New book traces life of Singapore Chinese before 1819

Tome to be released in June written in English, making it accessible to all

Commonly used Chinese words such as 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 the 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 barred 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 here 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 the Republic's pre-1819 history and shows how 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, about 800 pages long with 38 essays, is supported by the Singapore Bicentennial and National Heritage Board (NHB) and will hit shelves in June, said the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) yesterday.

The book is helmed by National University of Singapore historian Kwa Chong Guan and independent Singapore Chinese historian Kua Bak Lim.

NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, Mr Alvin Tan, said the publication is a "seminal" one and a substantial reference work. He said: "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."

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 was rewritten and 23 new essays were added.

The book now covers more on the Peranakan community, as well as the Chinese arts scene. For instance, it notes that Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese artists have been overlooked in other historical accounts, which have primarily focused on artists from China.

In his essay on the arts scene, writer Teo Han Wue said 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, and the overlooked role of Chinese secret societies in the building of the social fabric in Singapore.

The paperback copy will retail for $46, while the hardcover 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2019, with the headline 'New book traces life of S'pore Chinese before 1819'. Subscribe