Shaping Singapore Chinese Culture

A recent exhibition showcasing the unique aspects of Chinese culture here is but one of several ongoing efforts to articulate and define Singapore Chinese culture.

While Chinese Singaporeans have embraced their roots and honed their mastery of the Chinese language, they have also developed distinct traditions and values as part of the larger fabric of a multiracial nation.

Take, for example, how Chinese New Year celebrations feature dishes unique to Singapore. Or how Chinese New Year, like other festivals, is a celebration shared with neighbours of different races.

The new Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre taking shape in Shenton Way, which organised the recent exhibition, aims to promote a Singapore Chinese culture.

What shapes this unique culture? Why is there a need to highlight it, and what lies ahead for it? Leong Weng Kam explores the issue on pages B2&3.

Singapore's unique Chinese culture

Columnist Toh Lam Huat identifies three key factors in the development of Singapore’s Chinese culture. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

When Chinese Singaporeans and their families gather tonight for reunion dinners on Chinese New Year's Eve, many will do the traditional "prosperity toss" of yusheng - seafood, sliced vegetables and citrus peel, with condiments. They will lick their lips at the goodies to come, such as pineapple tarts and bak kwa.

It is to honour the tradition of observing Chinese New Year, passed down from ancestors who migrated from China.

Except, in the eyes of some mainland Chinese living in Singapore, aspects of this may not be exactly the traditional way to celebrate the key event in the Chinese calendar.


2 Cultural Centres

The Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre will have a 550-seat auditorium, an exhibition and a multi-purpose hall, and a reading area, classrooms and rehearsal rooms. PHOTO: SINGAPORE CHINESE CULTURAL CENTRE

Already up and running is the China Cultural Centre in Queen Street, built by the Chinese government at a cost of $44 million.

The 11-storey centre, which opened last November, is one of more than 20 that China has erected globally to promote its culture and bolster its soft power abroad.

It is also part of efforts by China and Singapore to foster exchanges in arts and culture.


3 Influences On Singapore Chinese Culture

Visitors to the recent exhibition on Singapore Chinese culture using an interactive machine to find out the origins of their surnames. PHOTO: SCCC

Chinese culture covers a wide spectrum, but the most important aspects include the core value of harmony, and the language, which has a history dating over 5,000 years.

Then there are Chinese surnames, at least 400 of them, used by Chinese both in mainland China and overseas, including those in Singapore. Li, Chen, Wang or Huang, and Zhang are the most common, even in Singapore.

But, interestingly, in multiracial Singapore where English is the dominant language, the use of Chinese surnames in dialect form written in English has become a unique feature. Hence we have surnames such as Lee, Tan, Chan, Ong, Ng or Teo, for example. They are used almost exclusively by Chinese Singaporeans, besides perhaps those in Malaysia.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'SHAPING SINGAPORE CHINESE CULTURE'. Print Edition | Subscribe