New book on history of Singapore's Chinese to hit shelves in June

SINGAPORE - Commonly used Chinese words for train (huo che), Singapore (xin jia po), braille (tu zi shu) and national flag (guo qi) were coined right here in Singapore by pioneer missionaries in the early 19th century.

At that time, Singapore had an active printing industry. Chinese books - about half a million of them - were published and distributed to the Chinese diaspora here and in the region, giving them access to information banned by the Qing government in China.

It was also in Singapore that Peranakan and other Chinese literature was printed for regional audiences.

The evolution of early printing in the Chinese language in Singapore - in an industry kickstarted by Western missionaries - is one of many little-known stories about the Chinese community featured in an upcoming book called A General History of the Chinese in Singapore.

The English-language book covers Singapore's pre-1819 history and shows how the Singapore Chinese - originating from China, Penang, Malacca and the Riau Archipelago - came to the island with other ethnic groups to build a nation.

The book, which is about 800-pages long and features 38 essays, is supported by the Singapore Bicentennial and the National Heritage Board (NHB) and will hit shelves in June, said the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) on Tuesday (March 12).

The last such comprehensive historical tome that captures the Chinese footprint in Singapore was Mr Song Ong Siang's One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore, published in 1923. It covered the years 1819 to 1919.

The new book is helmed by two chief editors, National University of Singapore historian Kwa Chong Guan and independent Singapore Chinese historian Kua Bak Lim, who is an SFCCA council member.

NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community Alvin Tan said the publication is a "seminal" one, and a substantial reference work. He added: "As it is published in English, its contents will be accessible to the non-Chinese and non-Mandarin-speaking population, as well as an international audience for the first time."

A total of 26 authors and seven translators were involved in the project which started in March 2017. It comes after the Chinese edition, which hit the presses in 2015 for SG50. The English version of the book was rewritten and 23 new essays were added.

The book now covers more on the Peranakan community and also discusses Singapore before Sir Stamford Raffles’ arrival, as well as  the Chinese art scene.

For instance, the book notes that Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese artists, who were active during the first half of the 20th century, have been overlooked in other historical accounts which focused primarily on artists from China who developed an aesthetic sensibility called the Nanyang Style.

In his essay on the arts scene, writer Teo Han Wue says that Straits-born Chinese who were interested in art formed a hobby group in 1909 known as the Amateur Drawing Association. Its first exhibition was held in 1913 and featured more than 100 works.

The book also highlights 50 prominent Chinese historical monuments and artefacts significant to the community, as well as the overlooked role of Chinese secret societies in the building of Singapore's social fabric.

The paperback copy will retail for $46 while the hardcover one will be sold at $88.

Associate Professor Kwa said: "The book tells a distinct story of the Chinese in Singapore, and what it is that distinguishes us as Chinese Singaporeans, which is different from other Chinese communities in the region, and also China.

"In today's complex world, we want to be clear about our distinct identities - how we are similar yet different from other communities. I am especially happy that all the contributors are Singaporeans writing about our history rather than foreigners writing about us."