is where worshippers would offer their burnt offering of incense papers to the deities in pagoda like structures placed outside the main building. The temple itself is not very big, but it has several unwalled chambers dedicated to different deities. The murals are done at the outer chamber. The back of the temple includes a washing area, workers’ quarters, dinning room and a kitchen. The temple is owned privately. Besides the caretaker, there are elderly volunteers who come regularly to help upkeep the area in exchange for a simple meal.
The duty of the caretaker includes removing daily, the burnt out incense and joss sticks from the altar; removing accumulated ash from the urns and making sure the place is swept and cleaned. I was able to catch the caretaker in action as he cleaned the altar and shrine dedicated to Guan Yin.
I sketched the caretaker as he was taking a breather from his work. He introduced himself as Brother Keong but he is about 70 plus years old now. He has been working for the temple for 17 years, probably after he became a retiree. He also walks with a slight limp (probably caused by some hip displacement) but he never complained about his work. He said this work kept him going but he is not sure how long he could stay up this way. Ban Siew San has been around since 1880s which makes it one of the oldest and very rare few historical Hainanese temples in Singapore still standing as it was more than 100 years ago.
According to the historians, the building itself is a hybrid of 2 different Chinese cultures; the temple is Teochew origin, but the architecture style follows the Hokkien convention. Inside the temple, there are 4 masonry columns of European Neo-classical design supporting the roof decorated with curving ridges and ‘swallow tails” ridge ends, typical of the Hokkien temple construction origin.
|Here’s a glimpse of the temple’s exterior.|
Hnin Phyu is an intermedia artist living in Singapore, she graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and started out as a painter and is currently exploring the intervention of spatial relations by experimenting with light and new media such as video, text and sound to investigate the paradoxical space that breaks away from the limitation of single plane surface. (Culturepush.com).
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