Full episode transcript below:
Ying Fo Clan Association building is Singapore only remaining association that is located on its original spot, and has been here, virtually unchanged, for over two hundred years. In today’s tour, we are going to learn about the Hakkas, walk through 200 years of the Ying Fo Fui Kun’s history, and explore this historical monument in detail.
Hi I’m Yilun. Thanks for downloading this episode of Yilun Audio Tours. This podcast offers reviews, tours, news and commentaries about Singapore. Traveling through Singapore just got easier.
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Disclaimer and warning:
This audio guide is designed accompany you while you visit the location. Use this guide with discretion. Always be prepared for renovations and the shifting of artifacts. Most importantly, be flexible. Ask a local for directions. Singaporeans speak English as our native language.
Guide to the location:
Ying Fo Clan Association is located at the intersection of Telok Ayer Street and Cross Street, inside the Far East Square complex. The closest MRT station is Raffles Place, and Ying Fo Clan Association is only a 5 minutes walk away. Exit via exit F, and follow Cecil street till you see the Indian Overseas Bank, and then turn right to go onto Cross Street. You will reach Ying Fo Clan Association after and short walk. See the map on the website for specific directions.
The tour begins.
We are now at the exterior of the building. Take a few moments as you soak in this eclectic fusion of various architectural forms. This building stands out from the rest of the shophouses in this row. The black exterior, the higher than ususal ceiling, the stone lions all add to the uniqueness of the building. This building probably seems out of place here, at the end of a row of shophouses, but this wasn’t the way it used to be. Take a look at the left of the building. Now you just see a wide road, but in the past, there was something more, and I will tell you about it later in the tour.
I now invite you to take a closer look at the architecture of the building. The Ying Fo Fui Kun is essentially a slice of Hakka life transported from Southern China into the heart of Singapore. The Hakkas in China lived in round earth houses that looked just like the exterior of the clan association, but only bigger. These round earth houses are essentially walled villages. Walled villages are typically designed for defensive purposes and consist of one entrance and no windows at the ground level. This building takes on some of the characteristic features of the traditional Hakka walled villages. For one, the windows for this building is located very high up, as it is the convention for the Hakkas to build their windows high so as to ward off enemy attacks in their native homes. The colors are also very dull, as the material materials used for the original Hakka houses are made of rammed earth, which is of the same hue. I will elaborate on the history of the Hakkas later on in the tour, but for now, just enjoy and appreciate the intricate design of the building.
Just like how Singapore is a melting pot of different cultures, this building also contains many foreign elements that are not native to the Hakkas. For example, the two columns that you see supporting the roof are Doric Columns that are commonly found in classical greek architecture, which is characterized by the rounded column and the capital at the top and bottom. However, the capital is carved into the intricate shape of a dragon, which is characteristic of Teochew culture.
Carved above the entrance to the clan house, in an ancient script unreadable to most modern learners of the Chinese language, are the four words “Qian He Wan Sun”. It is an ancient expression of a hope that one’s descendants would succeed through studying hard. The carving on the door frame that looks like a fish with a dragon’s head, called an Au, is linked to an ancient saying – “the carp jumps through the dragon gate” which means making it through the notoriously difficult Chinese imperial examinations. These reveal a strong belief by the clan’s founders that education is the key to upward mobility.
The carvings on the two sides of the entranceway, are actually carvings of flower vases. The figure of a flower vase, ping in Chinese, has the same pronunciation as ping, or peace, symbolizing the aspiration for peace that the early immigrants had for their descendants.
There are two pairs of stone lions guarding the entrance to the building. In fact, the stones lions are usually only found outside rich households in China, which suggests that the Ying Fo Fui Kun commanded substantial financial power in the past.
Now, let’s move into the building and we will see more. As you walk in, you will see a small wooden threshold at the entranceway. Cross over it using your right foot first, and be sure to not step on it. As you are greeted by the irritating electronic bell sound, I will tell you more about the threshold you just crossed.
The threshold is a common feature of most chinese buildings, and acts as a demarcation of where the house is. There is actually a legend as to how the threshold came about. During the Shang Dynasty, a noble wanted a new home and asked his servants for contributions. A particularly servant “contributed” his life, and his body was buried at the entrance of the home, as a form of protection. Therefore, stepping over it, would be a mark of disrespect for the spiriting guarding the house.
Unlike many chinese households, the threshold here is low, which symbolizes the Hakka’s humility and high level of tolerance.
Walk towards the model of the building as I tell you more about its design and history.
Ying Fo Fui Kun is one of the oldest clan associations in Singapore, and it has the title of being the only association still located on its original spot. A clan association is formed when a group of immigrants arrives in Singapore and decided to group together to provide support for each other, such as addressing their need for lodging and jobs, as well as arranging their funeral arrangements. Its founder, Liu Runde, had envisioned it to be more than a simply association providing welfare services, but a kinship bridge between the Singapore Hakka community and China. The Ying Fo Fui Kun was the first Hakka association in Singapore. Founded in 1822 by Hakka immigrants from Guangdong, China, it was established to cater to early Hakka immigrants.
Ying Fo Fui Kun has gone through several renovations, but throughout history, it has always remained at this very spot, where its foundation stones were first laid. At the time of its founding, the clan building faces directly into the shoreline. Therefore from the entrance, one has an unobscured view of the sea. Just imagine looking out of the doorway and seeing chinese junks arriving at the docks. However, in recent years, successive land reclamation has expanded the shoreline outwards and today, we can no longer see the sea from here. Did you know that when the building was first constructed, it was only single storey? The second floor did not exist. The second floor was only constructed in 1844, when the building underwent its first major renovation project. The interior of the building was also richly ornamented in this renovation project, with the traditional Hakka air well fitted into the structure to provide greater sunlight and air ventilation.
This entire building is designed according to the principles of Fengshui. Fengshui is the ancient Chinese art of positions and how to influence one’s fate using positions. The entire building is built along a central axis, and follows many conventions of Feng Shui. In this case, the courtyard faces inwards, as it is believed that this will trap good fortune within the building, while the screen blocks out evil spirits.
Look closer at the model of the association. Recall what’s to the left of the building. Currently, a road runs next to this building, but long ago, there used to be another building to the left of this building. This building that was constructed in 1898 right next to the Clan building used to be the ancestral hall. The ancestral hall was used for laying the tablets of the ancestors of the clan’s members. However, the ancestral hall was demolished by the government in 1980 for road expansion reasons.
Now, walk into the courtyard, and look at the dividing screen.
Here you see the image of a plum tree on the dividing screen. Plum is pronounced as mei in Chinese, and this is a reference to Meizhou, the region in Guangdong where a majority of the Hakkas came from. The Chinese characters for Hakka (客家) literally means “guest families”. The Hakka’s ancestors were often said to have arrived from what is today’s central China centuries ago. In a series of migrations, the Hakkas moved, settled in their present locations in southern China, and then often migrated overseas to various countries throughout the world.
Stand in the middle of this beautiful courtyard and soak in the atmosphere.
Moving on, walk towards the main altar at the far end of the building.
This is an altar dedicated to Guan Ti, which is the chinese deity of war. It symbolizes courage and loyalty, values highly prized by chinese immigrants, as they are qualities which make a man, and is hence revered by many clan associations. The Ying Fo Fui Kun is no different, and hence dedicated a large portion of the floor to an altar in this deity’s honor.
Imagine yourself as a new immigrant, you have just stepped foot on the island a few days ago. Now you are kneeling in front of the altar, becoming part of the band of brothers – your clan association. This altar was used for the initiation of new members.
Look around at the tables and chairs occupying the space in front of the altar. This building is actually still used by the association. Meeting, gatherings and functions are often held here. This first floor is a space commonly used for the gatherings and meetings of the Hakkas, hence here are lots of tables and chairs placed around for the members to interact. Even though modern Singapore has progressed, the clan association is still very active in connecting the Hakka community.
You may want to sit down, as I tell you more about the Hakka community in Singapore.
The Hakkas are a distinct ethnic community, and the Hakka community in Singapore is very small compared to other groups such as the Hokkiens and the Teochews. However, the community is still influential, and has produced many movers and shakers of Singapore. Probably Singapore’s most famous Hakka is Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore.
The Hakka immigrants also ventured into and later dominated the Chinese medicine business. It has been said that in the 1920s, the largest Chinese medicine halls were owned by Hakkas. A famous Hakka in the Chinese medicine business was the late Aw Boon Haw, a well-known philanthropist and community leader who was also known as the “Tiger Balm King”, after the brand of Chinese medicated balm that he founded together with his brother Aw Boon Par.
Now, walk towards the bell at the right of the courtyard.
Over here is a bell that was used previously when the Ying Sin School was still in operation. The Yin Sin School was founded in 1905 by Ying Fu Fui Kun. The school was established on the 5th of May at a shophouse along Loke Yew Road, but since most of the 50 students in Ying Sin school live around the Telok Ayer area, the school was relocated to the Ying Fo Fui Kun site on the 21th of August of the same year. In 1926, a second branch was formed along Holland Road. The school continued operation until 1969, when the student population started dwindling because of the development in the city and people started moving out. The school was one of the few schools to teach English, together with Maths, Science and Chinese. This set the precedence for many other clan associations to follow, such as the Tao Nan School that was set up by the Hokkien Huay Kuan.
We have almost reached the end of the tour, so make your way out of the building, and stand once again at the entrance.
Do you notice the numerous cracks that are along the walls of this building? This is because of the tunneling and road construction work that has been ongoing directly outside the building. These works has damaged the fragile foundation that was cast almost 200 years ago, and this has weakened the structural integrity of the building, hence causing the cracks to occur. Precision instruments have been installed on the building to detect the worsening of the cracks, and so far, most of the cracks have stabilized. However, many still fear that the building will be split into two, and the second story is structurally unsound to handle large groups of people.
Contemporarily, the Ying Fo Fui Kun serves as a symbol of Hakka heritage and identity. The association also provides scholarship, celebrates important Hakka festivals and organizes Hakka language classes. Because of its rich cultural heritage, the Ying Fo Fui Kun was renovated in 1997 and gazetted as a National Monument in 1998.
This marks the end of our tour, I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it!
This district is home to many other heritage sites, such as the Fuk Tak Chi Museum, the Far East Square conservation district and many other interesting sights. Feel free to wander this area. Get lost. You will never be far from an MRT station.
I hope you have enjoyed this tour. For shownotes, a transcript of this tour, or travel directions, visit yiluntours.wordpress.com Also, subscribe to this show on itunes, and leave a review while you are there. Help to spread the word, tell your friends about this show! Thanks.