Singapore's unique Chinese culture

Columnist Toh Lam Huat identifies three key factors in the development of Singapore’s Chinese culture.
Columnist Toh Lam Huat identifies three key factors in the development of Singapore’s Chinese culture.

It is shaped by shared heritage of Chinese culture, immigrant culture and national culture, says curator of recent exhibition

When Chinese Singaporeans and their families gather tonight for reunion dinners on Chinese New Year's Eve, many will do the traditional "prosperity toss" of yusheng - seafood, sliced vegetables and citrus peel, with condiments. They will lick their lips at the goodies to come, such as pineapple tarts and bak kwa.

It is to honour the tradition of observing Chinese New Year, passed down from ancestors who migrated from China.

Except, in the eyes of some mainland Chinese living in Singapore, aspects of this may not be exactly the traditional way to celebrate the key event in the Chinese calendar.

Singapore's distinctly multiracial gatherings of relatives, neighbours and friends are different, for a start. And then there is the food: yusheng was invented in Singapore only a few decades ago, as were pineapple tarts, which are also served at festivals of other cultures here, such as for Hari Raya and Deepavali.

In China, especially in the northern part of the country, eating steamed dumplings is a must to celebrate the Chinese New Year, or chun jie as they prefer to call it.

A newcomer to Singapore familiar with China might be surprised at our Republic's additions to the traditional rituals which now form an essential part of the festive season here. This is especially so considering that Chinese are the majority race in Singapore, with three in four citizens being of Chinese descent.

And it raises the question: What is this thing that has become Singapore Chinese culture?

This is timely to ask, not only because it is Chinese New Year, but also as Singapore will soon have two multimillion-dollar Chinese cultural centres. One is the $44 million China Cultural Centre (CCC) in Queen Street, built by the Chinese government. It was opened by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong just three months ago.The other is the $110 million Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC), funded 90 per cent by the Singapore Government and which is opening in Shenton Way by the end of the year.

NEW CHINESE IMMIGRANTS

They provide the new energy to enrich the cultural scenes... and serve as a link to connect with other Chinese outside Singapore. Their role in the development of the unique Singapore Chinese culture is thus complex.

PROFESSOR EDDIE KUO, director of the UniSIM Centre for Chinese Studies.

Both buildings are 11 storeys high and promote aspects of Chinese culture, but a look at what this might be throws up questions about what it means to be a Singaporean of Chinese descent.

Chinese Singaporeans already have plenty of opportunities to embrace their roots. There is Chinese as one of the official languages, for a start. Then there are the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Chinese Opera Institute and Chinese Heritage Centre, among others.

And now, with the new cultural centres, there are two more.

Many have asked if the two centres are promoting the same thing.

"Of course not," said SCCC chief executive Choo Thiam Siew, 65, when questioned by The Straits Times when the China centre was opened.

"There is no duplication because we will be promoting our uniquely Singapore Chinese culture while theirs will be all about those from the mainland," he added.

SHOWCASING CULTURE

The SCCC may not be open yet, but its board has already held the centre's first main event: a multimedia exhibition titled Blooms Of Vitality, Colours Of Life, at the Singapore Conference Hall.

Aiming to show the uniqueness of Singapore Chinese culture, it featured more than 300 photographs and illustrations. There were also two video shows tracing the evolution of Chinese culture here during the three-week-long event, which ended just a week ago.

TIMELY TO DEFINE IDENTITY

If the young do not have a good idea of who they are, and understand their own cultural background and differences from the other Chinese communities elsewhere, they may end up very confused.

DR ZHOU ZHAOCHENG, Lianhe Zaobao's assistant vice-president (new growth), on fostering a stronger sense of identity, especially among the young.

Mr Choo, who was president of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts before his SCCC post, says the board decided it should define what made Singapore Chinese culture and showcase this even before its opening. "That is because it will determine the scope of activities we will have in future," he explains.

Indeed, the experiences the Chinese community in Singapore has gone through are unique, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean had said at the 20th-anniversary celebrations of Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Chinese Heritage Centre last November.

From an extension of China during the early colonial times, the community was a minority community pledging loyalty to an independent, multiracial Malaysia.

"After Independence, the Chinese community in Singapore became the majority community in a multiracial Singapore, determined to build our own nation as one united Singapore, and take our future in our own hands," DPM Teo added.

"These experiences have shaped the Chinese community along with all communities that make up Singapore. They form a key part of why we are who we are as Singaporeans, and our identity."

The man who curated the SCCC's multimedia show, board member and Lianhe Zaobao columnist Toh Lam Huat, 63, identifies three sources from which the characteristics of the unique features of Singapore Chinese culture have developed.

One is the shared common heritage of Chinese culture - such as its core value of harmony, the language, surnames and hierarchical structure and their relationships in Chinese families.

BUILDING ONE UNITED SINGAPORE

These experiences have shaped the Chinese community along with all communities that make up Singapore. They form a key part of why we are who we are as Singaporeans, and our identity.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER TEO CHEE HEAN, stressing the unique experiences the Chinese community in Singapore has gone through.

Then there is the influence of immigrant culture here, when Chinese from the southern provinces started to move over here in big numbers in the 19th century, initially to find work.

Mr Toh's third aspect is national culture, which came about after Independence and included the National Pledge, multiracialism, national service and the bilingual education policy.

The influences of these three components are manifested as unique features of Singapore Chinese in the values they hold, the language and dialects they speak, the food they eat, the leisure activities, including sports like wushu, and pursuits in the arts they take part in which may be different from the Chinese elsewhere, including those in mainland China.

These include the Hungry Ghost Festival as it is celebrated here, the strong presence of Chinese clan associations, Singlish and dialect surnames and names, and Chinese hawker fare such as bak kut teh, lor mee, satay mee hoon and Peranakan cuisine.

WHY HIGHLIGHT UNIQUENESS?

But why is there a need to define or highlight the unique features of Singapore Chinese culture as distinct from other Chinese cultures, or cultures from other places?

One reason could be a matter of national identity. The recent influx of Chinese immigrants may have put pressure on Singaporeans to define what Singapore Chinese culture is, in comparison to those from mainland China.

This is because some aspects of their culture may be deemed less compatible and yet the new Chinese immigrants will invariably still make an input in the cultural development of Singapore in the long run, says Professor Eddie Kuo, director of the UniSIM Centre for Chinese Studies.

"In a sense, they provide the new energy to enrich the cultural scenes in Singapore and serve as a link to connect with other Chinese outside Singapore. Their role in the development of the unique Singapore Chinese culture is thus complex," says Prof Kuo, 75, who is also emeritus professor at NTU.

He also feels there is a sense of urgency in Singapore to establish a culture and identity that Chinese Singaporeans can call their own.

He notes that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has on many occasions over the past four years talked about the uniqueness of Singapore Chinese culture.

For example, during a local television forum in Mandarin in 2012, he was quoted as saying: "Over the decades, the Chinese community in Singapore has developed its unique set of social mores and milieu, and built a good rapport with the minority communities. The Chinese here are, therefore, different from the Chinese in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan."

Meanwhile, Dr Zhou Zhaocheng, 43, Lianhe Zaobao's assistant vice-president (new growth) who is also adjunct assistant professor at NTU, says it is timely to define what Singapore Chinese culture is all about after 50 years of nation-building. He believes doing so would help foster a stronger sense of identity among Chinese Singaporeans, especially the young.

The need to do so is even more necessary now in the Internet age when Chinese culture in all forms, including literature, movies, music and songs and other entertainment material, is freely available.

"If the young do not have a good idea of who they are, and understand their own cultural background and differences from the other Chinese communities elsewhere, they may end up very confused," he says.

On the other hand, if they understand their own culture well, they will become more confident as Chinese Singaporeans.

Sharing the same view is the director of the Confucius Institute at NTU, Dr Neo Peng Fu, 54, who says that though his institute was set up by NTU and China's Education Ministry to promote the greater Chinese traditions in language, literature, philosophy and history, he is still committed to promoting Singa- pore's unique Chinese culture.

"Culture is alive and evolving all the time and it must be related to where you live," he explains.

He points to his institute's Nanyang Literature Award, set up to promote local Chinese literary writing and honour good writers here, as supporting this evolution.

Lianhe Zaobao's Dr Zhou notes: "What is common and shared between Chinese Singaporeans and Chinese in, say, the mainland, is probably still Chinese culture and what is different will be uniquely Singapore's."

What is really important, says Prof Kuo of UniSIM, is both to recognise the continuity from a common shared Chinese heritage, and to stress our migrant ancestors' innovative and creative process of adapting to a new and sometimes adverse environment.

He also says defining Singapore Chinese culture is not as simple as it seems because "what we claim may not be exclusively Singapore's but may be shared by other Chinese communities in the region, like (in) Malaysia".

Also, he feels that the evolution of culture is ongoing, and explains: "There is often a state of fluidity when we try to pin down features of Singapore culture. There will continue to be changes and transformation over time."

But even as culture evolves over time, many see a need to educate a younger generation about it and pass down certain values, such as the importance of mutual support and acknowledging the contributions of earlier generations.

Among them is SCCC's chief executive, Mr Choo.

With the success of the exhibition on Singapore Chinese culture at the Singapore Conference Hall, he is planning a tour of the show in schools.

"It is important for the young to know the unique features of Chinese culture and the practices here," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore's unique Chinese culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe