Gazetted as a national monument on 6 July 1973

The Thian Hock Keng Temple had its beginning as a joss house on Telok Ayer Street when the early Chinese immigrants especially from the southern provinces of Kwangtung, Kwangsi, Foochow, Amoy and Canton came in their crowded junks soon after Sir Stamford Raffles founded the settlement of Singapore. Large scale immigration began in 1830s.

The immigrants came from South China for political and economic reasons. The Chinese Emperor tended to concentrate on the welfare of his subjects in the north and north-west of China where his traditional enemies were. Shi Huang-ti built the Great Wall in 226 B.C. against the Tartars. The first capital of China was Nanking and later Peking - both in the north. Chinese officials from the capital travelled south to raise taxes and South Chinese resented this. They gradually developed an anti-government attitude. This led them to form secret societies to protect themselves from oppressive officials. There were also economic problems. A large number of South Chinese decided to leave China to seek their fortunes in Singapore.

The junks (generally described as 'help ships') from South China were overcrowded with immigrants who disembarked at Telok Ayer Basin

Telok Ayer until the 1880s was on the water front. It was in 1887 that the Telok Ayer Basin was filled with earth from Mount Wallich; Cecil Street and Robinson Road to Shenton Way were swamps.

It was on the shore that the immigrants built their joss house for Ma Cho Po (Mother of the Heavenly Sages) some time between 1821 and 1822 to thank the Goddess for having brought them safely across the South China Sea.

The joss house was rebuilt as Thian Hock Keng Temple between 1839 and 1842 with funds collected from wealthy men like Tan Tock Seng, a Hokkien merchant. A large sum also received from owners of Chinese junks from China, Siam and Java. All the building materials, the pine wood, the granite pillars, the carvings and the craftsmen were all brought from China. The statue of Ma Cho Po arrived in Singapore in April 1840 and there were large scale celebrations in Telok Ayer Street.

The Temple is square. It has a central hall leading to a large courtyard and another courtyard with an altar of Kuan Yin. This Temple like all Chinese Temples has symbols and designs intended to promote the health and happiness of the worshippers.

The decorations remain almost intact today. They are richly ornamental and reflect traditional Chinese temple architecture in China.

The Temple was completed at a cost of Spanish $30,000. In the courtyard is the Bodhisattva, Kuan Yin, two pagodas each with an octagonal base. Strong beams support the curving, wide eaved roof. The type structures dates back to the Han Dynasty or even earlier. The hexagonal and two octagonal pagodas, two in this Temple, were popular especially during the Sung Dynasty.

Inside the Temple is also a special plaque presented to the abbot in 1907 by the Qing Emperor.

At the entrance to the Temple is a very low granite wall or barrier over which the devotees have to cross to enter the Temple; this is a reminder to Singaporeans and visitors that this was built to prevent the sea water entering the Temple during high tide. Today the sea is far away from Telok Ayer Street.

Telok Ayer Street was the centre of Chinatown in the early years and South Chinese met in the Temple even to settle disputes among the devotees and hold meetings of the Hokkien community.

The biggest event of this Temple in the past and at present is the celebration of Ma Cho Po who has blessed countless number of Chinese with luck and protection to become the most worshipped deity in the world today.

According to the legend Ma Cho Po was a young girl who performed supernatural feats: healing the sick, walking on the water and foretelling the future. She is the sixth daughter of a Jujian sailor who lived during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). The original name of Ma Cho Po was Lin Muonjiang and she undertook many miraculous rescues at sea. For her divine intervention the Empress gave her title Tian Hou (Queen of Heaven) and Tian Feu (Lady in Waiting to Heaven). Ma Cho Po is a sea Goddess worshipped by millions of Chinese all over the world; the Chinese pray to her for safe journey before embarking on a voyage.

Ma Cho Po was a symbol of peace to the early Chinese immigrants who toiled to bring prosperity to their descendants in Nanyang. The older generation called her Tian Hou (Tien Fu Gong) or fondly as Ma Cho Po in Hokkien. The Thian Hock Keng Temple was exclusively devoted to Ma Cho Po for a few decade in the early years.

On either side of the Thian Hock Keng Temple are the old Mosques built by Tamil Muslims, the Nagore Dhurga Shrine and the Al Abrar. Behind these in South Bridge Road is the oldest Hindu Temple, the Sri Mariamman Temple. Next to this Hindu is the Jamae Mosque. Just further down is the Omar Mosque and Kampong Malacca in Havelock Road.

In Boat Quay were the Jewish quarters and the Synagogue in a shop house. At the end of Telok Ayer is the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.

Chinatown has indeed been a fine example of racial and religious harmony in Singapore since the founding of Singapore in 1819.