Down the Years
The history of Shuang Lin Monastery is best appreciated against the backdrop of global development's impact on Singapore's history. This approach allows us to understand how macro historical developments unfold locally and the ways in which they left an imprint in the history or material culture of the monastery.
The Shuang Lin Monastery came into being as a result of social and political forces set in motion at the global stage; colonization, rise of plantation economy, gun boat diplomacy, Opium War, and mass Chinese migration.
1819 - 1937
During the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in China, internal revolts, wars with imperial powers and social unrest led to disintegration of rural economy.
Faced with poverty, hunger and social unrest, many Chinese went overseas in search of a job to support their families.
Many of these migrants came to South East Asia or Nanyang as it was known at that time. The Chinese who came to Singapore were considered as immigrants. They perceived their journey as temporary and hoped to return to China eventually. Many of them died without returning home while others established their families in Singapore but continued to maintain links with ancestral homes in China and considered China as their home. Some of these migrants became extremely successful businessman and contributed to the welfare of fellow migrants.
One of these successful migrants was Mr. Low Kim Pong who founded the Shuang Lin Monastery in 1898; 79 years after Raffles founded Singapore. Mr. Low Kim Pong was initially in the herbal business and expanded into finance, real estate, and transport to become one of the wealthiest person in the region.
The Monastery project was initiated upon a chance encounter between Mr. Low Kim Pong and Venerable Xian Hui. Mr. Low invited Venerable Xian Hui to be the Abbot of Shuang Lin Monastery.
The proposed monastery was the first Buddhist Monastery in Singapore and modeled after the Xi Chan Si in Fuzhou, China. After its completion, it was one of the largest monasteries in South East Asia. Mr. Low donated the land and was also the single largest donor. The monastery project received support from migrant populations throughout South East Asia and was one of the largest social projects undertaken by Chinese migrants.
Such social projects reflected successful migrant’s perceived obligations towards society while the building of a traditional monastery in a "foreign" land symbolized the cultural notions of “home”.
In 1904, Chen Bao Shen, the Imperial Tutor of the Last Emperor of China (Puyi) and friend of Sir Reginald F. Johnston (Puyi's English tutor) composed a couplet for the monastery. He compared the founding of Shuang Lin Monastery to the construction of the first Monastery in India.
The couplet can still be seen in the monastery today.
1937 - 1942
The Sino Japanese War started in 1937 and the following year, community leaders established the China Relief Fund in support China. As Chinese seacoast were blocked by the Japanese, the Chinese Government began building the Burma Road. stretching from Kunming in China to Lashio in Burma.
The Chinese Government approached Mr. Tan Kah Kee, the Chairperson of China Relief Fund to recruit volunteer drivers and mechanics to serve on the Burma Road. As large number of volunteers was required, China Relief Fund leaders in Singapore approached the Venerable Pu Liang, Abbot of Shuang Lin Monastery, to set up a Driving Institute inside the monastery. About 7 batches of volunteers graduated from the Driving Institute to serve on the Burma Road.
3200 volunteers left Nanyang to serve on the Burma Road. About 1000 died during service, 1000 settled in China and the rest returned to South East Asia after the war.
1942 - 1945
On 7 February 1942, Japan began the invasion of Singapore. As the Japanese advanced towards Singapore, many civilians fled into the monastery for refuge. The area around the monastery was full of Allies troops and the monastery was bombed during the Japanese air raids.
The British surrendered on 15 February 1942 and Singapore became Syonan. On 21 Feburary 1942, the Japanese launched the Sook Ching (Purification by extermination) to exterminate anti Japanese elements in Singapore. Anyone suspected to be anti Japanese were arrested and executed. The Japanese believed 6000 victims were killed while the locals estimated 50 000.
During the Sook Ching, Venerable Pu Liang was arrested and executed for allowing the Driving Institution to be established in the monastery. In 1947, the Singapore Buddhist Association organized a memorial ceremony to pay respects to Venerable Pu Liang’s sacrifice. During the Japanese Occupation, the monastery served as a home for the destitute.
1945 - 1965
After the war, the Abbot, Venerable Gao Can was appointed the new Abbot. He was a highly learned Venerable, an expert in Chinese medicine and well trained in Shaolin Martial Arts. Venerable Gao Can was the 49th generation successor of Shaolin martial arts.
He served as a physician in free clinics to help the poor and taught Shao Lin martial arts as a means to instill self discipline and as a form of physical training.
Today, his physician students continue his work to serve the poor while martial arts schools in Asia, Europe and Australia trace their lineage to him.
1965 - Present
In the 1991, the Monastery began a restoration project that continues to this day. Restoration experts and top craftsmen were recruited for the project. In 1999, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) presented the monastery with a Architecture Heritage Award. In 2001, phase Four of the restoration was completed and the monastery was reopened to the public.
The Monastery has to raise 100% of restoration funds by themselves. The successful restoration project demonstrates the relevance of the monastery as a religious, social and cultural institution in modern Singapore.
Today, the monastery has become part of the global cultural landscape attracting local and global visitors of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds. They visit the monastery for religious purposes, to appreciate the unique architecture, for cultural experiences, in search of the historical legacy or just to take a photo. To researchers and heritage lovers, it is a historical node connecting yesterday with tomorrow. To the large numbers of global and local visitors, the monastery becomes a cultural node connecting the East and the West.
Note: This is a work in process article. New information will be added as research or new discoveries are made and as time permits.