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100-year-old time capsule extracted at Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church during restoration work

Items found point to the long-standing practices of the Methodists in Singapore

Extracting a 100 years old time capsule
Extracting a 100-year-old time capsule from TACMC

Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church (TACMC) members were overjoyed to discover that a 100-year-old time capsule was located and successfully extracted at the site of their church building at 235 Telok Ayer Street. The church building is currently undergoing restoration work.

The items in the time capsule included a Chinese Bible presented by the British and Foreign Bible Society, a 1921 edition of the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the United Methodist Church), a 1919 pocket-sized book containing hymns, minutes of the 1923 Malaysia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and copies of local dailies, The Straits Times and Singapore Free Press, among other items. (See sidebar for full list.)

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Site of the time capsule where the marble plaque partially obstructs it

The time capsule—a slim metal box measuring 300 mm by 300 mm by 50 mm—was successfully extracted on 7 Feb 2024, in the presence of Rev Dr Gregory Goh, President of the Chinese Annual Conference (CAC) of The Methodist Church in Singapore (MCS), Rev Edmund Koh, Pastor-in-Charge of TACMC, leaders of TACMC and representatives from Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), the national authority that advises on the preservation of nationally significant monuments and sites in Singapore.

Extraction work commenced at 10 a.m. after Rev Dr Goh said a prayer: “Thanks and praise to God as we witness this historic moment for the proclamation made by the Chinese community back in the day. We give thanks for their loyalty, their sense of mission and willingness to serve.”

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Extracting the time capsule from the internal wall to mitigate the problem of the marble plaque obstructing it from the outside

Bishop Dr Gordon Wong of MCS shared in a statement, “The time capsule will connect us to our roots and bring history to life. … I believe that what we have discovered will serve to strengthen our understanding of our past and help us to appreciate the rich heritage that we have come from.”

TACMC’s church building at the corner of Telok Ayer Street and Cecil Street is designed by Swan & Maclaren, one of the most prominent architectural firms during the early 20th century in Singapore. The building was conferred the Preservation Order of a national monument in 1989. The church, which was founded by Dr Benjamin West—a missionary doctor—celebrates its 135th Anniversary this year. The four-storey building, once the tallest in the area, served as a refuge to nearly 300 people during the Japanese Occupation. TACMC is the oldest Chinese Methodist Church under CAC, and conducts services in Hokkien, Mandarin and English.

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TACMC building at 235 Telok Ayer Street, prior to restoration work (Photo courtesy of TACMC)

Discovering the time capsule’s existence

Church members did not know about the time capsule with certainty until recently. There had been hearsay of a time capsule but no one knew its exact location. While researching and curating artefacts for the heritage gallery that is being built inside the restored church building, a committee made up of church member-volunteers came across newspaper reports from the Malayan Saturday Post about the time capsule. The newspaper article reported that the capsule was sealed and laid in the foundation wall during the foundation stone laying ceremony on 9 Jan 1924.

Using ultrasound and metal scanning tools, the box was detected by TACMC’s contractor, Topzone E&C Pte Ltd. TACMC church leaders decided that the 100-year milestone was an appropriate time to extract the time capsule and plans were made to extract the box. It is uncanny that the time capsule was only discovered and extracted at the 100-year milestone, given that the restoration work was significantly delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Topzone E&C acted upon the advice of architectural heritage consultants, MAEK Consulting, to extract the box. Mr Wong Chung Wan, who is the technical director of MAEK Consulting and oversaw the extraction proceedings, explained that the extraction took several hours as the box was not housed in a vault—as was the case for most time capsules—but was partially blocked by the marble plaque commemorating the laying of the foundation stone seen from an external wall of the church along the five-foot-way. The box was finally extracted from the internal wall so as not to damage the marble plaque.

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The first glimpse of the items inside the time capsule

Time capsule items a testament to the rich heritage of Methodists in Singapore

A week after its extraction, the time capsule was opened on 14 Feb 2024 after having rested in a dry box environment where the humidity level was controlled. The unboxing, conducted by Mr Wong, took place at the church’s temporary location located at Wishart Road.

One of the significant items is the copy of the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the pre-cursor of the Book of Discipline (BOD), a rule book that Methodist churches use today. Methodists in Singapore achieved autonomy in 1968 (as the Malayan Annual Conference) and separated to become The Methodist Church in Malaysia and The Methodist Church in Singapore in 1976.

Rev Dr Goh said he was “most happy” to find the book of hymns, as it represented an important aspect of Christian living—worship. He surmised that the pocket-size dimensions enabled churchgoers to have their own copy, to bring along with them to church and use at home. “Most from the older generations cannot read Chinese. They learnt to read Chinese characters from these hymns and memorised these songs over time.”

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Rev Dr Gregory Goh (first on left) examining the Chinese Bible with Prof Tan Chew Lim, Lay Leader of TACMC (first on right), Rev Edmund Koh, PIC of TACMC (2nd from right) and Mr Tan Hua Joo, LCEC Chairman (behind)
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Left: A handwritten statement in Chinese, documenting the laying of the foundation stone ceremony on 9 Jan 1924 at the site of TACMC (235 Telok Ayer Street) Right: The interior of the Chinese Bible printed in Foochow, China

“It is also heartening to me to know that things aren’t so different today, that we are still keeping to these important traditions based on the documents—the Bible, liturgy, BOD, hymn book—we see in the time capsule,” said Rev Dr Goh. For example, the minutes from the Finance Committee of the Malaysia Conference reflects how the Annual Conferences operate today. “From as early as 100 years ago, church matters were already so clearly spelt out and organised … this accountability from the time of our forefathers constitutes our Methodist legacy.”

The financial reports, which mentioned Anglo-Chinese School, Methodist Girls’ School and Methodist Boys’ School (in Malaya) showed the close link between the Methodist schools and the Church.

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The first glimpse of the items inside the time capsule

The items unearthed in the time capsule will eventually be housed in the heritage gallery at the ground floor of the original site of TACMC and will be open to public. The heritage gallery, about 232 sqm in size, is timed to open with the completion of the restoration work in Jan 2025, which would coincide with the building’s 100th anniversary.

Items inside the time capsule

 

  1. A Chinese Bible, presented by the British and Foreign Bible Society, printed in Foochow, China
  2. A Chinese translation of the 1784 version of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Discipline, which includes history and doctrine; the translation was done in the Foochow province of China
  3. A 1919 pocket-sized hymnal containing liturgies and 409 hymns
  4. Minutes of the Malaysia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1923
  5. Minutes of the Finance Committee, Malaysia Conference, Mid-Year Session, 1923
  6. Copies of local newspapers, The Straits Times, 8 Jan 1924, and Singapore Free Press, 9 Jan 1924
  7. Booklet which includes the Methodist Episcopal Church’s liturgies for the Sacrament of Holy Communion, Funerals, Weddings, and Order of Worship (part of item 2)
  8. A handwritten statement in Chinese, documenting the laying of the foundation stone ceremony on 9 Jan 1924 at the site of TACMC (235 Telok Ayer Street)
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Items inside the time capsule

Prof Tan Chew Lim, Lay Leader of TACMC and advisor to the Archives Committee said, “The time capsule is a testament to the faith and resilience of the early Hokkien-speaking migrants who landed in Nanyang in the late 19th century and came to believe in God. Their lives were positively impacted by the Christian faith, shared by the early Western missionaries.”

There are plans to install a new time capsule as a legacy for future generations of church members.

 

Updated on 17 Feb 2023, 2:11pm

Lianne Ong is the Editor of Methodist Message. She worships at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church. / Photos by Dominique Wang of MCS Communications

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