In Malaysia, the Chinese plays an important part in the history of Malacca. This city is a World Heritage Site for its rich historical legacy, and in that history, China and the Chinese people are in the center of attention. The oldest and grandest representation of Chinese influence and religion in the whole of Malaysia is the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple at Jalan Tokong, Malacca. The temple with its intricate designs, colorful Chien Nien decorations, and curved roof ridge are wonderful expressions of ancient Chinese architecture. It was recently restored, and the impeccable work of restoration earned a UNESCO citation for outstanding architectural restoration.
Completed around 1645, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, or “Temple of Clear Clouds” in English, was founded by Kapitan China Li Wei King. There is an inscription dating 1685 inside the temple that talks about the achievements of the Kapitan China. He was an important figure of his time having founded this temple and donated Bukit China to be used as an important Chinese cemetery (still standing today).
“Kapitan China” was the title given by the Dutch pertaining to Chinese community leaders. The temple served as the court justice of the Kapitans and as the town’s official administrative center, in addition to being a place of worship.
Inside this ancient temple is a central altar dedicated to the goddess of mercy, Kuanyin. She is flanked by different deities – Pau Sen Ta Tek, Kuan Kong, the goddess of birth and the god of fishermen, sailors and seafarers. They are inside the main hall, which was constructed in 1794 and re-constructed in 1801.
The temple’s main doors are guarded by images of famous Taoist monks. This is unusual because all other Chinese temples have door gods instead of door monks. In front of the main hall are the Eight Immortals that are portrayed as dragons with claws. The dragons are holding a flute, knife, fan and lotus, which are said to be the Immortals’ tools of power. In Taoism and Chinese mythology, the Eight Immortals are legendary saints that hold the power to give life or destroy evil.
Outside the temple are gold calligraphy grass-style script written on the columns by Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), a popular Dutch diplomat and expert in Chinese culture and history. The temple walls are painted with lime from oyster shells and charcoal soot. The main gate on Jalan Tokong is magnificent and has several prayer halls and small prayer quarters, one of which is dedicated to the gods of longevity and wealth. To the left of the main prayer hall is a 7-meter tall red flagpole. Kept here are the remains of the three Kapitans that were instrumental in the construction of this temple. They were Kapitan Lee Wei King, Kapitan Chan Ki Lock, and Kapitan Chua Su Cheong. Outside the temple walls across the street is a traditional opera theatre, which officially is still a part of the Cheng Hoon Teng temple complex.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is one of the three temples along Harmony Street in Chinatown. It is called Harmony Street because it is delightfully rare to see three major temples representing three different religions standing close together on the same street. The other two temples are Kampung Kling Mosque (Islam) and Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple (Hindu).