Meet the Singaporewallas: Gujarati families' surnames that reflect connection to Singapore

Dr Reyaz Singaporewalla with his wife Fatima Reyaz and son Kaamil Reyaz. PHOTO: COURTESY OF REYAZ SINGAPOREWALLA

SINGAPORE (TABLA!) - A surname - if we have one - is what we understand to be our last name. It is usually not in our hands to choose, but is thrust on us by virtue of being born into a certain family.

For Indians, the surname often reveals more information, such as caste, place of origin or occupation of the bearer.

Among Indian communities, it is the Gujaratis who have the most unique surnames.

You don't have to be a detective to decode Gujarati surnames. These can tell you a lot about the ancestors and history of the family.

It was therefore not a surprise to come across Gujaratis in Singapore whose second names incorporate the name of our nation.

Dr Reyaz M. Singaporewalla and his family moved to Singapore only 18 years ago.

But the route was shown by his great-grandfather Nazarally Tyebally, who arrived here as a trader in the early part of the 20th century and established a company called N Tyebally. It traded in food grains, yarn and spices.

His grandfather, Mr Fazlehusein, was born in Singapore. However, when World War II broke out, fearing for their safety, the family returned to India.

Acquaintances started referring to them as "Singaporewalla" and that soon became their second name.

As a child growing up in India, he had a lot of explaining to do. His friends would ask him what he was doing in India if he was "from Singapore", said Dr Singaporewalla.

However, the family did not completely lose touch with Singapore and continued to receive Eid greetings even when they were in Mumbai, especially from former president Yusof Ishak, who had studied with Mr Fazlehusein at Raffles Institution.

Life came full circle when job opportunities brought Dr Singaporewalla back to Singapore.

He is now an associate professor at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, has become a citizen and lives here with his wife and son. It was destined, he felt.

Even today he is inevitably stopped at immigration and curious officers question him about his name.

His wife, Mrs Fatima Reyaz, said: "In our community, having family names based on the place you belong to or come from is nothing new.

"However, what was unique in our case was that my husband and I came to Singapore with Singaporewalla already attached to our names. People outside our community were amazed by this."

Mrs Priti Singapuri (belonging to Singapore) has a similar story to share.

Her grandfather-in- law, Mr Chhaganlal, arrived in Singapore from Surat, Gujarat, in the 1920s and owned a business near Arab Street.

During the Japanese Occupation, he lost all his money. There was no option but for the family to return to India.

However, his son, Mr Balwantram, who was born in Singapore in 1928, always dreamt of returning to the country of his birth.

In the 1950s, he returned to work for one of the big Gujarati trading houses, but his family continued to live in India, said Mrs Singapuri, who is Mr Balwantram's daughter-in-law.

"Whenever he returned to India, the neighbours would say, 'the Singapuri has come'."

Her father-in-law eventually adopted "Singapuri" as the family name and moved his family to Singapore in 1964. They now own an electronics business in High Street.

The family is proud to be associated with this unique name and is often asked about its origin.

Mrs Salma Moiz, a third-generation Singaporean Gujarati who is a museum and tour guide, explained: "In the old days, there were only a few favoured first names and to avoid confusion and differentiate between them, people were given second names.

"Hence second names derived from the place of birth, profession, caste, physical characteristics or attributes became distinguishing factors."

The Motiwalla family established roots in Penang and later in Singapore in the 1880s.

"Moti" means pearl and the suffix "walla" indicates a profession or place of birth, in this case the former.

Businessman Zoher Motiwalla, 62, explains that, even though they do not have any official record, the family is believed to have at one time traded in precious gems and pearls with Middle Eastern countries and that probably gave them their unique second name.

Though their pearl business is long gone and the family has changed professions several times since, they have stuck to their ancestral name Motiwalla.

Mrs Moiz confirmed that the "Chakkiwala" family in Singapore did own grinding mills in the past.

It is a matter of conjecture if the "Klangwalla" family originally moved from Gujarat to Klang, but the "Singaporewalla" name is certainly self-explanatory.

Apart from those based on places, there are other Gujarati surnames like "Kagda" which means crow, or "Wagh", meaning tiger.

Both animals are associated with stereotypes, one being shrewd and clever and the other fierce.

One can only wonder if it was a sense of humour or personality traits that dictated the choice of these second names.

Mrs Moiz believes that due to British influence, the names evolved further and family names like "Merchant" and "Doctor" came about.

She knows of a medical doctor whose last name also happens to be Doctor. "So if you were to address him, you would say, 'Dr Doctor'," she added with a smile.

Another tradition that the Gujaratis practise is to refer to men as brothers or "bhai". Thus Mr Hassan was respectfully called Hassan Bhai and that over the years became "Hassanbhai" - the name the family is identified with.

The "bhoy" in "Jumabhoy" is a Parsi version of bhai.

Unlike in the past, it is difficult to change names today as everything has to be registered and reflected on multiple identity cards.

However, keeping the old names do help one to connect with the roots.

Dr Singaporewalla's son, 11-year-old Kaamil Reyaz, sums it up: "My friends and teachers in school often ask me about my family name. As I was born here, I feel very proud to have a family name which is the same as my country. I would never want to change it."

Correction note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the company Nazarally Tyeball established in the early part of the 20th century.

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