New exhibition at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall showcases role of Chinese clans, welfare groups

The exhibition also drew parallels between the challenges faced by overseas organisations like Chee Kung Tong. PHOTO: SUN YAT SEN NANYANG MEMORIAL HALL

SINGAPORE - When the Thian Hock Keng temple underwent restoration works in 1998, workmen uncovered a 3m-long silk scroll behind a wooden plaque.

The scroll, which features the Chinese words “gentle waves in the south seas”, also bears the seal of Emperor Guang Xu, the 10th monarch of the Qing dynasty.

It is believed that the scroll is a gift from the Chinese emperor to the Hokkien community here, said historian Kua Bak Lim.

Dated to 1907, the scroll is now on display, along with more than 100 historical artefacts, in a new exhibition at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall titled Connections Across Oceans: Early Chinese Mutual Aid Organisations.

The exhibition showcases the contributions of Chinese clan associations and welfare organisations in supporting the Chinese migrant community, and promoting Chinese heritage and culture.

Early Chinese migrants had started their own organisations to provide support and welfare for their members as they could not depend on local governments for help.

Mr Winston Lim, general manager of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had delayed the exhibition by two years. But he said he and his team of curators pressed on as they wanted to showcase the strong communal spirit of Chinese organisations to younger generations.

The exhibition also sheds light on the early Chinese mutual aid organisations in San Francisco through a collaboration with the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States.

It features artefacts from the Chee Kung Tong, an early 20th century Chinese welfare organisation in San Francisco that formed a partnership with Dr Sun Yat Sen.

The artefacts include two terse telegram messages from Dr Sun to the Chee Kung Tong that said, “Send all funds you can within two weeks urgent”, followed by “Funds received need more urgent”.

These messages reflected Dr Sun’s struggles in raising funds for his revolution and how the overseas mutual aid organisations played a role in this historical event.

The exhibition also drew parallels between the challenges faced by overseas organisations like Chee Kung Tong, which was the first Hongmen organisation in North America, and similar societies in Singapore.

The British colonial government regarded Hongmen organisations in Singapore as secret societies. But the exhibition noted that despite the negative connotations associated with the term, Chinese secret societies actually served as mutual aid organisations that provided protection and welfare to their members.

“Calm Seas in the South Seas” imperial silk scroll (Gift of Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, collection of National Museum of Singapore). PHOTO: SUN YAT SEN NANYANG MEMORIAL HALL

Notices written in compound characters undecipherable to non-members and the various weapons used by society members are among the various Hongmen artefacts that are on display in the exhibition.

Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling, who attended the exhibition’s launch on Friday, said it showcases how Chinese organisations have served their communities generously and selflessly, for instance, by starting schools and hospitals.

“This very unique exhibition celebrates the excellent civic spirit of our pioneering forefathers in Singapore,” she said.

Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth and Trade and Industry Low Yen Ling addressing guests at the launch of the exhibition. PHOTO: SUN YAT SEN NANYANG MEMORIAL HALL

Connections Across Oceans will be the memorial hall’s last special exhibition before it closes for restoration works in 2024. It reopens in 2025.

The exhibition is open from 10am to 5pm from Tuesdays to Sundays till Dec 10, 2023.

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