Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sian Teck Tng Vegetarian Convent, a remnant of a lost world

The Sian Teck Tng Vegetarian Convent at 57 Cuppage Road - a remnant of the past now squeezed between huge office buildings and an expressway... A big truck was parked in front of it while I visited, so I had to borrow this picture from Kent Neo.
Yesterday, I got to see Sian Teck Tng vegetarian convent, which is one of the less know temples of Singapore. I'd heard about it before, but hadn't quite understood where to find it - 57 Cuppage Road is kind of an odd place since the substantial road works and building works done in the 1970s. Today, the monastery (also called and used as temple by people outside the monastery) is situated behind huge office buildings and the Central Expressway; it is the last remnant of a lost world which consisted of a quiet road with several large Straits Colonial style houses on one side of the Convent and a large temple garden on the other.

The Sian Teck Tng convent was originally established in 1883 for poor widows and orphans (female) as a safe home for them to worship Buddha and live a virtuous life - which must have been a challenge in the late 19th century busy trading center of Singapore, full of prying seamen and traders from all parts of the world. The current building celebrated it's 111th birthday just recently. It was built on the initiative of Master Ma Choon Qing in 1902, and funds for the elaborate Straits Colonial style building were donated by Buddhist devotees and well-wishers, who all got their names carved in two large stone tablets, one on each side wall of the main terrace.

Befittingly, the temple honors the feminine deity of Guan Yin, also known as the Goddess of Mercy. A smallish group of women - some of them way over 80 years old, like the tiny and friendly old lady who was resting in the dining room while I visited - still live in the convent, even if the younger generation now works outside the convent walls. People are free to knock on the door and step in to leave offerings to Guan Yin and to pray, and the convent relies on donations for its subsistence. One of the most important days of the temple are the Guan Yin festivals, which fall on the 19th day of the second, sixth, and ninth lunar months. All food - served daily for the residents and for visitors during the celebrations - is strictly vegetarian, and it is still prepared in the old kitchen, with two large pans over a gas flame.

Today, cars speeding on the express lanes past the convent provide a never-ending accompaniment to the prayers and chanting inside the old walls. Of course, cities grow and things change, but I still very sad about how much of the history of Singapore has already been torn down and still disappears daily at a far too fast pace. I just hope that this beautiful fragment from the past will be allowed to survive in the bright and brave future of Singapore...

An old picture with resident orphans and widows in front of the Convent.
Altar for Guan Yin is places directly after the entrance to the building. Unfortunately, the glass cover makes it difficult to see the sculpture of the deity sitting behind (it is the female figure with several pairs of arms in the middle of the altar behind the offer table).

Offerings for Guan Yin are most often fruit and incense - the fruit is changed daily (and after being offered to the gods, it is eaten by the residents and visitors).
 An elaborately decorated door openings leads to the next room with the next altar... wooden fretwork was commonly used in Singaporean buildings as it let through the breeze while still functioning as a space divider.

 Close-ups of parts of the fretwork, with Buddha's Hand lemons and pomegranates as decorative motifs. See below for more about them as Buddhist symbols...
The light well in the middle of the house was originally open to the skies and let in both light and breeze - and pouring rain, when it was the monsoon season (and pigeons, I assume?). It is now covered with glass.

Four fanlight window openings, with fan-formed paintings over them, and a panel of Italian hand-painted tiles. The first fan-formed painting depicts peaches, a symbol for longevity in Chinese art; the second, oranges (mandarins), an extremely auspicious plant for the Chinese and a symbol for riches and good fortune (quite touching, when thinking of the residents of the convent). Below, two more window openings from the same room - the first with pomegranates, which is a symbol for fecundity and a verbal homophone for "generations" (and thus a visual suggestion of "generations of offspring"). The last depicts Buddha's Hand lemons, that stand both for longevity and for spiritual blessings.
When the Buddha's Hand lemon is depicted together with pomegranates and peaches, they become the Three Abundances, where peaches stand for longevity, the pomegranate with its many seeds for progeny, and the lemon for the blessings that bring happiness.

Another altar in an inner room is dedicated to the important donators and deceased residents of the convent. Commemorative plates - large golden ones for the donators and tiny ones for the residents - can be seen behind the glass. In front of the altar, incense, fruit and candy are displayed as offerings to their spirits. The lotus painted on the front of the table for the offerings is an important symbol in Chinese and Buddhist art as it stands for many qualities associated with the religion like purity and harmony. Also, Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, to whom the Sian Teck Tgn Temple is dedicated, is always depicted holding a long-stemmed lotus in her hand. 
A couple of old, charming cupboards in the kitchen; they are standing in stone cups which were filled with salted water to keep ants and mice out from the food inside them.
The kitchen with two large fireplaces for cooking; one the wall, a small altar dedicated to the Kitchen God, a very powerful god who listened to all gossip and had to be kept happy with constant offerings to ensure that the pots and pans were kept full of supplies.
And last...what a contrast - modern times catching up with the Convent! (21 'likes' while I checked - time to add one...)

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