The Hokkien community is the largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore. According to the 2000 Singapore census, Hokkiens constituted 41% of the Chinese population in the country. The Hokkiens here trace their origins to the Fujian province in China. One of the most well-known of all the early Hokkien immigrants is Tan Kah Kee, the prominent businessman and philanthropist popularly known as the "Rubber King".
After its founding by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, Singapore grew very quickly and its population increased rapidly. In particular, the population of Chinese inhabitants grew by leaps and bounds as the new British settlement attracted large numbers of Chinese immigrants. By 1829, the Chinese were the largest group of people and outnumbered even the Malays. At least five Chinese subgroups could be identified at the time, and the Hokkien community was one of them.
The Hokkiens in Singapore originated from districts such as Anxi, Nanan, Huian, Jinjiang, Xiamen and Jinmen in China's Fujian province. Many Hokkiens had left China due to rural poverty, overcrowding and insufficient land for farming. They had heard about the Nanyang region and decided to venture here in the early 19th century in search of a better life. Many of them migrated to Malacca, Malaysia first before moving farther south to Singapore. When they arrived in Singapore, the Hokkiens settled in the business areas around the Singapore River, especially in Telok Ayer, which was then bordering the sea coast.
Living in a coastal province, the Hokkiens were active in sea trade. For centuries, they were known for their trade with the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya and Siam (now called Thailand), and along the whole length of the Chinese coast. Their strong mercantile orientation served them well when they migrated to Singapore. From the early days, the Hokkiens in Singapore were heavily engaged in the spice trade, but they also traded in coffee, rubber, flour, fodder, Chinese tea, hardware, building materials, textiles, tropical fruits and rice.
Perhaps because of their easy accessibility to traded goods, the Hokkiens perpetuated the tradition of the za huo dian or "mixed goods shop", general provision stores that sold an extensive array of goods ranging from household items such as kitchen utensils to food such as canned or dried foodstuffs.
Other than trading, the Hokkiens were also dominant in banking, finance, insurance, shipping and manufacturing and engaged in the building and construction industry as well. Some prominent Hokkiens such as Tan Kah Kee, Lee Kong Chian and Tan Lark Sye were involved in several businesses, including pineapple canning, rubber plantations, banking, shipping and manufacturing.
Temples and Associations
The Hokkien community founded the grandest, if not the earliest, Chinese temple in Singapore - the Thian Hock Keng Temple. The temple at Telok Ayer Street was constructed in 1821 mainly for the worship of Ma Zu, the Goddess of the Sea, for safe voyages. It also functioned as a meeting place for the Hokkien community, and was financed by wealthy Hokkiens like Tan Tock Seng and Si Hoo Keh.
The oldest Hokkien clan association is the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. Since its establishment in 1840, it has sought to promote education, social welfare and preservation of Chinese language and culture. Its work has benefited not just the Hokkien community but other dialect groups and races as well. The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan has engaged in many educational endeavours, including establishing Tao Nan School in 1906, Ai Tong School in 1912, Chong Hock Girls' School (now called Chongfu Primary School) in 1915, Nan Chiau High School and Nan Chiau Primary School in 1947, and Kong Hwa School in 1953. In 1955, the association also donated a plot of land for the building of the Nanyang University campus.
During the Lunar New Year, the Hokkiens, like the other dialect communities, practise a host of rituals filled with symbolism, such as the giving and receiving of hong bao (red packets containing money) and the presentation of pairs of oranges for luck. The Hokkiens also consider certain fruits auspicious. For example, they are fond of pineapple, which is called ong lai in the Hokkien dialect, because ong means "prosperous" and lai means "to come". The pomelo is also popular among the Hokkiens because its pronunciation in their dialect coincides with yu which means "to have". These two fruits are either presented or incorporated into the Lunar New Year cuisine or decorations.
Another Lunar New Year tradition practised by Hokkiens is the offering of thanks to the Jade Emperor during a Taoist festival known as Tian Gong Dan, or "Birthday Celebrations for the Heavenly Jade Emperor". Taoists believe that the Jade Emperor is the ruler of heaven. Among the gifts offered during this festival, the sugarcane is essential. According to a legend, the Hokkiens in Fujian were saved from a band of Japanese pirates by hiding in a sugarcane plantation on the eighth and ninth days of the Lunar New Year. After they emerged on the ninth day, which was also the birthday of the Jade Emperor, they offered him sugarcane as a way to thank him for saving them. In the Hokkien dialect, sugarcane is called gam jia and this sounds like gam sia, which means "thank you".
Jeanne Louise Conceicao
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(Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 CHI)
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE -[HIS])
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Yen, C. (c2003). Hokkien immigrant society and modern Chinese education in British Malaya, 1904 to 1941. In M. W. Charney, B. S.A. Yeoh, & C. K. Tong (Eds.), Chinese migrants abroad: Cultural, educational and social dimensions of the Chinese diaspora (pp.114-144). Singapore: Singapore University Press; World Scientific Publishing.
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(Call no.: RSING 369.25957 GUA)
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.