What You Don’t Know About China Town – The Chan See Shu Yuen Temple
Hello and ‘Lei Hou’- that’s ‘hello’ in Cantonese, one of the most spoken Chinese dialects in Malaysia.
The Chan See Shu Yuen Temple was built more than a century ago. The four founding fathers of this temple- Chan Sow Lin, Chan Xin Xi, Chan Chun and Chan Zhai Tian- were also among the first pioneers of Kuala Lumpur. Do you notice they all have the same surname Chan?
The Chan See Shu Yuen Clan Association is an association for the ‘Chan’ clan. People with the surname Tan, Chan and Chen all belong to this clan, as the Mandarin character for these names is the same. Chan is a very common Chinese surname and many of them come from Guangzhou in China. There is a Chan Family Ancestral Temple in Guangzhou, and this one is modelled after it. That is why you see similar Cantonese architecture and art. Work began in 1896, and it took ten years to complete.
Think of it also as a club for people who came from the same province in China. When the Chinese immigrants arrived in Malaysia, it was very difficult for them to adapt in this new and foreign land. That is why clan associations are important, because they provide immigrants with contact with people who speak the same language, as well as contact with their family members back in China. The clan association also looks after their general welfare.
The association also houses a temple, which is the subject of this article.
From the outside one will not miss the green and red faade. In fact, the temple is sometimes known as The Green Temple. Look from left to right, especially at the roofline and you will see the elaborate ornaments that decorate the temple. Painstakingly minute, they tell stories of ancient China and Chinese mythology.
Right before entering the temple compound, there are two pillars with blue tops. To admire the front facade of the temple, go all the way to the left. These are the famous terracotta figurines that tell of ancient history and mythology. These carvings and sculptures are elaborate and fascinating. There are also the same captivating carvings on the right end of the front facade.
Inside The Temple
Don’t forget that in Malaysia, religious places are not tourist places, but are actual religious venues used by believers to worship. If you see some worshippers deep in meditation or prayer, be as discreet as you can.
At the gates, high up on the left and right, one can see two gray stone lions. Stone lions are believed to guard the temple from demons. The Chinese characters beneath them very loosely translate into welcoming blessings.
There is another pair at eye level, and this time, they are white. At first glance one may think they are the same, but look carefully at their paws and you will see that they are different. Guardian lions are always made in pairs- one female and one male. The one on the left is the female guardian lion, and she has a cub in her right paw, representing the circle of life. The one on the right is the male guardian lion, and he has his left paw on a globe to represent his feeling the “pulse of the earth”. Symbolically, the female guards those who live inside, and the male guards the structure of the temple.
On the stonewalls, are some Chinese characters, which is a typical feature in Chinese architecture. On the top, there are four big Chinese characters. Unlike in English, Chinese words are read from right to left, and from top to bottom. The four words read ‘Chen Shi Shu Yuen’- which means ‘Study Hall of the Chan Clan’. The Chan clan, if you remember, occupies this clan association. There are little characters on each side of the words. They tell you the name of the writer and when it was written. In Chinese calligraphy, or Chinese writing, writing is not just writing. It is an artistic skill, and every piece is a work of art. Think of Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci painting a masterpiece and signing off at the corner of the work. In fact, the personality of a writer is said to be reflected in his writing. On the right and left side of the door, are more Chinese characters. They are too poetic to be translated, but they loosely mean, ‘light radiates from honour, and may wisdom never die’. This type of greeting is important in Chinese architecture, and each temple has their unique greetings. If you have the chance to visit other Chinese temples, ask the locals to translate these words of wisdom for you.
When you walk through the red door, the first thing that strikes you is the richly ornamented carvings of a golden tableau over your head.
On the left and right are altars for the deities who guard the door.
On the left next to the shrine, are two plaque inscriptions; one red and one white. And on the right next to the shrine, are also two plaque inscriptions- both are black. Think of them as a kind of Hall of Fame, where great and outstanding members of the Chan clan receive acknowledgement for their contribution to the advancement of the clan. They could have built schools, preserved their heritage, donated large sums of money, or anything that helped the Chan clan.
On the red pillars on both sides, are even more Chinese characters. What do they say this time? Again, a little too poetic to translate, but they are reminders to the current generation not to forget their ancestors. Chinese people remember their ancestors through a unique tradition called ancestor worship. They would put up pictures or inscriptions about their ancestors and offer food and joss sticks as a way to seek their blessings. It’s similar to the Catholic practice of seeking intervention from the saints, upright people who have passed away. In many Chinese homes, you can see pictures and inscriptions of the deceased at the altar next to the gods. In fact, right here in this temple, is where the current generation of Chans worship their ancestors.
At the open courtyard now is a shop that sells many interesting Chinese souvenirs, and by that, I don’t mean corny touristy souvenirs, but excellent teas, ceramic teapots and many other interesting traditional items. Chinese teas have their own grades, just like wine. There is a Chinese saying, in describing a good tea, that a good tea has a fragrance so strong that it sticks to your cup after you’ve finished drinking. On the right is an exhibition hall that showcases many interesting cultural presentations such as Chinese calligraphy. And in front, is the main shrine.
From the centre of the court, one can see clearly the roofs of the buildings that surround the courtyard. The first thing that will strike you is the open space concept. Many do not realize that the courtyard is inside the building as opposed to the outside. This is a very typical characteristic of Chinese architecture, and many temples are built like this. The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by building units. This is often known as the ‘sky well’ concept because the roofs form a small opening to the sky. Also you might notice that the breadth of the building is more important than the height and depth, giving the width of the building visual impact. The roof design uses the Kwang Tung style of pottery, which uses rolling waves as its motif.
Right ahead is the main hall called the De Xing Hall. I will explain each section from left to right. On the left, are four pictures of the early founding fathers. They are the important early members of the Chan clan. Next to the pictures is a room. There are black and white pictures of deceased Chan family members. Here, the Chinese perform ancestral worship. There are row after row of names written on yellow paper. They are the names of the dead. The Chinese believe that life continues after death, and the dead can influence the fortunes of the living. Hence, worshippers pray that their ancestors will bless them with good luck and protect them from harm. Others do it out of filial piety, which is heavily emphasized in Chinese culture.
On the left wall, one will see pieces of wood in red, orange and yellow. They are an old epistle, written by an unknown person to remind his relatives that the deceased will always be watching over the living, guiding and protecting them. This is yet another reminder to the current generation of the importance of ancestor worship.
On the left altar, one will see a golden shrine with more pictures of the deceased. In front of them on the table are five porcelain vases. On the imposing golden pillar, are Chinese characters, loosely translated as a blessing for this divine place, that its name would be as sweet as fragrance and that this place will pour out wisdom and talent.
Moving onto the main altar, one will see a magnificent golden shrine. This is the resting place of the upright, as the sign says. The three statues are those of the Shun Emperor Chung Hua Master, the later ancestor Chen Hu Man Master and the Honourary Kai Zhang Ruler Chen Yuan Guang Master. On the table, there are two paper servants. Paper servants are usually burned, together with currencies believed to be used in the after life, otherwise known as hell bank notes. There are many other modern paper foldings such as cars, houses, television sets, phones etc, as they are believed to be received by the dead when they are burned. There are also five majestic vases on the table.
On top of the middle vase, stands a dancing lion. A dancing lion is believed to invite prosperity and chase away evil spirits.
On the next imposing golden pillar, are words of praise for this temple and a reminder that to prosper, you have to remember your ancestors.
On the finally, on altar to your right, are more pictures of the deceased. The layout is similar to the one on the left.
Next to it, one will see the same layout of red, orange and yellow planks. These are again reminders of the importance of ancestral worship.
The four pictures after that are more pictures of outstanding clansmen.
There is a hall on the right side of the temple. There, there are many exhibitions such as Chinese tea displays, calligraphy demonstrations and painting techniques.
We’ve come to the end of the Chan See Shu Yuen Clan Association temple guide. There’s a visitors book near the right altar if you’d like to leave your comments.