Sze Yup Kwan Ti Temple Glebe


Temples from the Federation period exist at Emerald Hill, South Melbourne (1866), North Bendigo (1865), Breakfast Creek in Queensland (1884), Glebe (1897), Atherton (1903) and Alexandria (1910).  The temple at Glebe is the oldest Taoist temple in continuous use in Australia. The temple in nearby Alexandria also remains in use and together are representative. Interestingly, the two temples front directly opposing compass directions.

This Taoist temple in Glebe NSW dates from 1898 and was protected by a permanent conservation order in 1985 then transferred to the State Heritage Register in 1999. It was originally established by chinese ex-patriots who could see no promise in returning to their birthplace and it now entices a much larger patronage than ever before with an influx of immigration from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, other areas of China and IndoChina. (Zhao, 1998).

The inaugural worshippers were from the Sze Yup province of Guandong. During the 1850‘s - 1900 that particular area of China had been in the thick of the Taipan Rebellion and then the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars which followed it.  The daunting choices of returning to that hazardous turmoil and building a castellated fortress or staying permanently in a foreign land with all its strange customs must have created anxious moments requiring tremendous inner reflection for want of peace, harmony, and happiness in retirement from the NSW gold fields. It is of little wonder that some familiar comfort was sort in the traditions, custom and ritual inspired by dedicating a humble little temple to Kwan Ti.

Of equal consideration must have been the desire to build a temple that was entirely discrete and understated, having heard or experienced first hand the wrath of anti chinese riots in the goldfields and fearing the restrictive outcomes of the ensuing 1881 and 1888 Chinese Restriction Acts and the 1892 NSW Royal Commission into Alleged Chinese Gambling and Immorality. The trustees would have known that the temple at Breakfast Creek was attacked and desecrated repeatedly almost from the time of its opening. There is a large surviving recorded history describing the interaction of Chinese communities within an Australian context from the period and informative research by Michael Williams in 1999 for the NSW Heritage Office entitled “Chinese Settlement in NSW”.

As a direct consequence of this hostile environment it seems irrefutable that the resulting temple dedicated to Kwan Ti was configured in a form which for all the world describes a federation period train station complete with metal roof and bull-nosed verandah, the likes of which could be seen in any country NSW town where a railway existed.  It is starkly contrast by the Alexandria Temple erected in 1910 which faces a completely opposite direction towards the South East swampland of what is now the Lakes Golf Course.

The Temple was most obviously designed to sit comfortably and harmoniously with its urban context and very much Australian precinct. It is one of two remaining temples in Australia that opens to the North, the others opening up
generally to the South as if located in China. There is debate in feng shui circles as to whether this approach is appropriate. For an Architect there really is no question because solar access is desirable. In any case, it is what it is, and the Glebe temple is known for its good feng shui. It opens to the water side as would be expected, no openings to the rear, backed by a hill and whispering trees behind. Of some note is the fact that internal openings connecting the three pavilions are all aligned. Two of these pavilions were added just a few years later, one to each side of the temple. Ultimately the surrounding land was acquired and those adjoining homes were eventually demolished to give way to the land parcel that exists there today. In an architectural sense, all chinese references were extremely understated. That is, at least from the outside. The building has survived as a very unique record of the attitudes of Australian community at the time of Federation.

Inside this Australian railway station building, you will expect to find an interior obviously decorated by a chinese hand. It is not exactly apparent the extent to which the existing interior resembles the interior from Federation, as the building has suffered from damage by fire on more than one occasion. Of particular note is the lantern roof structure which is not readily obvious from an external review.

At the turn of the 20th Century workers in Chinese cities were organised around occupational guilds and erected temples, such as the Lo Pan Temple in Hong Kong, but in Australia the Chinese diaspora formed regional associations for social and political organisation.

District based societies are central to an appreciation of Chinese settlement in NSW. They provided support to those in need and were responsible for returning the bones of the dead to their families. The merchants who ran these societies also owned the stores through which its members got a great deal of support including banking, travel arrangements and maintaining connections with their Chinese origins. In 1891 there were 10 such societies with a total Chinese population in Sydney of 3500 and of the Sze Yup in Sydney, there were just 300 members. (Michael Williams 1999). The Temple trustees none the less, saw reason to erect the “Chapel of Departed Friends” to temporarily store the bones of the departed for transport back to China and the “Chapel of the God of Fortune” to hang fortune lanterns sponsored by families seeking the blessing of the God of Fortune. These pavilions complimented its recently completed temple dedicated to Kwan Ti, thereby completing the existing heritage structure in a typical three room complex separated by a narrow gap for feng shui purposes, to help prevent the spread of fire, and as useful services corridors.

More recently surrounding dwellings have been demolished and a large fence erected as well as a green tiled roof being added as external influences make their mark.

Every construction detail in traditional chinese architecture is imbued with ritual, myth and meaning. Origins date from the Yingzao Fashi Book of Construction which also collated earlier Architect scholar’s work. The common manual was Lu Ban Jing, being the “Divine Carpenter’s Classic”. It is purported to be written some 1500 years earlier, although there were apparently many colloquial updates, one of which may have contained the template for the Glebe Temple plan, which is very similar to the temple at North Bendigo. Traditional tiles in China naturally consist of two opposing components, a flat tray and a curved cap. Even the colours used on materials was codified, Jade for instance, is imbued with the characteristics of virtue. Colours reminiscent of Jade are similarly attributed. Glazed tiles at the turn of the century in China were extraordinarily rare. The very best buildings had either gold or black, or blue or green glazed roof tiles. By royal decree the colour gold was reserved for buildings associated with royalty. Blue, being the colour of heaven as used in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, was also rarely used. Black glazed tiles were used for example in the Forbidden City by reason that they represented the water element which was thought to be useful to protect the “chamber of literary profundity” (library) building and Green was used predominantly on Buddhist temples outside of China. Green glazed tiles were however, used in the Summer Palace in Beijing over dignitary’s quarters and over the Princess‘ residence at the Forbidden City in Beijing. Just to confuse things, during the Qing dynasty sometimes gold glazed tiles are used over the residence of “Emperor Guan”, so you will see very elaborate temples with a gold roof occasionally dedicated to Kwan Ti (Guan Yu).  But over the years, the codified use of green, blue and black glazed tiles has became less consistent.

Hip tile detail from the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, China (2005). Imperial Dragon, immortal guardian, evil dispelling bull, courageous goat-bull, wind summoning fish, storm summoning fish, mythical lion, auspicious seahorse, heavenly horse, lion, son of dragon, immortal riding quilin and underneath a totemic symbol for dragon (at the eaves).

copyright FS Architects Pty Limited

However, at the Sze Yup Temple, the corrugated iron roof of the Kwan ti temple was likely to have been painted either yellow, blue or green. Temple Trustees have said that prior to replacement the iron roof was painted green, we note as one might expect an Australian Federation roof to be. The use of metal might also have had some feng shui significance. Guild temples were common buildings. There was at least one temple in every village and common buildings had unglazed grey tiles by reason of the prohibitive cost of glazed tiles. Many of the common temples throughout mainland China were removed during the cultural revolution and many more were burnt to the ground during overzealous dedication ceremonies. The result is that very very few turn of the century temples of this type remain worldwide. The heritage value is considerable if the integrity of the building can be maintained.

Hip tile detail from the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, China (2005). There are fewer beasts for a person of lower station.

copyright FS Architects Pty Limited

The four trustees of Sze Yup Temple represent the Australian descendants of the Temple’s Sze Yup origins. Concerned for the conservation of the temple, the growing numbers of worshippers and the propensity for damage by fire, the trustees of the Sze Yup Temple continue to investigate and debate the best course to take. One approach in 2001 lead them to consider alternative facilities on the site to help ease the burden on the Federation building.  These four gentlemen showed up at my office one day. They had broad Australian accents and after some discussion and deliberation in the ensuing weeks they appointed FS Architects Pty Limited to assist them in the preparation of a conservation management plan and later, conceptual sketches for an ancillary building.

In consultation with the National Trust, the Heritage Office of the NSW Department of Planning, the Migration Centre, the Leichhardt Council and library and Glebe Historic Society, a heritage conservation management plan was prepared in accordance with the Burra Charter. The report identified potential opportunities and restraints as well as feasible uses and sources of income to provide upkeep and conservation of the heritage items.

Designs were prepared accompanied by Tree Preservation Reports, Traffic Studies and Surveys which were filed with Leichhardt Council as development application D2002/58.
Council’s advertising procedure raised community awareness of the potential for change and the widely diverse community in Sydney were invited to review. Needless to say, with so many regional and cultural differences now represented in the Australian Chinese community and the community at large, there were considerable competing interests in this humble little temple, which is the centre of Chinese New Year festivities and resides tucked away in narrow lanes in a residential waterfront environment.

Although considerable work was completed in preparation of designs and development applications, the construction of an ancillary building did not proceed because, with their combined aged wisdom and their gentle taoist nature, the trustees did not wish to invite controversy to the peaceful reclusive and tranquil environment, that the old temple facilitates, and plans for expansion were ultimately shelved indefinitely and the Development Application was withdrawn.

The issues raised during the process are of course, very interesting and involve politics, history, feng shui, chinese factions and numerous competing interests of the community at large as well as concerns for preserving Australia’s heritage. It’s not a task that one can rush, but it is a building of considerable interest and one for which we have developed considerable affection and affinity.

Gary Finn


Note: Photos above are images from which inspiration was drawn for colour tone and composition of the FS Architects Pty Limited Sze Yup Ancillary Building design. These inspirational images record buildings that I visited in 1984 and they are immersed in the tranquility of the royal gardens in Chengde, China. The Chengde valley is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.



Taoist Temple, Glebe