Sin­ga­pore con­nec­tion

A cen­ter pre­serves the per­ilous jour­ney of Chi­nese im­mi­grants

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAO XU zhaoxu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

For Sophia Soon, a Sin­ga­pore-born vol­un­teer mu­seum guide, a blackand-white pic­ture taken of a Chi­nese man — prob­a­bly a first-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant — and now hang­ing on the wall of the Chi­nese Her­itage Cen­ter at Sin­ga­pore’s Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity, speaks vol­umes. “Look at his shoes — so small that he could barely squeeze his feet in,” she says.

“They were ac­tu­ally props bor­rowed from a photo stu­dio — just like the cheongsam and the hat.”

Ac­cord­ing to Soon, de­spite look­ing ur­bane, even schol­arly, the man in ques­tion is most likely to have been a coolie, some­one do­ing hard man­ual la­bor, pre­sum­ably along the banks of the Sin­ga­pore River.

“How­ever, he was adamant about hav­ing this pic­ture taken, where he was por­trayed as a man of learn­ing, ev­i­denced by the book in his hand. Why? Be­cause tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture val­ued lit­er­ary achieve­ments above all else,” the 60-year-old says.

For those fa­mil­iar with his­tory, the pic­ture holds up a mir­ror to gen­er­a­tions of Chi­nese im­mi­grants who trav­eled to Sin­ga­pore, the re­al­ity of their ex­is­tence, and the stub­born­ness with which they tried to hold on to their iden­tity, while be­ing con­stantly washed by the cul­tural tides flood­ing Sin­ga­pore’s shores.

“The Chi­nese first ar­rived in Sin­ga­pore around the early 15th cen­tury. But the big­gest in­flow of Chi­nese im­mi­grants in Sin­ga­pore’s con­tem­po­rary his­tory took place be­tween the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury, when China was fac­ing for­eign in­va­sion and po­lit­i­cal un­rest,” says Soon.

“The story of these im­mi­grants pro­gressed on two par­al­lel nar­ra­tive lines: one was about set­tling down; and the other was about reach­ing back.”

Chu Kin Fong, a li­censed tour guide and third-gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese im­mi­grant, has made it her job to take vis­i­tors — es­pe­cially from the Chi­nese main­land — to Chi­na­town in Sin­ga­pore.

The area, in the south­ern part of the is­land, is where Chi­nese im­mi­grants once con­gre­gated, on both sides of the Sin­ga­pore River.

“The ma­jor­ity of them worked as porters. But some ran restau­rants or barber’s shops,” says Chu.

Life was never easy, she says. In fact, Chi­na­town is also known lo­cally as “niu-che-shui”, mean­ing “ox-driven wa­ter cart”.

In the old days, Chi­nese im­mi­grants, with no fresh wa­ter to drink, used ox carts to ferry wa­ter from other parts of the is­land.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Chu, the hard­ships en­dured were in a way mit­i­gated with the for­ma­tion of as­so­ci­a­tions, which were es­sen­tially mu­tual-help groups based on the area in China where the im­mi­grants hailed from.

“The heads of these as­so­ci­a­tions were also com­mu­nity lead­ers who took un­der their wings men from their home­towns,” she says, point­ing to the two-storey build­ings in Chi­na­town that used to house these as­so­ci­a­tions.

“These days, they have largely turned into venues for the study of tra­di­tional Chi­nese art and cul­ture, opera and in­stru­ment-play­ing, for ex­am­ple,” she says.

From the late 19th to the mid-20th cen­tury, Chi­nese im­mi­grants in Sin­ga­pore, es­pe­cially af­flu­ent busi­ness­men, con­cerned them­selves with the fate of their “moth­er­land”.

They of­fered fi­nan­cial sup­port first to top­ple the Qing Dy­nasty, China’s last feu­dal rulers, and then to the Chi­nese fight­ing the in­vad­ing Ja­panese be­tween 1937 and 1945.

Af­ter the end of World War II and the found­ing of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China the fo­cus shifted. Start­ing in the 1950s, some lo­cal Chi­nese com­mu­nity lead­ers ad­vo­cated the set­ting up of a Chi­nese univer­sity.

Prom­i­nent among the lead­ers was Tan Lark Sye, a rub­ber ty­coon.

The univer­sity that came into be­ing, in 1955 was called Nanyang Univer­sity, with Nanyang, or the South Sea, re­fer­ring to South­east Asia that in­cludes to­day’s Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia.

Speak­ing of the project, Soon says: “We have black-and­white pic­tures show­ing peo­ple from all walks of life — from tri­cy­cle-pullers to dance girls — do­nat­ing for ‘ our univer­sity’.

“Nanyang was the pride of all Chi­nese in Sin­ga­pore.”

To­day, Nanyang Univer­sity, or Nan­tah as it’s known in Can­tonese, is the site of Sin­ga­pore’s Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity.

Nan­tah was merged with the Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore to form the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore in 1980.

English is now the of­fi­cial lan­guage of all uni­ver­si­ties in Sin­ga­pore.

The Chi­nese Her­itage Cen­ter is housed in the for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing of Nanyang Univer­sity.

The cen­ter, with a per­ma­nent dis­play show­cas­ing the his­tory of Chi­nese im­mi­grants to Sin­ga­pore, is the only univer­sity re­search cen­ter out­side China that spe­cial­izes in the study of over­seas Chi­nese.

That sta­tus is en­hanced by a col­lec­tion of 30,000 books do­nated by Pro­fes­sor Wang Gungwu, a renowned his­to­rian who is now the chair­man

My fa­ther died in 1991, at the age of 79 — 63 years af­ter he took the lifethreat­en­ing boat ride.” Sophia Soon, mu­seum guide

of the East Asian In­sti­tute at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore.

The books, many on Chi­nese im­mi­gra­tion, formed the core of the Wang Gungwu Li­brary, lo­cated on the ground floor of the Her­itage Cen­ter.

Ac­cord­ing to li­brar­ian Luo Bim­ing, many books from the col­lec­tion are very pre­cious as they can no longer be found on the Chi­nese Main­land.

“Many were first pub­lished dur­ing China’s Repub­li­can Era (1912-1949) but the copies were de­stroyed dur­ing the cul­tural revo­lu­tion,” he says, re­fer­ring to the ide­ol­ogy-cen­tered po­lit­i­cal move­ment that threw China into tu­mult be­tween 1966 and 1976.

“In many cases, what we have is the only re­main­ing copy.”

Mean­while, re­flect­ing on the meta­mor­pho­sis Chi­nese im­mi­grants in Sin­ga­pore un­der­went, both men­tally and cul­tur­ally, Soon points to a group of three pic­tures, of the same fam­ily taken over a pe­riod of 20 years.

In the first pic­ture, ev­ery­one, from the ma­tri­arch who sits in the mid­dle of the front row, to the younger mem­bers of the fam­ily, and even the tod­dlers, are dressed in tra­di­tional Chi­nese at­tire. The adults have long bead neck­laces, then con­sid­ered a part of court re­galia.

Then changes grad­u­ally take place: the boys from the first pic­ture ap­pear in the sec­ond one as teenagers, and are dressed in West­ern-style suits that are too big for them.

If the sec­ond pic­ture shows any sense of un­ease, the third pic­ture por­trays con­fi­dence, pro­jected by the young men and women who have grown up.

Here, even the ma­tri­arch’s son — the bread-earner of the fam­ily, had traded his heav­ily-em­broi­dered Chi­nese of­fi­cial’s gown for a sharply tai­lored suit.

His hair has turned white — thanks mostly to years of hard work to keep the fam­ily afloat.

One thing, how­ever, re­mains un­changed: The ma­tri­arch and her daugh­ter-in-law are still dressed in tra­di­tional style, years af­ter their ar­rival in their adopted home.

“The women tended to be more con­ser­va­tive,” says Soon.

“But even they had in time to yield to the need to lo­cal­ize.”

The Repub­lic of Sin­ga­pore was founded in 1965.

And ac­cord­ing to Luo the li­brar­ian, there were then ef­forts by the cen­tral govern­ment at “de-sini­ciza­tion”, in or­der to mint new a na­tional iden­tity, and to en­hance so­cial in­clu­sion in a so­ci­ety that was — and still is — pre­dom­i­nantly — eth­nic Chi­nese, with Malays and Indians.

Ac­cord­ing to Luo, one can get a sense of the pro­found changes which took place in Sin­ga­pore by com­par­ing the text­books used by school stu­dents be­fore and af­ter 1965.

“The no­tion of Sin­ga­pore was stressed, as the em­pha­sis shifted from Chi­nese his­tory to lo­cal Sin­ga­pore his­tory,” he says.

With this back­ground, the pic­ture of an early lo­cal ceme­tery for Chi­nese im­mi­grants at the Her­itage Cen­ter serves as a re­minder of the coun­try’s con­tem­po­rary his­tory.

In­scribed on the grave­stones are not only the names of the de­ceased, but also their place of ori­gin, right from the prov­ince to the county and the village.

“In the back of their minds, they still wanted to go home,” says Soon.

Born in Sin­ga­pore, Soon is a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant.

“My fa­ther died in 1991, at the age of 79 and about 63 years af­ter he took the life-threat­en­ing boat ride from the south­ern Chi­nese coast to Sin­ga­pore,” she says.

“Like most Chi­nese im­mi­grants of his gen­er­a­tion, dad, for many years, sent ev­ery penny he had earned and saved to China. In fact, he al­ways longed to go back, but never did.”

Weeks be­fore the death of the old man, his son, Soon’s brother, vis­ited the fam­ily’s home in China’s Guang­dong prov­ince and man­aged to lo­cate their fa­ther’s el­der sis­ter.”

“My brother took a pic­ture of the old woman, our aunt, who was al­most blind by then. Then, he re­turned to Sin­ga­pore to show that pic­ture to dad, who cried,” says Soon.

“My fa­ther passed away a few days later, on Oc­to­ber 1, China’s Na­tional Day.”

The story of these im­mi­grants pro­gressed on two par­al­lel nar­ra­tive lines: one was about set­tling down; and the other was about reach­ing back.”

PHO­TOS BY ZENG YU / FOR CHINA DAILY

Top: De­spite do­ing hard la­bor, an early Chi­nese im­mi­grant to Sin­ga­pore pre­ferred to be pho­tographed as a man of learn­ing.ig­nore Be­low: The group of pic­tures, taken of the same fam­ily over more than two decades, show the grad­ual yet im­pos­si­ble­tochanges un­der­gone by early Chi­nese im­mi­grants.

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