New English-language book tells history and stories of Hinghwa people

Dr Jason Ong, author of Hinghwa - The History And Stories Of The Hinghwa People, at the book's launch on June 3, 2022. ST PHOTO: EUGENE GOH

SINGAPORE - A 1978 fire in Weld Road, which was home to a Hinghwa enclave, left then 24-year-old credit officer Jason Ong despondent, with the residents having to uproot and resettle islandwide.

Growing up in a shophouse nearby, he had been surrounded by all the familiar elements of his Hinghwa heritage, and his comfort zone was now taken away.

"I felt helpless as I did not have the capability to write a book then (to preserve his heritage), but I held on to the hope that I would do something about it one day," said the Singapore-born son of a rickshaw pullert.

On Friday (June 3), he fulfilled that wish when his book, Hinghwa - The History And Stories Of The Hinghwa People, was launched by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong at the Furama RiverFront ballroom.

The Hinghwa community first arrived in Singapore in the late 19th century from Putian, which is also known as Henghua or Hinghwa, Hin Ann and Puxian. According to the Census of Population 2020, there are about 27,000 Hinghwa people here.

"The lack of English materials convinced me even more that I should do an English book," said Dr Ong, who is now 68 and founder of education and enrichment centre Learning Playground. "I hope that the younger generations would be proud of our clan, and not think that we are just rickshaw pullers and trishaw riders like before."

Though he had to quit his studies prematurely at Monk's Hill Secondary School due to poor grades, he did not stop learning. He attended night classes in courses like English and computer literacy, and took the O levels as a private candidate.

In 1995, he went on to obtain a Master of Business Administration from the University of South Australia. This was followed by a Doctorate of Education from the University of Leicester in 2007.

In the same year he completed his doctorate studies, Dr Ong started his research work on the Hinghwa people and culture.

As he is English-educated and speaks English at home with his Indian wife, who is a retired senior nurse manager, two adult children and two grandchildren, the greatest challenge was to understand and translate the research materials, which are mostly in Chinese.

He sought help from Hinghwa clansmen and university academics in Singapore, South-east Asia and China, and interviewed about 100 Hinghwa people, including Lippo Group founder Mochtar Riady and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, whose mother is Hinghwa.

Addressing the 200 guests at the event, Mr Tong said: "As you preserve Hinghwa culture, you are also part of the very unique Singapore Chinese culture that we are in the process of deepening, evolving and making sure that we preserve and pass on.

"By continuing to interact with different communities and remaining open to the cross-pollination of different cultures, we will develop our own unique Singaporean identity like no other place in the world."

Dr Jason Ong (third from right) presenting Minister for Community, Culture and Youth Edwin Tong with a copy of the book during the book's launch at Furama RiverFront on June 3, 2022. ST PHOTO: EUGENE GOH

The book is published by the Singapore Puxian (Hinghwa) Network, which was inaugurated in February last year.

Mr Fong Chi Chung, its president and founder of restaurant chain Putien Holdings, said Dr Ong's book can be considered the first English-language book from Singapore on the history and stories of the Hinghwa people.

It will help the younger generation, who are more comfortable in English, as well as other races, to better understand and appreciate Hinghwa culture, he added.

Last December, the network released a Chinese book that featured 55 notable Hinghwa people in Singapore.

The network, which has more than 300 members, is planning to organise a Hinghwa food and cultural festival early next year, as well as tour groups to Puxian.

Hinghwa - The History And Stories Of The Hinghwa People is available at the Singapore Book Fair (held till June 12 at the National Library Building and Bras Basah Complex), major bookstores and Putien restaurants for $50.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.