Then and Now ….. The ‘God Tree’ shrine at Toa Payoh Central
According to The Straits Times, 20 September 2013, the ‘god tree’ survived and the site remained as a place of worship for devotees.
Beside Block 177, Toa Payoh Central, the towering tree trunk stood firm although the trees around the place felled by storm.
Between Blocks 178 and 179, Toa Payoh Central, a majestic banyan tree stands in its compound with an altar for the devotees to worship.
For four decades, it bore witness to the prayers and dreams of devotees who worshipped at a Buddhist shrine at its foot.
The residents rebuild the shrine to be protected by the gods to bless the devotees. Regarded by believers as a “shen shu” or ‘god tree’ in Mandarin, the tree was said to be more than a century old. The mighty tree pre-dated Toa Payoh new town itself, on which work began in 1965.
Residents continued to linger at the tree, some out of sheer habit and others to trade tales and memories.
They shared stories of how the tree stood the test of time, weathering the occasional thunderstorm and dodging the developer’s axe.
Retiree Foo Ah Cheng, 78, remembered seeing bulldozers try in vain to fell the tree as the new town was being built.
He said monks even offered prayers calling for the tree to give way.
“They wanted to get rid of it, but it wouldn’t go,” he said in Mandarin.
From its precarious past grew longevity. Over the past decades, a steady stream of devotees have offered prayers for goodwill each time they passed the shrine. Some believe it was responsible for 4-D lottery windfalls.
Even the tree’s leafy crown seemed to extend goodwill to residents.
Mr Foo recalled how the tree became so lush that its leaves kept the shrine and devotees dry when it rained.
He said the original caretaker was a monk who brought the statue of Goddess of Mercy Guan Yin from China and had a habit of sleeping under the tree.
When the monk died in 1975, his son Chen Zhou Rong took over and stayed on-site come rain or shine – greeting visitors who arrived at all hours to seek solace from the tree and the gods lining the shine’s altar.
As well as attracting devotees, the shrine also used to elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” from the curious onlookers and tourists from afar.
“The trees was very, very beautiful and many would take photos of it,” said retiree Lu Siew Bao, 60, who lives in the block next door.
On the tree, pink flowers in full bloom fanned out across its long, hanging branches.
Heritage enthusiast Jerome Lim, who grew up in Toa Payoh, said the shrine was a significant part of the estate’s heritage.
The 48-year-old told The Straits Times it served as “a link to the past when much of the area was occupied by farms and Chinese kampungs.”
[Note: Jerome Lim is a veteran heritage blogger at “The Long and Winding Road”. People, places, events, words and images that have left an impression on him along the long and winding road … Please check out the related blog about Toa Payoh here .]
For many, it was a meeting point, and praying there had become very much a part of their everyday routine.
Ms Agnes Pek, a 40-year-old sales assistant who works at a beauty shop a stone’s throw from the site, said she used to pray for safety and a good day before starting work every morning.
Saving trees that are rooted in an estate’s past
In ‘Heartland Happenings’ of The Straits Times, 17 July 2001, Neo Hui Min wrote “Even as new buildings crop up, efforts are being made to preserve old trees that have become part of a town.”
Ask any Toa Payoh resident about an old tree in the neighbourhood and you will probably be directed to the one next to Block 177, at Toa Payoh Town Central.
There, between two rows of Housing Board shophouses, a banyan tree, with its tangle of branches and aerial roots, stands tall, looking much older than the building around it.
Estimated to be at least 50 years old, it has a 3 m wide, 2 m tall shrine nestled among its branches and roots.
No one knows whether the shrine was there before the tree or vice versa, but some of the tree’s branches clasp a rather old-looking wall which forms the back part of the shrine.
Six of eight residents that The Straits Times spoke to believe that the tree is part of the town and must not be destroyed. Madam Tan Boey Lin, 53, a housewife, drops by occasionally to offer incense at the shrine. “This is a spiritual tree. People say it can’t be cut down, otherwise bad things will come to our town.”
But university student Adrian Lee, 23, said: “Sometimes, these trees become ‘mystified” for no reason. I guess it depends on what the tree looks like. Somehow, banyan trees just have a mysterious look.”
Urban legend has it that in the early 1960s, when the land here had to be cleared away for the development of Toa Payoh, an engineer who tried to remove the tree was crushed to death under his own vehicle.
After praying to the tree for several years, residents set up a shrine under it in 1969. It houses the four-faced Buddha and the Goddess of Mercy, and attracts many devotees during the first and 15th days of each lunar month.
A sacred banyan, smack in the heart of Toa Payoh
By Bill Campbell
[ Source: The Straits Times, 11 July 1971]
It must go, the authorities ruled.
Nothing, it seemed, could save the old banyan tree – long held sacred by Toa Payoh squatter families – from being uprooted.
But the bulldozer driver cajoled into the job “collapsed” at the wheel and yet another attempt to remove the tree was abandoned.
Now over two years later the unflinching banyan tree still stands undisturbed – right in the heart of the Toa Payoh town centre development.
No longer is the tree – nor the dilipidated Chinese base -under threat of removal.
Because, as if to justify the faith devotees have in its powers, it so happens it fits ideally into the modern town centre layout.
“It is a happy coincidence that things have turned out this way,” says Mr Liu Thai Ker, Head of the Housing and Development Board’s design and research unit.
But devotees who continue to move over the construction site to pray for good fortune before their deity doubtless read more than coincidence into it.
Before earthwork began at the Toa Payoh new town site most of the country was undulating farm land.
Squatter families who once lived there have since dispersed leaving nothing to indicate how the tree first came to be regarded as sacrosanct.
Nothing is on record where the board is concerned. It appears that there was once a more substantial shrine at the site, for parts of a wall in temple style – almost unnoticeable in the entanglement of roots – still exist.
Right from the outset, building workers are said to have kept a respectful distance from the tree and for as long as possible it was left untouched.
Not surprisingly as the new town grew space and orders went out to remove the tree workers balked at the task.
“It was just that the tree was considered sacred and no one was willing to take any risk by cutting it down,” says Mr Liu.
Even then, board planners disavow that the tree basically influenced the town centre design, though it was always in mind.
“The design was dictated by other factors far more important than the tree,” Mr Liu says.
It is primarily the location of the tree, including the line of the main pedestrian mall that is said to have saved it.
The board has a special plan to improve the general setting of the tree, including the paths around it.
Because of its ever-spreading “strangling” roots, maintenance promises to be “pretty tricky”, as Mr Liu puts it.
In particular, board engineers are concerned that the roots do not damage the foundation of the four-storey shophouses taking shape on three sides of the tree mound.
Upon the shrine’s altar table, along with other paraphernalia, is a collection box and money collected has obviously gone to providing a few wooden benches and a fairly concrete pit for burning joss-paper.
Fresh stalks of orchids and food offering are among evidence that the shrine continues to be well frequented despite the construction activity all around.
Hearsay has it that devotees pray there for family happiness …… success in business …… for “numbers” or simply good luck.
No matter what the background of the tree, it is adding some welcome lore to the story of the new town itself.
A devotee praying earnestly
Long story short …
New Paper, 16 August 2014
For over 40 years, a banyan tree which is said to be guarded by a spirit was a landmark at Toa Payoh Central. It even had a small shrine at its foot for devotes to offer prayers.
In September, 2013, a violent form caused the tree beside Block 177, Toa Payoh Central, to fall.
For worshippers drawn to the shrine’s Goddess of Mercy and other deities, the collapse seemed to mark the end of an era.
However, the Singapore Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association felt there was a need to preserve whatever remained of the tree and its shrine, known as Ci Ern Ge.
They took over the management of the shrine’s daily operations and spent over $100,000 to spruce it up.
The vice-president of the association, Mr Lim Kok Siong, said in Mandarin: “NParks (National Parks Board) wasn’t keen to keep the tree initially, but we managed to convince them eventually.”
Now, as a result of the storm, the tree is only about three storeys high, about half of what it used to be. It has also lost its leafy crown.
Ci Ern Ge [ 慈恩阁 ], however, boasts new flooring, lights, fans, fences and handrails after it re-opened in mid-June.
There is even a ramp providing easier access to the shrine for the disabled.
Retail assistant ET Teoh started praying at the shrine about five years ago.
The 40-year-old told The New Paper in Mandarin: “The new shrine is better. It is much cleaner and there is better ventilation. You also won’t feel that it’s crowded, even when there are a lot of people.”
Ms Teoh works at a retail shop in the area and she would pray at the shrine whenever she walks past it.
She added: “I hope that the shrine will always be there as it is convenient for me (to pray there). ”
Legend also has it that a bulldozer was overturned when its driver tried to ram the tree down.
This led to people to believe that the tree was guarded by the Na Tuk Kong spirit. So a shrine was built.
In addition to having this spirit, which is said to reside in trees and other natural formations, the shrine also has a Tua Pek Kong and Goddess of Mercy.
The shrine’s owner, who wanted to be known as Madam Low, has been helping to spruce up the place whenever she is free. She performs tasks such as wiping the chairs and altars clean and clearing the joss sticks.
Madam Low told TNP in Mandarin: “Many people come here to pray for safety. I also see many young people coming here to confide in Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy).
Since it re-opened, more than 100 devotees have been visiting Ci Ern Ge daily and the Singapore Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association has pledged to use the donations for charity.
The president of the association, Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, said: “I hope that it can become the centre of attraction for Toa Payoh and that the residents here can get to know its history.”
The HDB Hub in the background of the “God Tree”.
Toa Payoh merchants to restore tree shrine
[Source: Straits Times, 2 May 2014]
By Melody Zaccheus
A group of Toa Payoh merchants have banded together to restore a damaged Buddhist shrine at the foot of a tree that is believed to be divine.
The shrine, which houses statues of the Goddess of Mercy and the four faced Buddha, will get a new coat of paint, brighter lights and new flooring.
Funds for the renovation effort, estimated to cost about $70,000, came from members of the association and devotees.
The money will also go towards installing fencing and steel cables to stabilise the remnants of the tree, which toppled after a storm last September.
Mr Yeo Hiang Meng, chairman of the Toa Payoh Central Merchants’ Association, said they decided to save the tree shrine located in Toa Payoh Central because of its significance to the community.
“We want to do our part for residents and devotee to ensure that they will have a place to pray at,” said Mr Yeo.
Called a shen shu, or divine tree, in Chinese, the tree predates the estate and has, for decades, been a gathering point for residents, devotees and 4D punters hoping for a lucky number. Hundreds stop by daily to pray before they go about their activities in the busy town centre.
….. Mr Yeo said the association will hire a full-time caretaker to oversee the day-to-day management of the site when it is ready.
It also engaged the help of an arborist, who suggested the stabilising measures for the Banyan tree, HDB said the tree will have to be checked regularly for safety reasons. Moving forward, HDB will continue to work closely with the licensee to ensure that the site is well-maintained and safe,” said its spokesman.
The association plans to erect a heritage marker at the site to share with visitors and tourists its history and how the tree had stood tall in the face of bad weather and the developer’s axe.
For instance, residents believe the Government split the current development of shophouses into two to accommodate the tree.
Mr Yeo hopes HDB will consider awarding them a long-term licence to use the site. “It has a rich heritage and strong links to the community. We hope the site will be here for a long time to come.”
Devotee Foo Hock Seng, 79, who visits the shrine once a month, said he appreciates the efforts of the association. He said: “It used to be quite rundown. I look forward to visiting the upgraded shrine.”