History tome gets timely e-update

1923 reference book on Chinese in S'pore revised, uploaded onto online portal

At the start of the seminal One Hundred Years' History Of The Chinese In Singapore, by Mr Song Ong Siang, is an account of a colourful man known as Tan Che Sang, who was reportedly born in Guangzhou (Canton) and moved here.

The 600-page English-language book relates that the wealthy man was a miser and a gambler, who tried to conquer his "vicious habit" by cutting off the first joint of one finger. Mr Tan wielded so much influence that about 15,000 people attended his funeral in 1836.

This and other accounts have been further elaborated upon, tweaked and corrected by heritage expert and law professor Kevin Tan and his team of researchers.

For instance, Dr Tan learnt that Mr Tan actually hailed from Fujian province, not Guangzhou.

The discovery was part of a two-year project commissioned by the National Library, also known as the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library, to annotate the widely used reference book, which chronicles 180 movers and shakers of the early Chinese community here.

Mr Song, or Sir Ong Siang, was himself no less influential, as a lawyer, community leader, legislator and Raffles Institution alumnus, and the first Chinese in Malaya to be knighted by the British.

Law professor Kevin Tan worked with the National Library to update the 1923 book with new research and sources. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Dr Tan also added details from extra research, including how Mr Tan was recorded as having died "surrounded with coffers of silver" and "a tiger's skin in the centre of it upon which he slept", based on a report in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser.

The mammoth task of annotating the book involved supplying primary information sources and correcting wrong dates and other errors of fact and nomenclature.

The volume, now with 830 pages, has been uploaded onto the National Library's BookSG portal (http://tinyurl.com/100historysporechinese) and there are plans to publish it in print.

In 2009, as then president of the Singapore Heritage Society, Dr Tan mooted the idea of an annotated version of the book, as it is heavily referenced by academics and amateur genealogists alike.

Mr Song's book features text from newspapers of the time and his own knowledge of Chinese personalities in early Singapore. As it was aimed at the lay public, the content was strung together without referencing sources.

Dr Tan, who has written and edited 41 books, said: "The plan was to re-issue the 1923 book, which has gone out of print since the 1990s. To value-add, I thought it would be useful to annotate it.

"I'm very happy that we did this, so we can get as accurate a picture of what was going on in the past without a blind reliance on what was produced then. This can spur many other projects in the future, including new biographies."

National Library director Wai Yin Pryke said the project is timely as the library has been expanding its digital archives to support such research. The team also corroborated information by delving into Chinese archives - an untapped source for Mr Song, a Peranakan who did not read Chinese.

Members of the public will be able to add their own annotations to the book on the National Archives of Singapore's Citizen Archivist portal from March.

Mrs Pryke said: "Because many descendants are alive, they can corroborate or contradict the annotations, add to them if there isn't enough evidence, and even reveal new information and stories."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'History tome gets timely e-update'. Print Edition | Subscribe