Place & Community Formation
This page explores how vernacular shrines influence and are influenced by the places and communities they are a part of. Vernacular shrines are usually familiar if unassuming sights at HDB void decks, bus interchanges, markets, coffee shops, construction sites, factory gates, carparks of shopping malls.
Here, we hope you can glimpse the significance of such shrines in the everyday religious life of Singaporeans and how they have continually evolved and adapted in response to wider societal developments.
Most vernacular shrines are humble affairs, with simple architecture. So embedded and everyday are these sites of practice within the local landscape across the island, that many rarely notice them despite passing by on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, many such shrines play an important role in catering to the religious and social needs of many Singaporeans, across many localities. They can thus be seen as everyday pieces of the society’s religious cultural and social heritage.
The evolution of vernacular shrines is impacted by multiple factors such as state regulations, urban renewal, demographic changes, and new media.
For instance, as communities moved from kampongs into HDB new towns in the 1980s or worked in modern factories and high-rise buildings, the presence of vernacular shrines has likewise shifted. The very physical presence and appearance of these shrines are sometimes indicative of historical change and shifting socio-economic norms on the island.
Vernacular shrines can serve as sites of community formation across the neighborhoods of Singapore, forming informal gathering sites for catching up, connection, and communal bonding.
Some interest groups have also taken to social media to advocate the preservation of memories on behalf of these communities. Other shrines boast of overseas visitors who make trips to Singapore just to worship at these sites of practice. These actions point toward the cohesive role that vernacular shrines play in the socio-cultural landscape of the island.
The everyday aspect of vernacular shrines in Singapore points to how truly ubiquitous they are. Some are unsurprisingly located where foot traffic is high, while others can take up residence in the most unassuming of locations on the island.
For it is in the everyday aspect of vernacular shrines, that they perhaps reflect some of the most crucial aspects of Singaporean society. The diversity, the co-existence, the openness to individuals of all backgrounds and ages - these are just some of the traits to be witnessed at these sites of practice across the island. Their significance as physical manifestations of the everyday sacred then lies beyond their unassuming appearances within the landscape of the island.
In as fluid a social and physical landscape as contemporary Singapore's, the vernacular shrines on the island are likewise indicative of such evolutions.
Some take on features that represent the demographic composition of the neighborhoods, while others stand out for having varying characteristics and appearances that are prominent even from a passing glance. Such physical features of these shrines then speak to the complexity and diversity of socio-cultural interaction on the island, and the ways that religion is practiced and interpreted
Other evolutions in the communities of Singapore are more nuanced in their reflections at these sites of practice. Interviews and conversations with regular worshippers may well reveal long, complicated histories of the entire shrine, statues, and/or offerings present within these sites that are harder to discern at a glance.
Observations of rituals may also be unlike any other seen in temples or may strictly follow certain steps; in either case, such practices also have their rich histories. Taken together, vernacular shrines then reflect and present a glimpse into the complex social, religious, and cultural changes of certain communities in Singapore.
"We have visitors from across ethnicities... sometimes different nationalities too."
- Interviewee from a shrine near Telok Blangah
What is a site of practice, without its people? The communities that form around vernacular shrines are crucial in their maintenance, continuation, and, conversely, disappearance.
The varied backgrounds of these individuals are often reflected in the physical characteristics, ceremonies, and meanings associated with these shrines. The regular visitations and offerings made, on top of rituals practiced at these sites can become crucial nodes of social interaction that form lasting bonds beyond the immediate communities of practice at vernacular shrines.
The multifaceted role that vernacular shrines play then comes to the fore when the communities that shape them - and in turn shape these communities - are witnessed. As part of Singaporean society, these groups are also indicative of just how diverse and complicated this island's inhabitants may be.
Vernacular shrines then provide insight into this complexity, as physical manifestations of certain social interactions and religious beliefs in Singapore.