Singapore Clan Associations
Singapore’s establishment as a British trading post in 1819 created commercial opportunities for many Chinese who migrated to Singapore. Most of the migrants were Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese or Hakka who arrived from Fujian, Guangzhou and Hainan Island. The migrants hoped to work in Singapore for a few years and to save as much as possible for their eventual return to China.
Singapore was very different from their home village. There were other ethnic groups (Malay, Indians, Arabs and Caucasians) in Singapore that the Chinese immigrants probably have never met nor have personal contacts with. Even among the Chinese, they were unable to communicate with those who spoke a different dialect.
The need for mutual support, protection and collective cultural needs resulted in the emergence of social institutions known as the clan associations (会馆 ，huay guan). The earliest clan association in Singapore was believed to be Tsao Clan Association founded in 1819 by Ts’ao Ah Chih, a cook, who arrived with Stamford Raffles. In 1900, there were more than fifty Chinese clubs and associations and by the 1940s, there were over two hundred. Many clan associations can still be found in Chinatown and many parts of Singapore today.
Major festivals and celebrations were celebrated during the course of the year. These included festivals such as the lunar New Year (新年 xin nian), Qing Ming (清明 qing ming), dumpling festival (端午节 duan wu jie), seventh month (木兰节 mu lan jie), and Mid Autumn (中秋节 zhong qiu jie) festivals. Respective associations organized religious festivals for their patron or ancestor deities.
Beyond traditional festivals, clan associations also serve the needs of their members and their roles have corresponded with changing social, political and cultural needs of their members.
In the early days when clan associations were first established, they addressed the welfare of migrants especially those who were sick or had died. They were buried in Singapore or had their remains sent back to their home village.
As the migrant population settled in Singapore and formed family units, clan associations legalized marriage for migrants. For migrants who were married in Singapore and hoped to return to China, legalization of marriage was very important as it signaled the official acceptance of the women into the husband’s family.
As the new marriages produced children, clan associations established schools. The Chinese typically have a high regard for scholarship as education creates opportunities for social mobility and served as a mechanism for cultural reproduction. In some clan associations, the names of ancestors who obtained top honors in the Imperial Exams were engraved on a board and displayed prominently.
Clan associations also functioned as a medium to maintain contact with members’ ancestral homeland. Overseas Chinese sent resources back to China in times of disaster or conflict. During the Second Sino-Japanese war, clan associations in Singapore responded to Nanyang Federation of China Relief Fund (南洋华侨筹赈祖国难民总会) and worked together in support of China.
In postwar Singapore, clan associations worked for their members to be citizen of the new state and served as registrations sites. In Singapore’s educational system, English was taught as the first language in schools and Mandarin was promoted over dialects. This development has weakened the link between younger generations and clan associations. Clan associations responded to the new social developments by supporting education, culture and charity projects. Additionally, in 1986, the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (新加坡宗乡会馆联合总会) was formed to revitalize the role of these self-help organizations.
In recent years, many English educated professionals have begun to explore and reclaim their cultural heritage. Most of them cannot speak dialect, understand limited Mandarin and are usually unable to read or write Chinese. In this rediscovery, clan associations have become valuable research centers and a space that preserves the cultural diversity of the respective dialect groups.
Traditional festivals and cultural events continued to be celebrated by clan associations. These events have become opportunities for parents to bring their children to experience and to learn about their culture heritage. These events are also open to the public attracting Singaporeans of different ethnic groups, expatriates, and tourists. In this role, clan association’s activities become spaces for cross-cultural interaction and tourist sites offering authentic cultural experiences.