A walk along Telok Ayer St, Chinatown

When we have friends visiting us in Singapore, one of the places everyone wants to see is ChinaTown and temples. I start my tour at Telok Ayer St and walk back into Chinatown centre. I only do part of Telok Ayer St when I am showing visitors around otherwise the whole walk will take too long in the heat and humidity for the Brits, who are used to a cold wet climate.

Why is it so special?

I thought I would share my walk along the whole of Telok Ayer St – as there is so much to see along this one street. Six of the buildings in Telok Ayer St are Designated National Monuments by the National Heritage Board. The most in any single street in Singapore. 5 of them served as places of worship.

Telok Ayer means bay of water (Malay). It used to be the first landing point for immigrants into Singapore and the early settlers built their places of worship there to thank the gods for blessing their journey. Now reclaimed land has huge buildings full of international business surrounding this heritage area. The area became multi religious, multicultural haven for people of all faiths.

How do I get there?

Telok Ayer MRT station is DT18 on the blue Downtown line. The easiest way to Telok Ayer St is to exit via exit A on to Cross Street and walk the few metres to the junction.

What is there to see?

As you turn into Telok Ayer St the first thing you will notice are the old shophouses with their distinctive wooden shutters and Five foot ways underneath. Five Foot Ways are exactly that – a five door wide path covered to protect from the rather and wide enough for families to drag their mats and bedding out at night to sleep – as the shophouses could be very hot.

A Five Foot Way

The Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre – peach and white limestone facade – on the junction with Boon Tat St. It is free to enter (remove shoes) and is open weekdays 10am to 5:30pm and Saturdays 9am to 1:30pm. They usually get about 100 visitors a day (quiet) but at the moment due to Covid-19 numbers are down dramatically and screening and hand washing procedures are in place.

Nagore Dargah

The building was formerly known as the Nagare Dargah shrine and was built between 1828 and 1830 by South Indian immigrants to thank Saint Shahul Hameed for their safe arrival in Singapore. The building reopened as a heritage centre in 2011. Indian Muslims are 1.2% of Singaporeans- “a minority of a minority”.

Inside the small heritage centre

Coming out of the Nagare Dargah on the same side of the road is Telok Ayer Green. A rest area created by the National Parks Department with statues representing the beginning sof Telok Ayer and the Malay fisherman who came here.

Now if you’re feeling hot and thirsty at this point look across the road to a great juice bar at 121 to buy healthy fresh fruit and juice for only S$3 (£1.65).

A little further down and back across the road is Singapore Yu Huang Gong Temple – constructed by the Keng Teck Whay Association, a clan of Hokkien Peranakan merchants. Initially named the Keng Teck Whay Building it housed a members only club but was taken over by the Taoist Mission (Singapore) in 2010. It’s named was then changed to the current one which translates to the Temple of the Heavenly Jade Emperor. The Temple was opened to the public in 2015 after a two year restoration.

Side vie of the Yu Huang Gong Temple
Entrance to the Yu Huang Gong Temple
View from outside the temple entrance

Further along is the big tourist draw, the Thian Hock Keng Temple of heavenly happiness / blessings. This was built between 1840/1842 (dates vary) to thank goddess of the seas – Mazu – for the safe voyage to Singapore. It is one of the oldest temples in Singapore. The Bell rings in the morning to open the temple and the Drum is beat in the evening to close down. The First Chinese arrived in 1821 and this was on the shores of Singapore. Note all the reclaimed land where the business towers are located around this area. It was raining and dark by the time I went inside to take photos so I have t got any to show here.

Thian Hock Keng Temple (just before a thunderstorm!)
Temple entrance

Next door to the temple is the Singapore Musical Box Museum which contains antique musical boxes from early 1800s to 1900s produced mainly in Switzerland, Germany and the USA. This is open from 10am to 6pm, closer on Tuesdays and Sundays and tours are compulsory (every hour on the hour except 12 and 1pm) as part of the S$12 ticket price. This is why I have never been inside – it’s inconvenient for someone with a passing interest.

Singapore Musical Box Museum
Pagoda in the courtyard of the Musical Box Museum

Further down the road at no 192 is the Al-Abrar Mosque – (also known as Kuchi Pali – small mosque in Tamil). This started as a thatched hut in 1827 before being rebuilt between 1850-1855 to its current brick building which incorporate Indo-Saracenic and shophouse architectural elements in its design. It’s most distinctive features are the two octagonal minarets positioned on either side of the main entrance. It was extensively renovated in 1986 resulting in the current mosque. Besides being a place of worship, the mosque served as a meeting place and social venue for the Chulia immigrants from South India.

Al-Abrar Mosque

Continue walking along and cross over the road towards the Amoy Street Food Centre. Before heading into this big hawker centre turnaround and take a look at the wonderful colourful shophouses.

Colourful Shophouses

If you’re hungry now is the time to stop and sample some of Singapore’s fabulous street food at the Hawker Centre. This is a big one with loads of stall serving a wide variety of food at cheap prices. It was too big to get a picture of the whole food Centre so I just took a snap of a part of it whilst it was quiet.

Amoy Street Food Centre

Walking past the food centre there is a little park area at the end of the road. Sit down and look across to the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church. This is the oldest Chinese speaking Methodist church in Singapore which found its new home in Telok Ayer Street in 1913, and opened its doors in 1925. The building is one of the more eclectic ones in the area, with the red ornate roof representing the mostly Chinese congregation that gathered here, while the European- style arches and crosses on the columns mark it out as a church building.

Park rest area
Chinese Methodist Church

Now, turnaround and start walking back towards Telok Ayer MRT. Along the way stop and have a look up at The Chung Hwa Free Clinic at no 202 Telok Ayer St. This was set up in 1952 by a group of Chinese volunteer doctors from the Singapore Chinese Physician Association. There were government clinics but demand far exceeded supply so there was a great need for charitable endeavours such as this one. Funds for the clinic were raised by the Chinese community, particularly the Cantonese, and especially the the Cantonese Clan Association Zhong San Hui Guan. It’s now a cafe.

Chung Hwa Free Clinic

Continue walking and cross over the busy main road at Cross St and continue walking along Telok Ayer St. at no 98 you will find some stone lions guarding the Ying Fo Fui Kun house at no98 (open 9-5 Mon-Fri and 9-12 on Saturdays. However I was there at 11.15am on a Wednesday and it was shut). This was established in 1822-23 and is one of the first clan associations in Singapore. It began a s a temple serving the needs of the Hakka immigrants. It was a welfare association and school. It has been rebuilt several times but has remained in the same site. The ground floor is meeting rooms and the upper level has an alter to Guan Ti, a popular diety amongst clan associations, representing courage and loyalty.

Yo Fo Fui Kun

The next interesting building is Fuk Tak Chi which was one of Singapore’s oldest temples from the 1820s until 1994. The temple’s patron deity is Dai Bak Gong – the god of wealth and merit. T(e temple was founded by Hakka and Cantonese immigrants. It was converted into a museum in 1994 after it closed. It is free to enter.

Fuk Tak Chi entrance
The detail on this model is fascinat8ng.

At this point the end of Telok Ayer St is in sight and the end of this walk along there. On the left is the lovely area of Capital Square with its restaurants and bars, as well as statues and wall art. Time for another sit down and drink whilst planning the next area to visit perhaps? Enjoy!

Capital Square
Capital Square

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