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Chinese Temples in Singapore

In 1958, Dr. Leon Comber published “Chinese Temples in Singapore”. It was written for Westerners and English-speaking Chinese because “it seemed desirable to tell the reader something about the religious background to Chinese temple life in Singapore”.

This volume recorded Chinese religious practices, popular deities, explanation of “Chinese religion” and the background of 33 Chinese temples in Singapore. 10 of the temples were located in Chinatown. see list of temples below

Almost 50 years later, “Chinese Temples in Singapore” continue to be read and to be used as a reference for people interested in Chinese religion and Chinese temples in Singapore. “Chinese Temples in Singapore” can be found in major library collections around the world.

Leon Comber Interview

Chinatownology invites Dr. Leon Comber to talk about his motivation to publish the book 50 years ago and how the social function of his book has changed over the last 50 years.

Dr. Leon, how did you come to be interested in Chinese temples?
From the time I landed in Malaya as a British officer in the Indian Army at the time of the Japanese surrender at the end of WW2, I was intrigued, and fascinated in all aspects of Chinese life that I saw around me.

For me, it was a “new world” that invited exploration, especially as there were then so few Caucasians around me who spoke Chinese or had any understanding of Chinese life: In fact, this did not change much during the ten years or so that I lived in Malaya/Singapore. I have always been interested in exploring religion and the “Otherworld”, and Chinese temples with their colorful profusion of Chinese gods stretching back into China’s dim past provided me with a wonderful opportunity to expand my interests.

It helped, too, I suppose that I had already started to study Cantonese and Mandarin, 普通话, (putonghua) in my spare time, and I’m sure this helped to open for me so many “windows” that would have otherwise have remained closed.

How many copies were printed?
Was this book a commercial success?

The first edition of the book was published by Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, with as far as I can remember an initial modest print-run of 1,000 paperback copies. It was subsequently reprinted to meet demand so I suppose it could be considered a “commercial success” in those days as the market for books of this kind was fairly limited.

What were the objectives of the publication?
What roles or function did the book served at the time of publication?

Credit should be given to Donald Moore who was the publisher of Eastern Universities Press under which imprint the book was originally published. He encouraged the publishing of a series of small, handy books dealing with Malayan history and life and customs which no-one seemed to have done before.

I wrote altogether six small books for him dealing with Chinese customs and traditional life in his Malayan Heritage Series, including “Chinese Temples in Singapore”: they were written to respond to an interest in books of this kind which did not seem to have been filled elsewhere.

Fortunately, they were all well reviewed in the local press and elsewhere and while they did not make a fortune for him (or me!), they “broke even” in the publishing sense, and he did not lose money on them.

Were Chinese Temples and religion popular subjects in the late 1950s?
No, they were not what would be called “popular” subjects in those days but nevertheless there was undoubtedly an interest on the part of Westerners and English-educated local Chinese in reading about these subjects

Who were interested in Chinese religions and temples?
How were they perceived?
i.e. was there a stereotype of such people?

The books I wrote were aimed at Western expatriates living in Singapore and English-educated Chinese. As far as I know, anyway, there were not very many books even written in Chinese dealing with these subjects at the time.

What was the general attitude (Caucasians, English speaking Chinese and Mandarin/Dialect speaking Chinese) towards Chinese religion? What did Chinese Religion mean to them?
It seemed at that time there were many Westerners and English-speaking Chinese who were curious in finding out something about Chinese religion and Chinese traditional life providing it was written in an easily-readable style and they didn’t have to wade through volumes of dry academic prose.

It seemed, too, that many English-educated Chinese were interested in finding out more about their own culture from which they had been separated by the gap that had somehow grown up over the years between the English-educated and Chinese-educated sections of the Chinese community.

What was the response to a westerner interested in Chinese Temples?
I never noticed any particular “response” as such when I visited temples.

Of course, I always tried my best to respect the atmosphere of the temples and the deities enshrined in them and not to offend susceptibilities. Usually speaking, every one I came into contact with was friendly and helpful though in one or two very rare instances, I was made to understand that my presence was not welcome as an “ang moh” but this didn’t bother me very much!

You mentioned in the preface the book “should be written by a Chinese” but “few interested in doing so” Why?
I was actually rather diffident about writing Chinese Temples as I realized there would be many Chinese who would know much more about the subject than I did. I suppose, at the time, not many Chinese were interested in writing about it as like anything else, if you are familiar with a subject, it doesn’t enter your head that you should write something about it.

Of the 10 temples mentioned in Singapore Chinatown, 4 have disappeared;
Fu Tak Chi 福德词, Telok Ayer Street - converted into a museum/exhibition hall
Golden Lotus Temple 金兰庙- relocated
Ning Yeung Wui Kuan 宁阳会馆 - relocated
The Temple of the Buddha who saves souls 地藏王古庙 - ceased to exist

Was this something you expected?
Yes, I did realize at the time it was inevitable that many of the temples and shrines that I had visited and written about would eventually disappear with the “modernization” of Singapore, and without being too pretentious, I suppose I thought that it would be worthwhile to write down “for the record” what I had seen and experienced myself.

Fuk Tak Chi 福德词, Palmer Road have been acquired by the government and given Temporary Occupation License (TOL). The management has published a book and has applied for conservation status. Are such institutions worth conserving and what might be lost if the physical structure were demolished?
Yes, of course, it’s a great pity, and I would like to see the temples you refer be allowed to remain because of the part they have played in Singapore’s past, in some cases even dating back to the beginning of Chinese settlement in Singapore.

“Chinese Temples in Singapore” can be found in major libraries around the world and is used as a reference. Did you imagine the book to be a major reference 50 years later?
What roles do you think your book plays today? Actually, I think it’s very flattering that my small book should be used as a reference after so many years, and I never imagined this would happen. I suppose it must be due to its providing an easy-to-read record of what things were like all those years ago.

Do you think interest in Singapore Chinese temples and religion is growing or declining today?
I have a strong feeling that interest in Chinese temples and religion is growing in present-day Singapore. I was in fact very impressed by the interest being shown in Chinese temples and religion when I was in Singapore last year (2006) for two months as a Visiting Research Fellow at ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), when with the help of Victor Yue, the moderator of the Taoism-Singapore Group, and several other friends, I was able to visit temples and see how unchanged Chinese religious practices were from the time I had seen them.

What is the role of Chinese temples and religion in modern day Singapore? How has that changed since your book was published?
Chinese temples, temple deities, religious observances and practices are no different from what I observed myself in earlier times, and I believe they still have an important role to play in present-day, modern, Singapore.

In your preface, you wrote that, “this book should be written by a Chinese. However, for one reason or the other, there were few interested in doing so. Hence I write.” (Page ix). Has that Chinese appeared?
I hope that the great body of knowledge that Victor Yue and his “kakis” have acquired about Chinese temples in Singapore since I wrote about them will soon be brought together in book form.

Temples has always been a popular destination for tourists.

What insight can they get from a temple visit?
Such visits should be a must for all tourists to enable them to gain a better and a more balanced understanding of the authentic atmosphere of Chinese traditional life in Singapore -- after all, the majority of Singapore’s population is Chinese -- which I’m afraid they (tourists) would miss altogether if they confined their visits to shopping arcades and shops.

Finally, what will you say to people who have not visit a Chinese temple?
Please do so otherwise you will miss some of the oldest and most beautiful Chinese buildings in Singapore.


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