Singapore is dominated by Han Chinese and has been described as a Chinese island surrounded by Malay culture. The ancestors of many Singaporean China were originally from Fujian Province in China. Most of the first Chinese to arrive in Singapore, Penang and Malacca married local Malay women and this union gave rise to a community of “Straits Chinese.” Peranakan (Malay for born here) are Chinese who intermarried with Malays and adopted Malay styles of dress and cuisine .

There are around 2.7 million Chinese in Singapore. They make up approximately 76 percent of Singapore’s population. The official count of 2,675,521 Chinese Singaporeans in 2015 did not include 451,481 Chinese nationals in Singapore. These numbers do not always reflect the full extent of Chinese presence. There are many levels and degrees of mixed blood [Source: Wikipedia]

Tash Aw wrote in the New York Times, Most Chinese in Singapore are "descendants of Hokkien-speaking immigrants from Fujian Province in southern China who came to the island in the first half of the 19th century, when it was a British settlement. Malays and Indians, both indigenous and immigrants who also arrived in the 19th century, have long formed important communities in the territory. But it is the predominance of the ethnic Chinese that was crucial to Singapore’s formation in the first place. In 1965, Singapore broke off from freshly independent Malaysia as a direct result of bitter disputes over the preservation of rights for ethnic Chinese and other minorities in the new Malay-dominated nation. (The two territories previously were part of a loose federation.) Today, this tiny Chinese enclave has a G.D.P. per capita about five times that of its far larger, resource-rich neighbor. [Source: Tash Aw, New York Times, February 12, 2015]

Coastal southeastern China, where many Singaporeans are originally from, is an area of great linguistic and subcultural variation. The migrants spoke at least five mutually unintelligible Chinese languages, each of which contained numerous regional dialects. Singaporean usage, however, following the common Chinese tendency to assert cultural unity, referred to mutually unintelligible speech systems as "dialects." All the Chinese languages and dialects shared common origins and grammatical structures and could be written with the same Chinese idiograms, which represent meaning rather than sound. The primary divisions in the immigrant Chinese population therefore followed linguistic lines, dividing the populace into segments that were called dialect communities, speech groups, or even "tribes". In the nineteenth century, each speech group had its own set of associations, ranging from secret societies to commercial bodies to schools and temples. The groups communicated through leaders conversant with other Chinese languages or through a third language such as Malay or English. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The nomenclature for Chinese speech groups common in Singapore and Southeast Asia is confusing, partly because each group can be referred to by several alternate names. Most of the names refer to places in China with characteristic regional speech or dialects, and include the names of provinces, counties, and major cities. *

As the majority of the population and the ethnic group that dominated the political system and state administrative structure, Singapore's Chinese exhibited the widest range of occupational, educational, and class status. Those with little or no formal education occupied the bottom rungs of the occupational hierarchy and led social lives restricted to fellow members of the same dialect group. The level of formal education and language of education — Chinese or English — divided the Chinese into broad categories. Status for those working in the internationally oriented private sector or in government service depended on command of English and educational qualifications. In the still substantial Chinese private sector, status and security rested on a position in a bounded dialect community and a network of personal relations established over a lifetime. Although the latter exclusively Chinese category was shrinking, by the late 1980s it still contained some quite wealthy men who helped set the international price of rubber, controlled businesses with branches in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and other countries of the region, and supported Singapore's array of Chinese charities, hospitals, and education trusts. Singapore's Chinese society was one with a high degree of social mobility and one in which status increasingly was determined by educational qualifications and command of English and Mandarin. *

Different Chinese Groups in Singapore

Among the different Chinese dialects, Mandarin is promoted as the main language for the Chinese instead of others like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese and Foochow. The second most commonly-spoken language among the Singaporean Chinese, Mandarin became widespread after the start of the Speak Mandarin campaign during 1980 that targeted the Chinese. In 1990s, efforts were undertaken to target the English-educated Chinese.

The distribution of Singapore's Chinese speech groups has remained fairly stable since 1900. The largest group were the Hokkien, who came from the area around the trading port of Xiamen (Amoy) in southern Fujian Province. Hokkien traders and merchants had been active in Southeast Asia for centuries before the foundation of Singapore. In 1980 they made up 43 percent of Singapore's Chinese population. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The second largest group were the Teochiu (sometimes written Teochew), comprising 22 percent of the Chinese population. Their home area is Chaozhou, in Chao'an County in northeastern Guangdong Province, which has as its major port the city of Shantou (Swatow). Chaozhou is immediately south of the Hokkien-speaking area of Fujian, and both Teochiu and Hokkien are closely related languages of the Minnan group, mutually intelligible to native speakers after sufficient practice. Hainanese, from the island of Hainan south of Guangdong, made up 8 percent of the population. Hainan was settled by people from southern Fujian who arrived by sea, and Hainanese is a Minnan language whose native speakers can understand Hokkien or Teochiu with relatively little difficulty after practice. Speakers of Minnan languages thus made up 72 percent of the Chinese population, for whom Hokkien served as a lingua franca, the language of the marketplace. *

The third most numerous group were Cantonese, from the lowlands of central Guangdong Province around the port city of Guangzhou (Canton). They made up 16 percent of the Chinese population. Hakka, a group scattered through the interior hills of southern China and generally considered migrants from northern China, were 7 percent. Other Chinese call them "guest people", and the term Hakka (Kejia in pihyih romanization) is Cantonese for "guest families." There also were small numbers of people from the coastal counties of northern Fujian, called Hokchia, Hokchiu, and Henghua, whose northern Fujian (Minbei) languages are quite distinct from those of southern Fujian and seldom spoken outside of Fujian. A final, residual category of Chinese were the "Three Rivers People," who came from the provinces north of Guangdong and Fujian. This group included people from northern and central China, and more specifically those provinces sharing the word "river" (jiang) in their names — Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. They would have spoken southern Mandarin dialects or the Wu languages of Shanghai, Ningbo, and Hangzhou. In 1980 they were 1.7 percent of the Chinese population. *

Straits Chinese

A significant category of Chinese, although one not listed in the census reports, were the Baba Chinese or Straits Chinese. They were Chinese who after long residence in Southeast Asia spoke Malay or English as their first language, and whose culture contained elements from China, Southeast Asia, and sometimes Europe as well. An indication of the size of the Baba Chinese community was provided by the 1980 census report that 9 percent of Chinese families spoke English at home. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Stereotypically the Baba were the offspring of Chinese migrants and local women. In the nineteenth century, they tended to be wealthier and better educated than the mass of immigrants and to identify more with Singapore and Southeast Asia than with China. In spite of their language, the Baba considered themselves Chinese, retained Chinese kinship patterns and religion, and even when speaking Malay used a distinct Baba dialect of Malay with many loan words from Hokkien. Never a large proportion of Singapore's Chinese population, in the late nineteenth century they took advantage of opportunities for education in English and promoted themselves as loyal to Britain. In Singapore, many Baba families spoke English as a first language and produced many of the leaders of Singapore's independent political movements, including Lee Kuan Yew. *

Although the Baba, in a sense, provided the model for the current Singaporean who is fluent in English and considers Singapore as home, the community fragmented in the early twentieth century as Chinese nationalism spread. After the 1920s its members gained no advantage, economic or political, from distinguishing themselves from the rest of the Chinese population and tended increasingly to become Chinese again, often learning to speak Chinese as adults. In the 1980s, Baba culture survived largely in the form of a well-known cuisine that mixed Chinese and Malay ingredients and in some families who continued to use English as the language of the home. *

Poll Finds One in Five Young Singaporean Chinese Rather Be White

A survey in 1999 found that one in five young Chinese in Singapore said they would prefer to be another race, with most these saying they wanted to white with Japanese running a close second. Explaining why he would prefer to be white, one 24-year-old Chinese Singaporean told AP, “If it offered me the opportunity to work in the country of my choice, yes. It would be practical. But to say Caucasian is better is not a value judgement that I would make at all.” Another said, “I’m Chinese, but I’m so much more than that. To look at someone in terms of race is very limiting.” Some Singaporeans were quite alarmed by the results of the survey and say at is indication of the nefarious effects too much Westernization and emphasis on learning English.

In December 1999, a survey by Chang Han Yin, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Singapore, showed that 25 percent of the Chinese surveyed they wished to be either Japanese or Caucasian and 18 percent of Indians said they would opt to be Caucasian if given the choice. In contrast, nine out of 10 Malays said they would still choose to be Malay.

Associated Press reported: “A poll showing that one in five young ethnic Chinese Singaporeans would rather be white or of another race has become a hot topic in this prosperous city-state known for pride in its Asian heritage. "I was initially shocked, I couldn't understand it,'' Singapore novelist Catherine Lim said of the results. Chang Han Yin, a sociology lecturer at the National University of Singapore, agreed that he found it "amazing and disturbing'' when his survey of 811 students, ages 14 to 28, showed that 21.6 of the ethnic Chinese respondents would rather be of another race. Caucasian was their preferred choice, with Japanese running a close second. [Source: Associated Press, December 18, 1999]

Chen Wei Kiat, 24, who recently graduated from Britain's University of York, said he understood why some of his peers might prefer to be another race. Asked if he would rather be white, Mr Chen said: "If it offered me the opportunity to work in the country of my choice, yes. It would be a practical concern. But to say that being Caucasian is better is not a value judgment that I would make at all.'' His first choice of a place to live would be Britain, he said, explaining that he "felt comfortable there, felt at home'', and enjoyed the openness of Western society. Mr Chen said he was not worried about young Chinese losing pride in their ethnicity. "I'm Chinese, but I'm so much more than just that,'' he said. "To look at someone just in terms of race is very limiting.''

Keith Tan, a 25-year-old civil servant, was more concerned. "This is a significant portion of young Singaporeans that are unhappy with their ethnic background. As a result, they could leave Singapore and not return,'' he said. "I think it's important for humans to have some sense of cultural located-ness,'' he said. "I appreciate and value being Chinese. I appreciate the immense history of China, and its great culture and civilisation.'' Others saw the survey results as a wake-up call to the dangers of Westernisation in Singapore, a former British colony where ethnic Chinese make up about 78 percent of the 3.2 million population. "It is the differences that make us unique, not the banal universality of Western pop culture disguised as multiculturalism,'' Wong Hoong Hooi wrote in a letter to the Straits Times. But Ms Lim said she believed that many of the discontented young respondents were simply frustrated with Singapore's conservative society and tight government controls.

Chinese Immigrants in Singapore

The Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, as well as Phuket in Thailand, became home to a peculiar hybrid of Chinese commercial culture and tropical laissez-faire. The first wave of Chinese immigrants began arriving in the early 18th century. By 1824, 11,000 immigrants had arrived and there was a lively trade in opium and spices, ivory and ebony and Chinese tea and silk. Most of the first Chinese to arrive in Singapore, Penang and Malacca were poor farmers and fishermen, mostly from Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Many were Hakka, Chinese tribesmen who migrated from northern China to Fujian. Many of the early Chinese married local Malay women and this union gave rise to a community of “Straits Chinese.” [Source: Library of Congress *]

By 1827, the Chinese had become the most numerous of Singapore's various ethnic groups. Many of the Chinese came from Malacca, Penang, Riau, and other parts of the Malay Archipelago to which their forebears had migrated decades or even generations before. More recent Chinese immigrants were mainly from the southeastern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian and spoke either the Hokkien, Teochiu, Cantonese, or Hakka dialects. In an extension of the common Chinese practice of sojourning, in which men temporarily left their home communities to seek work in nearby or distant cities, most migrants to Singapore saw themselves as temporary residents intending to return to home and family after making a fortune or at least amassing enough capital to buy land in their home district. Many did return; more did not. Even those who never returned usually sent remittances to families back home. *

Just as the European merchant community used Chinese middlemen in conducting their business, the Straits government relied on prominent Chinese businessmen to act as go-betweens with the Chinese community. In the early years, the Baba Chinese, who usually spoke English, served in this capacity. By mid-century, however, immigrant Chinese from the various dialect groups had begun to act as intermediaries. Some, such as Seah Eu Chin, who was the go-between with the Teochiu community, were well educated and from respected families. Seah, who made his fortune in gambier and pepper plantations, was an early member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, established in 1837, and a justice of the peace. Probably the wealthiest and most prominent Chinese immigrant in the nineteenth century was Hoo Ah Kay, nicknamed "Whampoa" after his birthplace, who served as a go-between with the Cantonese-speaking community. Hoo came as a penniless youth and made his fortune in provisioning ships, merchandising, and speculating in land. He later became the first Asian member of Singapore's Legislative Council and a member of the Executive Council. Despite their close connections to the European ruling class, Seah, Hoo, and other prominent Chinese carefully retained their Chinese culture and values, as did the less prominent immigrants. *

Life of the Chinese in Singapore

To help them face the dangers, hardships, and loneliness of the sojourner life, most men joined or were forced to join secret societies organized by earlier immigrants from their home districts. The secret societies had their origin in southern China, where, in the late seventeenth century, the Heaven, Earth, and Man (or Triad) Society was formed to oppose the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. By the nineteenth century, secret societies in China acted as groups that organized urban unskilled labor and used coercion to win control of economic niches, such as unloading ships, transporting cotton, or gambling and prostitution. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The same pattern extended all over Southeast Asia, where immigrants joined secret societies whose membership was restricted to those coming from the same area and speaking the same dialect. Membership gave the immigrants some security, in the form of guaranteed employment and assistance in case of illness, but required loyalty to the leaders and payment of a portion of an already meager wage. Although the societies performed many useful social functions, they were also a major source of crime and violence. *

By 1860 there were at least twelve secret societies in Singapore, representing the various dialect and subdialect groups. Invariably friction arose as each society sought to control a certain area or the right to a certain tax farm. Civil war in China in the 1850s brought a flood of new migrants from China, including many rebels and other violent elements. Serious fighting between the various secret societies broke out in 1854, but it remained a domestic dispute within the Chinese community. Although not directed at the government or the non-Chinese communities, such outbreaks disrupted commerce and created a tense atmosphere, which led to the banning of secret societies in 1889. *

Most Chinese had a hard go of it in Singapore. If they survived the rigors of the voyage, they were forced to work at hard labor for a year or more to pay off their passage. Some were sent directly to the gambier plantations or even to the tin mines of the Malay Peninsula. Others were sent to toil on the docks or become construction workers. After paying off their passage, they began earning a meager wage, which, unless diverted for opium or gambling debts, was sent as a remittance to families back in China. Wives were in short supply, since very few Chinese women came to Singapore in the first few decades of the settlement. Even by the mid-1860s, the ratio of Chinese men to women was fifteen to one. *

Growth of the Chinese Community in Singapore

Although most Chinese immigrants merely passed through Singapore, the Chinese population of the island grew rapidly, from 34,000 in 1878 to 103,000 in 1888. The colonial government established the Chinese Protectorate in 1877 to deal with the serious abuses of the labor trade. William Pickering, the first appointed Protector of Chinese, was the first British official in Singapore who could speak and read Chinese. Pickering was given power to board incoming ships and did much to protect the newly arrived immigrants. In the early 1880s, he also extended his protection to Chinese women entering the colony by working to end forced prostitution. Because of his sympathetic approach and administrative ability, the protector soon spread his influence and protection over the whole Chinese community, providing arbitration of labor, financial, and domestic disagreements, thereby undermining some of the powers of the secret societies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although no longer able to engage in illegal immigration practices, the societies continued to cause problems by running illegal gambling houses and supporting large-scale riots that often paralyzed the city. In 1889, Governor Sir Cecil Clementi-Smith sponsored a law to ban secret societies, which took effect the following year. The result was to drive the societies underground, where many of them degenerated into general lawlessness, engaging in extortion, gambling operations, gang fights, and robbery. The power of the secret societies, however, was broken. *

The largest Chinese dialect group in the late nineteenth century were the Hokkien, who were traditionally involved in trade, shipping, banking, and industry. The next largest group, the Teochiu, engaged in agricultural production and processing, including gambier, pepper, and rubber production, rice and lumber milling, pineapple canning, and fish processing. Cantonese served as artisans and laborers and a few made their fortunes in tin. The two smallest groups, the Hakka and Hainanese, were mostly servants, sailors, or unskilled laborers. Because wealth was the key to leadership and social standing within the Chinese community at that time, the Hokkien dominated organizations such as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and supplied most of the Chinese members of the Legislative Council and the Chinese Advisory Board. The latter, established in 1889 to provide a formal link between the British government of the colony and the Chinese community, served as a place to air grievances but had no power. *

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, China's ruling Qing dynasty began to take an interest in the Nanyang Chinese and sought to attract their loyalty and wealth to the service of the homeland. Chinese consulates were established in Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and other parts of the Nanyang. Whampoa was appointed Singapore's first consul in 1877. He and his successors worked diligently to strengthen the cultural ties of the Singapore Chinese to China by establishing a cultural club, a debating society, Singapore's first Chinese — language newspaper (Lat Pau), and various Chinese-language schools, in which the medium of instruction was Chinese. One of the most important functions of the consul, however, was to raise money for flood and famine relief in China and for the general support of the Qing government. With the upheaval in China following the Hundred Days' Reform Movement in 1898, and its suppression by the Qing conservatives, the Singapore Chinese and their pocketbooks were wooed by reformists, royalists, and revolutionaries alike. Sun Yat-sen founded a Singapore branch of the Tongmeng Hui, the forerunner of the Guomindang (Kuomintang — Chinese Nationalist Party), in 1906. Not until the successful Wuchang Uprising of 1911, however, did Sun receive the enthusiastic support of Singapore Chinese. *

Westernization of the Chinese Community in Singapore

The affluent among Singapore's Chinese community increasingly saw their prosperity and fortunes tied to those of the crown colony and the British Empire. Western education, customs, and pastimes were adopted, and the sons of Chinese businessmen were often sent to Britain for university training. The Straits Chinese British Association was formed in 1900 by Baba Chinese leaders to promote loyalty to the British Empire as well as to advance the education and welfare of Singapore's Chinese. Visiting British royalty were warmly received and British causes and victories enthusiastically supported. The Straits Chinese contributed generously to the British war effort in World War I. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although the Chinese upper class, particularly the Straits-born Chinese, grew increasingly Westernized, the homeland exerted a continuing pull on its loyalties that increased during this period. Visits to China by Singapore Chinese became more common with the advent of steamship travel. The relaxation by the 1870s of China's law forbidding emigration (repealed in 1893) and the protection afforded Singaporeans by British citizenship made it relatively safe for prosperous businessmen to visit their homeland and return again to Singapore. Upper-class Singapore Chinese frequently sent their sons to school in China and encouraged them to find brides there, although they themselves had often married local women. *

Chinese Associations in Singapore

The most elaborate set of ethnic associations was found among the Chinese, who in 1976 supported over 1,000 clan, locality, occupational, religious, and recreational associations. The membership of each association usually was restricted to those speaking the same dialect or tracing ancestry to the same small region of China. The lowest level associations were clan or district associations, which were in turn grouped into federations based on progressively larger administrative or linguistic regions of China. The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, founded in 1906, was the overarching association that represented the entire Chinese community. A federation, its constituent units were not individuals or individual businesses but associations. Its basic structure consisted of representatives of seven regional associations (Fujian, Teochiu, Cantonese, Hakka 1, Hakka 2, Hainan, and "Three Rivers") and ninety-three trade associations, each one usually restricted to speakers of one dialect. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The functions and activities of the associations were multiple, reflecting the concerns of members and leaders. Common activities included mutual aid; insurance benefits; foundation and maintenance of schools, hospitals, or cemeteries; contributions to the same sorts of public projects in the ancestral districts of China; settling disputes between members; acting as spokesman for the community to the government; and promoting good fellowship and continuing identification with the clan or region. Associations were run by committees and met at least once a year for a formal banquet. Association leaders were prosperous businessmen who had played a major part in fundraising and the management of activities. Success in business gave them both the free time to devote to association activities and the funds to contribute to the association and its charities. The associations conferred prestige and public recognition on those who took the burdens of office and community service, but the community so served was restricted to those from the same region and speaking the same dialect. The leadership of the lowest level associations was usually provided by those of moderate means, while the more wealthy belonged to several or many associations and worked for the higher level, more inclusive associations, which conferred more public recognition and prestige. The mechanisms of leadership and prestige and the channeling of much charity and assistance (schools, scholarship fund, hospitals, recommendations for employment or loans from Chinese banks, death benefits) through the associations thus reinforced ethnic and subethnic identification for both poor and rich. *

Chinese Groups and Business in Singapore

In a pattern common to Chinese urban society in China and in Southeast Asia, groups defined by common place of origin or dialect also tended to specialize in certain trades or monopolies. Exactly which regional group dominated which trade varied from place to place and represented historical accidents and contingencies, but the principle of a regional group also acting as an occupational group was common. As late as the 1980s, the Singapore Hokkien were dominant in banking, insurance, shipping, hardware, real estate, and other lucrative fields. Within the Hokkien community, smaller subgroups controlled particular trades. For example, 96 percent of the merchants dealing in China tea in the 1980s traced their ancestry to Anxi County in southern Fujian. Teochiu dominated the fresh produce trade and the jewelry and antiques business; Cantonese predominated in furniture making, watch and clock repair, and operating drug stores and restaurants; and the Hakka were pawnbrokers, tailors, and dealers in Chinese herbs and medicines. The Henghua people from northern Fujian, a small component of the Chinese population, controlled the very important bicycle, motorcycle, and taxi businesses. Over the years the speech groups competed for the control of trades, and the pattern of dialect- specific occupations was a dynamic one, with, for example, strong competition for shares of the textile trade. In the 1980s, four textile trade associations represented Teochiu, Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese traders. The competition between speech groups reinforced both their internal solidarity and the social boundaries between them. Regional associations were, to a certain extent, also trade associations. For the large proportion of the Chinese population employed in regional commerce, service trades, or small-scale manufacturing, there remained a close relation between ethnicity and occupation, each aspect reinforcing the other. [Source: Library of Congress *]

For the proprietors and employees of many small and medium Chinese businesses, continued identification with dialect and subethnic communities provided many benefits and indeed was a precondition for engaging in many lines of trade. Although the dialect communities were not primarily occupational groups, the social solidarities created within the communities were economically useful. Much of the business activity in the extensive Chinese "traditional" sector of the economy depended on credit, personal relations, and the reputation of individuals for trustworthiness. In the final analysis, individuals met their obligations because failure to do so would result in immediate loss of reputation and creditworthiness with their fellows in restricted subethnic communities. *

For many members of the Chinese community, economic self- interest reinforced the identification with an ethnic or subethnic community and the continued use of a regional dialect. Such individuals tended to be both more intensely and self-consciously "Chinese" and "Teochiu" or "Anxi Hokkien" than their fellows, who might well be their own brothers, sons, or daughters, who worked for the government or large multinational corporations. For the latter, formal educational certification, command of English, and perhaps skill at golf rather than Chinese finger games and etiquette were associated with economic success. *

Questioning What It Means to be Chinese in Singapore

Tash Aw wrote in the New York Times, “In Singapore, Chinese people used to be called zhongguo ren or hua ren interchangeably: The small distinction between the two terms — the former relating to people with Chinese nationality or born in China; the latter to anyone ethnically and culturally Chinese — was considered artificial. But subtle divisions of this kind have now become the crux of what it means to be Chinese here.[Source: Tash Aw, New York Times, February 12, 2015 ~~]

“In 2013, the government published a white paper that laid down plans for sustaining economic growth and increasing the population from about 5.3 million to 6.5 to 6.9 million by 2030. In an already densely populated island with limited space for new construction, the plan sparked widespread debate and unprecedented public protests: Given Singapore’s low birth rate, this increase in numbers would have to be fueled by immigrants — largely, it was presumed by many, from China. ~~

“On the face of it, few cultural mergers could be more seamless. Singapore’s multilingual educational system treats Mandarin as a de facto second language after English. Almost half a century ago, the country adopted the simplified system of writing Chinese that is used in mainland China, rather than the complex forms from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In the late 1970s, the government launched a Speak Mandarin campaign to limit the use of various Chinese dialects. Familiarity with Chinese culture is presumed from similarities in food and shared customs rooted in Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism. ~~

Views of Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia Towards China

Michael Vatikiotis wrote in the International Herald Tribune: “Western social scientists have long postulated that ethnic Chinese communities in Asia have assimilated with their host societies and slowly lost their Chinese identity. But much of this research was conducted in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath, when links between ethnic Chinese and their motherland were cut off. [Source: Michael Vatikiotis, International Herald Tribune, August 24, 2005]

The trend for the last 25 years, since China opened up under Deng Xiaoping, has been for ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia to make return visits to China to explore their ancestral villages, network with distant relatives, relearn the language and - more recently - invest in China's booming economy. On a recent official visit to China, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand made a pilgrimage to his grandparents' graves in Guangdong Province. Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group was for many years one of the largest foreign investors in China.

China, for its part, has been careful not to claim the loyalty of its overseas kin. Successive prime ministers, from Zhou Enlai to Li Peng, made it clear that ethnic Chinese overseas owed their loyalty to host governments. This position has modified somewhat with the growth of China's economy. Special arrangements were made for ethnic Chinese returning to "invest in the motherland." A new network of "Confucius Centers" is being established to teach Chinese language and culture overseas. When anti-Chinese riots broke out in Indonesia a decade ago, Beijing felt compelled to lodge a protest with Jakarta. And China has increasingly made use of ethnic Chinese business and political contacts to further its influence in Southeast Asia.

All this raises the question of where the loyalties of ethnic Chinese overseas lie.The official line is that Singaporeans are culturally Chinese but politically Singaporean. It's this cultural identification that inspires pride in China's recent achievements and helps mute the kind of knee-jerk fear of China that tinges debates in the United States and Europe. "The idea and ideal of One China" are "deeply embedded in the Chinese mind," Singapore's foreign minister, George Yeo, said recently.

But as China extends its influence economically and politically, the nagging question is whether Beijing's policy of not claiming loyalty and affiliation will hold. With so much overseas Chinese capital now invested in China, how easy will it be for governments or individuals in Southeast Asia to resist calls for support and sympathy? The difference between being American and being Chinese is that America has a universal appeal, rather like a religion; being Chinese is a tribal thing, Yeo argues. "A Chinese cannot cease being a Chinese."

Singaporean Chinese Verses Mainland Chinese

Tash Aw wrote in the New York Times, “A chasm remains between the Chinese of Singapore and their mainland counterparts, divided by contemporary social values and the very language that is supposed to bind them all. Singapore’s lively Internet media and online forums reveal a pattern of prejudice toward immigrants from China. Mainlanders, Singaporeans often complain, are rude and uncivilized: One recent story that caused outrage on open portals such as The Real Singapore and STOMP, the Straits Times’ “citizen-journalism website,” centered on a “PRC woman” relieving herself on the otherwise spotless floor of a subway station. Chinese immigrants, for their part, are frustrated by what they perceive as aloofness, as well as a lack of fluency in standard Mandarin, or putonghua, among Singaporean Chinese — proof that their island cousins are not truly Chinese.[Source: Tash Aw, New York Times, February 12, 2015 ~~]

“The result of this tension is an uneasy two-way xenophobia, with each side accusing the other of racism even though both are Han Chinese. Predictably, this has led to a reassertion of cultural identities. In shops, public transport and the island’s famous hawker centers, Singaporean Mandarin — a heavily accented strain of putonghua, which includes idiosyncratic vocabulary and a smattering of words imported from other dialects as well as English — shows no sign of becoming standardized, despite many TV and radio programs featuring classic mainland-inflected pronunciation. Local dialects, especially Hokkien, still thrive. Although schools are required to teach Mandarin to ethnic Chinese students, a sizable proportion of Singaporean Chinese, mainly from affluent classes, remain more comfortable in English than Mandarin. ~~

“The visible influence of China in the everyday lives of Singaporeans has sharpened their sense of identity as Singaporean rather than as the descendants of Chinese mainlanders. If the Chinese of Singapore once defined their Chineseness in opposition to Malaysia, today they are distancing themselves from China. As one Singaporean Chinese friend of mine told me before heading to Japan for work this past autumn, at the height of tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, “I just need to make sure they know I’m Singaporean, not Chinese.” ~~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2022

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