ST Singaporean of the Year nominee: She's working to spark youth interest in Chinese culture

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A skilled lion dancer and martial arts practitioner, Ms Lynn Wong decided to cut short her PhD in business to pursue her passion of preserving Chinese culture and heritage for future generations.

SINGAPORE - Ms Lynn Wong asks young, Chinese Singaporeans one question when she meets them: "Where is your family from?"

It is a simple question where the answers prompt more follow-ups. "OK, you are Hakka, but which province?" "Where in Guangdong exactly?"

The heritage consultant and researcher insists on precision, which some may feel is hair-splitting. Her demanding line of questioning is important, she said.

"There are more than 16 types of Cantonese. This diversity will be gone if we don't do anything," she said. "Our parents still know about it, so we can ask. If we don't, we will be depriving our children of their history. It will be our generation's fault."

Ms Wong has taken on the unlikely mantle of defender of Chinese heritage and culture, even as the forces of globalisation increasingly dilute their relevance to the young, earning her a nomination for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2021.

She made the highly unorthodox step of giving up her PhD in business studies in 2016 to volunteer in multiple Chinese clan associations, including in five as a committee member.

She is also a skilled lion dancer and martial arts practitioner.

At 32, her youth is a rarity in clan circles. "In the past, there were more than 500 clan associations but, today, there are only 200-plus left. Many have closed down or are dwindling."

Most of her efforts have gone into rejuvenating interest in Chinese culture, via new ways of winning over the youth.

For her, it was actor Jet Li, portraying real-life gongfu master Wong Fei Hung, who sparked her interest in martial arts. For others, she believes, a passion for Chinese culture could be reignited through festivals or foods.

She helped to organise the Ho Yeah festival in 2018, a Cantonese- and Hakka-themed event targeted at youth, and is writing a book on the Qixi festival, more popularly known as Chinese Valentine's Day. "It is a festival which has disappeared here for more than half a century. In the past, it was a huge arts festival, where every street and lane in Chinatown had at least a house open to display handicrafts.

"It was larger than even Chinese New Year and was a women's festival of sorts. We can reimagine the festival in today's context, when we are still fighting for gender equality."

As a woman in sometimes patriarchal clan associations, Ms Wong knows her influence cannot be taken for granted, although she refuses to play up her feminist credentials.

"In any society, patriarchal or not, our actions speak louder than words. People start believing when we can prove we are right."

To vote for the Singaporean of the Year 2021, go to Voting ends Jan 7, 7pm.

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