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The Hakka community is one of the largest Chinese subgroups in Singapore. According to the 2000 Singapore census, the Hakkas were the fourth-largest Chinese dialect group and made up 8% of the Chinese population. Originating from southern China, the Hakkas were already in Singapore by the early 19th century. A famous Singapore-born Hakka is Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who is credited with transforming Singapore from a small trading port into a global economic powerhouse.
At the time of Singapore's founding in 1819, there were only about 30 Chinese among the population of 150. However by 1829, the Chinese had become the largest group of inhabitants, outnumbering even the Malays. The Chinese population was by then large enough for at least five subgroups to be identified, and the Hakka dialect group was one of them.
The Hakkas claim to be the true descendents of the Han Chinese and are fiercely proud of their independence. Many leaders of peasant uprisings and the Taiping Revolution in China were Hakkas. Yet, they are referred to as the "guest people", or Ke Jia in Mandarin and Khek in the Teochew dialect. This is a label they have long been associated with since their forced migration from the northern parts of ancient China, as they were considered "guests" in the provinces that they settled in. Their migration to Singapore was a continuation of their southward movement within China, where large populations of Hakkas could be found in the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.
The community in Singapore was once concentrated in areas like South Bridge Road, North Bridge Road and Lorong Tai Seng (in Paya Lebar). However, like the other dialect groups, they are now spread all over the island.
The Hakka immigrants were involved early in agriculture, especially in the cultivation of pepper and gambier. They also ventured into and later dominated the Chinese medicine business. It has been said that in the 1920s, the largest Chinese medicine halls were owned by Hakkas. A famous Hakka in the Chinese medicine business was the late Aw Boon Haw, a well-known philanthropist and community leader who was also known as the "Tiger Balm King", after the brand of Chinese medicated balm that he founded together with his brother Aw Boon Par.
Another trade that the Hakkas dominated was pawnbroking. A Hakka by the name of Ho Yuen Oh is considered a pioneer in the local pawnbroking business. In the 19th century, when the British colonial government decided to regulate the pawnbroking industry using a licence fee system, Ho obtained the first contract to run eight pawnshops. The Hakkas continued to dominate the industry in the 20th century, mainly because of the lack of competition.
Hakka women are noted for their resilience and independent nature. Many Hakka women who came to Singapore during the early 20th century worked in construction sites and wore headgear similar to those of the samsui women. However, unlike the samsui women, they wore black rather than red headgear.
Temples and Associations
The Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple, built by the first Hakka immigrants for the deity Tua Pek Kong, is believed to have existed since the founding of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. This makes it possibly the oldest Taoist temple here. Better known as the Wang Hai Da Bo Gong Miao, it is located at the foot of the former Mount Palmer off Shenton Way. Another early temple built by the Hakkas was the Fuk Tak Chi Temple at Telok Ayer Street. This was established together with the Cantonese community in the early 1820s and was also dedicated to Tua Pek Kong. It has since been converted into a museum.
The oldest Hakka clan association in Singapore is perhaps the Ying Fo Fui Kun, established between 1822 and 1823. At a time when development in Singapore was in its infancy, Ying Fo Fui Kun's clan house was amongst the first buildings in Telok Ayer, where the earliest Chinese settlements were located. Ying Fo Fui Kun began as a temple serving the needs of Hakka immigrants, but its founder Liu Runde envisaged it as a public institution that would not only provide welfare services - the conventional role of a clan association - but also act as a kinship bridge between the Hakka communities in Singapore and China.
Ying Fo Fui Kun looked after the welfare of its members, finding accommodation and jobs for newly-arrived Hakkas and making funeral arrangements for deceased clan members. In 1905, it opened what was then considered a modern Chinese school, the Yin Sin School, to provide education for Hakka children. The clan house has been rebuilt several times, but it has always remained at its original site in Telok Ayer. It was last rebuilt in 1997 and gazetted as a national monument in 1998. The clan house features inscriptions and carvings from the 19th century; the oldest surviving artefact is an 1846 inscribed board.
Hakka dishes traditionally reflect the lifestyle of the ancestors. Being migrants, they were constantly on the move, so they used salt to preserve their food, hence salt features strongly in their dishes. A classic Hakka dish is salt-baked chicken. Rice wine is another common ingredient in Hakka dishes. Rice wine was a popular beverage of the Hakkas in northern China as it helped them fight the blistering cold of the north. Hakka cuisine also features many meat dishes, which reflects the fact that many Hakkas were farmers and they ate a lot of meat to provide nourishment and to bolster their strength for the back-breaking work on the farm.
Certain dishes are also specific to the province that the Hakka immigrants came from. For example, suan pan zi or "abacus seeds", a dish consisting of flattened pieces of yam fried with tiny pieces of shrimp, mushrooms, beancurd strips and minced pork, originated from Dapu in southeast China.
This and other traditional Hakka dishes would often be served at the Lunar New Year reunion dinner. If the Hakka family practises a Chinese religion or ancestral worship, the dishes would be placed at the ancestral shrine (or on a table at the entrance of the house if the shrine is too small) for the ancestors as well. Families would usually spend the afternoon on the eve of the Lunar New Year, just before the reunion dinner, paying their respects at the shrines.
Jeanne Louise Conceicao
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The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.