02 March 2009

Singapore: Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple

Many of my Singaporean friends can’t believe that I actually like local coffee (it is different from Starbucks, but – frankly – not by much; it is still coffee). I guess it’s that they don’t see too many Westerners that adapt to the local lifestyle (and coffee is part of it). They would speechless if they found out I sometimes get on a bus and ride until I see a hawker centre that looks good and jump out for a bite to eat (it’s enough for many of them that I even ride buses). It would really floor them if they knew I actually took field trips to obscure local spots of interest.

Some friends of mine organize outings to interesting places every once in a while. I joined them a few weeks ago to visit Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple. The temple was originally built in Pasir Ris, in the northeast of the island, at a location where, as the story goes, several statues of different deities washed ashore years ago. The person that found them built a temple, predominantly a Chinese temple. But a Hindu statue was among those washed ashore, so a Hindu temple was worked in. A large percentage of the surrounding community was Muslim, so a mosque was built in, as well.

The original temple was a makeshift structure, really a series of what looked like shacks. But, rising rents required the move to a new location – just a couple of miles southeast down the road to Loyang, which is in a more remote area, closer to the airport.

So, we all started with lunch at the rebuilt Chinatown Food Centre, a massive structure one storey above the hustle and bustle of pre-lunar new year Chinatown. We then jumped on the train to go towards the northeast of the island, where we would take a bus the rest of the way to the temple.

Unlike its predecessor, the new temple was built with a bit of planning (and apparently money). It is fascinating. The Chinese Buddhist/Daoist section dominates, probably 60 percent of the total width. A sliver, maybe ten feet wide, was dedicated to the mosque. Less than double the width of that was the Hindu portion. Each stood side-by-side, and worshippers could be seen at all three, extending the Buddhist tradition of lighting incense to the Muslim and Hindu sections, as well.

It was the weekend before Chinese New Year, so the place was abuzz with preparations for the holiday. The Chinese section is familiar in its Buddhist/Daoist setup, with icons of gods, different places for offerings, reverent memorials for ancestors, the incredibly ornate carvings on the pillars, walls, and ceilings, and the ubiquitous incense smoke. Adding to the experience were the hundreds of worshipers, taking time out of a pleasant day to pay their respects in their own tradition (other than special occasions, Chinese worshipers do not have a set time to visit temples – they go when the impulse hits them). It is an interesting, if not well-known, little part of Singapore.

We ended the day with coffee and some local goodies at the hawker centre across the street. It was about as native a day a non-Singaporean could have. In fact, I was probably more Singaporean that day than most of my local friends.