Pulau Ubin Stories

Stories, old and new, about Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Ma Zu Temple

In my post on May 21 2004, "Have you been to Ubin yet?", I wrote about my first trip to Ubin and my visit to the Ma Zu Temple on the west of Ubin.

As mentioned, the temple has been demolished and is now OBS land. The first time I heard it mentioned in recent years was during Dr Chua Ee Kiam's talk on 22 April 2004. During the talk, Dr Chua briefly mentioned the temple but I do not recall any photos of the place. It was at this point that he reiterated the fact that many times, when we actually miss a place, it may actually be too late to capture a photo of the place which is true in this case.

Thus, I consider myself really lucky while search through the National Archives of Singapore's PICAS that I found these 3 pictures of the Ma Zu Temple. I might never have identified the photo if not for a lingering doubt that I have not seen this place in recent times. First of all, the picture of captioned vaguely as "Chinese Temple on Pulau Ubin" circa 1992. Secondly, the sign on the temple was not "Ma Zu Temple". It actually says "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" in Chinese which I loosely translated as the "Heavenly Empress' Temple" from "half bay/port".



Honestly, these words ring no bell with me at all. However, the part that gave it away was that it was a female deity. Afterall, in my knowledge, "Ma Zu" means mother goddess or mother ancestor. With this latest clue, I quickly called my mother on the phone and she confirmed that "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" is the name of the now-demolished temple we call "Ma Zu Temple".



Now the mystery that remains in my mind is why is "Ma Zu Temple" actually called "Ban Gang Tian Hou Gong" with a little subscript at the left that says "Pulau Ubin" in Chinese. (Do note that in traditional Chinese script, we read from right to left)

Of course, the first place I went back to was my original source of information - my parents. My father explained that the Ma Zu Temple is originally from a small fishing port at the mouth of the Serangoon River. Serangoon River was called "Ban Gang" by the Chinese, according to my father, because it was bigger than most rivers but not big enough to be "Gang" which I think means bay or port. Thus it was called half port. It was at the river mouth, or "gangka (river mouth or river foot), of this "half port" that the original Ma Zu Temple stood.


Map of Serangoon River courtesy of molluscan.com

According to my mother, Ma Zu Temple usually attracted seafaring folks or rather people who depended on the sea as their livelihood. Sailors, fishermen, boat builders, etc. My mother kindly supplied the information that most island countries usually have devotees of "Ma Zu", such as Taiwan for example. I also remembered reading about Ma Zu in my primary or secondary Chinese textbook which spoke of the fishermen and sailors praying to Ma Zu for safety in their voyages. It is understandable why the original temple was at the mouth of Serangoon river as originally, according to my mother, that area was a jetty or fishing village where fishermen would drop off their catch for the day. It is pretty much the Pasir Panjang or Jurong fish wholesale market that we have today. With the high concentration of folks that depends on the sea for their livelihood, it is obvious that Ma Zu Temple is appropriately situated.



However, Ma Zu Temple was then moved from the original "ban gang" area to Pulau Ubin as the "gangka" - the river mouth of serangoon river - was being developed. The fishermen and the fish market were, in my mother's words, "chased off" by the government. Similarly, the temple was asked to move as well. It was then that it moved to Pulau Ubin, to an area that my father said was termed as "xin gang" which means new port. According to him, "xin gang" referred to the river between Pulau Ubin and Pulau Ketam, along OBS' coast line. The particular stretch of shoreline on Ubin along this river was also termed as "xin gang" or "new port". It was also here that my mother lived her first 12 years. It was also termed "new port" as it was developed much later than the other parts of Ubin such as the Malay villages in the east and north of Ubin. This is the reason why the sign on the temple still reads as the temple from half port which is to indicate its origin. Sort of like a "katong laksa" stall in Changi.

In the 1990s, the Ma Zu temple was again "chased off" from Ubin as OBS land takes over. According to my father, the temple has now moved back to the mainland again, at a location in Sengkang! My parents suggested that perhaps I should go visit the temple in its current location and interview the people at the temple. Perhaps, I will.

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