Teochew immigrants' life - in letters

Left: Guests at the Teochew Festival being briefed on a mobile game centred on the community's culture. Above: Example of a "qiaopi".
Above: Guests at the Teochew Festival being briefed on a mobile game centred on the community's culture. PHOTOS: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, MUSEUM OF OVERSEAS CHINESE REMITTANCE IN SHANTOU, CHINA; TEOCHEW POIT IP HUAY KUAN

Festival offers snapshots of Singapore's second-largest sub-group of Chinese

One Teochew immigrant remitted $400 to his hometown in China's southern Chaoshan region while another was so poor he could afford to send only $1.90, unable to even round it up to the more auspicious even figure of $2.

The early life of the Teochew community in Singapore can be uncovered in these qiaopi - letters from overseas Chinese in the 1800s and 1900s which were often sent with their remittances.

A selection of these letters will be on display at the second Teochew Festival at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre Level 1 Hall A from Dec 9 to 18.

Associate Professor Lee Chee Hiang of the National University of Singapore's Chinese Studies Department, who is in charge of the exhibition, said these letters are important artefacts that shed light on the lives and struggles of the nation's Teochew pioneers.

He said they reflect "their family histories, and the economy and society of the day".


Above: Example of a "qiaopi". PHOTOS: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES, MUSEUM OF OVERSEAS CHINESE REMITTANCE IN SHANTOU, CHINA; TEOCHEW POIT IP HUAY KUAN

One qiaopi - on loan from the Museum of Overseas Chinese Remittance in Shantou, China - features the word "nan" or difficult in Chinese, prominently - reflecting the sender's plight and his yearning to reunite with his family.

Some letters were written on behalf of illiterate immigrants by letter writers, or by friends and acquaintances who were literate.

At the end of World War II, there were about 50 well-known remittance houses run by the Teochews but these gradually faded away after China started regulating these services and assigned the Bank of China to handle the task in the 1970s.

Apart from the qiaopi showcase, the festival will feature traditional Teochew crafts, cuisines and cultural performances.

Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan vice-president Peter Lim, who is the festival's organising chairman, is targeting a visitorship of 200,000 , up from the 100,000 or so in 2014.

He said: "We want families to visit us to learn about their roots and pass it on to the next generation."

The 500,000-strong Teochew community is the second-largest sub-group of Chinese in Singapore, after the Hokkiens.

The Teochews were from eight counties in the Chaoshan region. They started arriving in Singapore in the early 1800s. Most were poor farmers, fishermen and labourers.

Tickets to the festival cost $10 per day. Details on where they can be purchased will be provided at a later date. Updates can be found on the Teochew Festival Singapore's Facebook page.

For now, organisers are encouraging the public to download a new game app called "Heng Heng" which aims to educate users on Teochew culture through a game featuring traditional kueh or pastries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Teochew immigrants' life - in letters'. Print Edition | Subscribe