Tou Mu Kung Temple

Singapore Infopedia


Tou Mu Kung, also called Hougang Dou Mu temple (后港斗母宫), is a Taoist temple located at 779A Upper Serangoon Road.1 Completed in 1921, it is the oldest temple dedicated to the worship of Jiu Huang Ye (九皇爷 or Nine Emperor Gods) in Singapore and was gazetted as a national monument on 14 January 2005.2 The temple is also known as Kew Ong Yah or Kau Wong Yeh, which are variant ways of pronouncing Jiu Huang Ye in Hokkien and Cantonese respectively.3

According to anecdotal accounts and temple inscriptions, the origins of the worship of Jiu Huang Ye in the temple can be traced to 1902 and attributed to Ong Choo Kee, a Hokkien migrant from Nan’an county, Fujian, China.4 Based on one account,  Ong prayed for divine help at the Kau Ong Yah temple during a business trip in Penang in 1902. He vowed that he would venerate Jiu Huang Ye for the rest of his life if his business deals succeeded. When his prayer was answered, Ong acquired a talisman from the temple and housed it at an altar in his home. This altar was later relocated to Boundary Road near Lorong Chuan when the number of people arriving to worship increased.5

The number of worshippers who visited the shrine, mostly Hokkiens and Teochews living in the surrounding area, grew significantly in the years that followed.6 One of the worshippers, Ong Chwee Tow, a pineapple tycoon from the Hokkien community, decided to donate a plot of land around the 5½ milestone Upper Serangoon Road for the construction of a temple. Ong Chwee Tow’s name appears first on one of the two stone tablets listing the temple’s benefactors.7 The inscription on this tablet also states that the land for Tou Mu Kung was acquired in 1919 and that the temple was completed in 1921. The second stone tablet acknowledges the people who had donated towards the repair works of the temple, including that of the stage outside the temple.8 The stage was repaired in 1924 and used for wayang (Chinese street opera) performances during festivals until 1998 when it was demolished for the widening of Upper Serangoon Road.9

Building features
Tou Mu Kung adopts the architectural style found in the Quanzhou prefecture in Fujian.10 The main temple building is symmetrical and located in front, while the living quarters of the temple keepers are located at the back. The depictions of two military guardian deities are painted on the doors of the main entrance.11 Above the entrance is a plaque, donated by a devotee, believed to have been made in 1941.12

Typical of Chinese architecture, the roof is the most striking part of the temple.13 The ornamentation on the roof ridge includes dragons, dragon-fish and various types of climbing plants such as honeysuckle, Chinese trumpet vine and grapes.14 At the centre of the ridge is a blazing red pearl symbolising the sun.15

A small courtyard formed by the central air well separates the entrance hall and main hall.16 Behind the main hall is an octagonal pagoda-like two-storey tower featuring a red-and-white bottle gourd on its roof.17 In the backyard, there is an old well that temple visitors draw water from to wash their hands and faces for good luck.18

Deities worshipped
The main altar in Tou Mu Kung is dedicated to Jiu Huang Ye.19 Another altar is dedicated to Dou Mu (斗母), believed to be the mother of Jiu Huang Ye, and after whom the temple is named.20 Other deities also worshipped at the temple include Guan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy), Guan Gong and Da Bo Gong.21

The temple’s most important event is the annual festival that involves inviting Jiu Huang Ye to descend to earth for his nine-day birthday celebration.22 Held during the first nine days in the ninth month of the Chinese calendar, the celebration is usually a vibrant affair that includes grand street processions.23

Ownership dispute and later developments
In 1984, Ong Choo Kee’s grandson, Ong Yew Kew, went to court to claim sole legal ownership of the land on which the temple stood.24 This took place amid hostilities between Ong Yew Kew and his relatives, with whom he shared the residential space in the temple.25 The former had been in charge of Tou Mu Kung’s affairs since the mid-1960s. He claimed that the temple was a private one and that he owned the land under the law of adverse possession, having lived there for 12 continuous years. In April 2001, the High Court ruled in his favour.26

However, the Attorney-General’s Chambers, as the Protector of Charities, successfully appealed for the case to be reopened and, in November 2002, the High Court reversed its earlier decision.27 In August 2004, the Attorney-General’s Chambers appointed the Singapore Taoist Federation to manage the temple.28 The federation then established a committee for that purpose.29

Upon taking over the management, the Singapore Taoist Federation decided to undertake a major refurbishment of the temple due to its dismal physical state.30 However, no works could begin until the three households residing there were resettled. In the meantime, a tent was built over the temple to provide temporary shelter because the roof leaked whenever it rained.31 In June 2008, Tou Mu Kung became part of the Upper Serangoon heritage trail under the “Colours of History. Trails of Memories” project by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The project’s main objectives were to beautify and improve the district, as well as strengthen the sense of belonging within the community.32

On 31 March 2015, five representatives from various Taoist temples and organisations in Singapore were officially appointed as trustees of the temple. In November 2016, the committee started the temple restoration project to refurbish and construct extensions to the building. This project was estimated to cost $6 million in total and was to be carried out in three phases: Phase One – the construction of an underground carpark and a two-storey building; Phase Two – the restoration of the main temple building, and; Phase Three – the construction of a four-storey administrative block behind the temple.33

Chow Yaw Huah & Valerie Chew

1. “Tou Mu Kung Temple,” National Heritage Board, accessed 8 November 2016.
2. Tracy Sua, “Four New Heritage Sites,” Straits Times, 14 January 2005, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 202. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
4. Xu Liying 徐李颖, ed., Jiu huang sheng ji: Hougang Dou mu gong 九皇圣迹:后港斗母宫 [Sacred site of the Nine Emperor Gods: The Hougang Dou Mu Temple] (Singapore: Hougang Dou mu gong, 2006), 3. (Call no. Chinese RSING 203.5095957 XLY)
5. Norman Yam, “Festival of the 9 Deities,” Straits Times, 2 November 1990, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 3, 6. 
7. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 3.
8. Chen Jinghe and Chen Yusong 陈荆和、陈育崧编著, eds., Xin jia po hua wen bei ming ji lu 新加坡华文碑铭集录 [Chinese inscriptions in Singapore] (Ang Gang: Pressed by the Publishing Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1974), 162–64. (Call no. Chinese RSING C814.12 CCH)
9. Chen and Chen, jia po hua wen bei ming ji lu, 164; Sua, “Four New Heritage Sites.” 
10. Xie Yanyan 谢燕燕, ed., Miao yu wen hua: Xinjiapo ... min su dao lan 庙宇文化:新加坡民俗导览 [Temple culture and customs in Singapore], vol. 2 (Singapore: Ji Biaodian Publishing Company, 2007), 50. (Call no. Chinese RSING 291.35095957 MYW)
11. Evelyn Lip, Chinese Temple Architecture in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1983), 78–79. (Call no. RSING 726.1951095957 LIP)
12. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 7.
13. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 58.
14. Lip, Chinese Temple Architecture in Singapore, 78; Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 60.
15. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 61.
16. Lip, Chinese Temple Architecture in Singapore, 78; Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 67.
17. Lip, Chinese Temple Architecture in Singapore, 78; Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 80–81.
18. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 84.
19. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 7.
20. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 8.
21. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 17, 12 & 13. 
22. Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 202.
23. Xu Liying, Jiu huang sheng ji, 88.
24. Alethea Lim, “Temple Land Case Back in Court Again,” Straits Times, 2 November 2001, 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Zou Meilin 邹美琳 , Shén miào tǔdì fǎn xiàng yǒngyǒu quán àn chóngshěn shū zhí gōng zhèng yánqíng jīdòng yǎnbiàn chéng jiātíng fēnzhēng 神庙土地反向拥有权案重审 叔侄供证言情激动演变成家庭纷争 [Re-trial of the case of ownership of temple land, hostilities were shown when relatives were called to court], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报 , 14 November 2002, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Lim, “Temple Land Case Back in Court Again.”
27. Selina Lum, “Man’s Claim to Temple Land Denied,” Straits Times, 16 November 2002, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Xie Yanyan 谢燕燕, Rì rì ‘chēng yǔsǎn’ tiāntiān ‘zhǔ guǎizhàng’ dòu mǔ gōng yǔ qìng dé lóu jíxū qiǎngxiū “日日‘撑雨伞’天天‘拄拐杖’ 斗母宫与庆德楼急需抢修” [Installed with a temporary cover or support, Tou Mu Keng temple and Qing De building require repairs urgently], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报 , 12 December 2010, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Tanya Fong, “Temple in Legal Tussle to Be Torn Down,” Straits Times, 19 August 2004, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Fong, “Temple in Legal Tussle to Be Torn Down.”
31. Xie Yanyan, “Rì rì ‘chēng yǔsǎn’ tiāntiān ‘zhǔ guǎizhàng’.”
32. Zheng Jiaxin 郑迦馨, Hòu gǎng liùtiáo shí jiāng shè “lìshǐ zǒuláng” 后港六条石将设“历史走廊” [New heritage trail at Hougang 6th milestone], Lianhe Zaoabo 联合, 28 June 2008, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Xie Yanyan 谢燕燕, Hòu gǎng dòu mǔ gōng dònggōng xiūfù fēn sān jiēduàn kuòjiàn míngnián luòjià dàxiū “后港斗母宫动工修复 分三阶段扩建明年落架大修” [Restoration and extension of Hougang Tou Mu Kung temple has commenced and will be carried in three phrase. Restoration will begin next year], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 5 November 2016. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 

Further resources
Jiǔ huáng yé miào jiāng quánmiàn fānxīn九皇爷庙将全面翻新” [Jiu Huang Ye temple to be refurbished], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报 , 24 January 2005, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Leon Comber, Chinese Temples in Singapore (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1958), 81–82. (Call no. RSING 299.51 COM)

M. T. Leong, “Kew Ong Tai Tay,” Singapore Free Press, 22 October 1947, 4. (From NewspaperSG)

Lu Lishan 卢丽珊, Běndì shǒu běn jiǔ huáng xìnyǎng kānwù: Hòu gǎng dòu mǔ gōng chūbǎn “jiǔ huáng shèng jī本地首本九皇信仰刊物: 后港斗母宫出版《九皇圣迹” [First book on Nine Emperor Gods in Singapore: Hougang Tou Mu Kung to Temples”], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报 23 October 2006, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Nanfeng Commercial Press 南风商业出版社,Xinjiapo miao yu gai lan新嘉坡庙宇概览 [Chinese temples of Singapore] (Singapore: Nanfeng Commercial Press, 1951). (Call no. Chinese RDTYS 294.3435 CHI)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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