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Homelanding Transcript

Ching May “When you live long enough in a foreign land, the land becomes your homeland. ” Tang Dynasty official Huang Qiao told his children this when he sent them away from home. More than a millennium later, his words continue to capture the experience of many migrants. 

For the past decade, I have come to understand what Huang Qiao meant.  At the age of ten, I moved from Hong Kong to Singapore with my family. At first, living in a foreign land was not easy.

Outside my home, I had few opportunities to speak Cantonese, the language I grew up with. In Hong Kong, I only studied English as a second language, so it was daunting to suddenly study and live in a completely English environment. During those first few months in Singapore, I couldn’t even comprehend the school announcements.

I was also surrounded by new food, a new landscape, and new weather. Even when I shut my eyes in my new home, I knew I was not in Hong Kong. Birds chirping, the call for prayer at the local mosque, the wedding music and funeral chants coming from the void decks. The soundscape at my fourth storey HDB flat in Singapore was completely different from the silence I had grown up with in my twenty-third storey shoe-box flat in Hong Kong.

But just as Huang Qiao suggests, Singapore’s foreignness melted away with time. My English gradually improved, and I learned to appreciate my neighbourhood and Singapore’s diversity. I also picked up Singlish, a distinctively local version of English.

Singapore has always been a nation of immigrants, and for most of them, this foreign land eventually became their homeland. How did those earlier generations make Singapore their home? For many members of the Chinese diaspora, the answer was clan associations, or huiguan.

Chris I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot, the podcast about the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.

In this episode, Ching May, a year 3 Japanese Studies major, explores the past, present and future of clan associations in Singapore. Clan associations, or huiguan, are self-help groups organised by Chinese migrants. They have been established whenever Chinese migrants live away from their hometowns, even when that’s within China itself. Throughout human history, individuals living away from home have formed migrant communities, living together and supporting each other in their new homelands. Chinese clan associations stand out in terms of their history and their complexity of social networks. In Singapore, clan associations have existed for more than 200 years. In the past, they were job portals, social clubs, education providers, and even matchmakers. Today, clan associations must continue to evolve to remain relevant, particularly as the government monopolizes most of the functions previously covered by associations.

In this episode, Ching May traces the history of clan associations in Singapore, and she visits one of the 300 surviving associations to find out how they have transformed in meaning and purpose over the years. How does a foreign land become your homeland? Stay tuned. 

Ching May As a deep-water port situated at the entrance of the Straits of Malacca, Singapore has long been geographically important as a trading link between Europe and Asia. Under British colonial rule, the island flourished as a bustling trading hub, with tens of thousands of migrants from all over the region flocking to the little red dot, in search of wealth, especially beginning from the 1870s.

At the time, the colonial government provided limited public services. Clan associations served as the main pillars of support for newly arrived migrants from the Chinese diaspora.

Some clan associations are locality-based and usually divided along dialect lines, such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, and Hainanese. Other clan associations are trade-based or kinship-based, which often required proof of genealogical ties.

At their peak, there were more than 500 clan associations in Singapore. An overwhelming majority could be found in Chinatown because the area was located right by the ports. In fact, merchants would step immediately off their boats and into clan associations to discuss trade.

Today, the number of clan associations has dropped to about 300. Urban redevelopment and rental hikes in the Chinatown area have also driven many clan associations to neighbourhoods farther from their original locations, like Jalan Besar and Geylang. Still, many clan associations can be found within the Chinatown Historical District. A short stroll can take you past: Nam Hoi (南海) Clan Association, a Cantonese group. Chew Ho Thong Hiong Wui (潮荷同乡会), a Teochew group. Singapore Chin Kang Huay Kuan (晋江), a Hokkien group and at least 20 more. 

2019 marks the 200th anniversary of British arrival in Singapore. In honor of this anniversary, the government has sponsored a series of public seminars on the vast changes since 1819. The third in the series was on the history of clan associations.

At the seminar, I met Mr Wong Liang Nam, from the Heng Jai Wong Clan Association. This association combines kinship and locality by serving members of the Wong clan from China’s southern island of Hainan. After introducing myself, Mr Wong invited me to visit the clan association a few days later.

I imagined a stand-alone one-storey traditional Chinese building with a sloping roof. Or perhaps a narrow 2-storey shophouse with a single door in front and several windows facing the street. 

The Heng Jai Wong Clan Association office was nothing like I expected.

It sits on the eighth floor of a commercial building on the east side of Singapore. Walking in the door, I found a fully air-conditioned space lined with office tables and chairs.

The walls are covered with Chinese text detailing the history of the clan and its traditional values. Near the entrance is a 3-metre long black plaque, with the name of the association carved into its wooden surface in traditional Chinese script. It marks the long history of the self-help group. Behind the office, a grand altar dedicated to the clan ancestors sits in a spacious rooftop area.

At the time of our visit, the office was still under renovation. My hosts were president Wong Tun Tong and staff members Wong Soon Lian, Wong Liang Nam and Wang Tee Kang. All four gentlemen looked to be in their sixties. 

According to the President, this unit is the first time in their 109 year history that they have owned a permanent property. In the past they have been forced to move from place to place, renting and borrowing spaces. The clan association was first located along Holloway Lane, a now-nonexistent road, at the exact spot where the National Library now sits.

The Hainanese chose to live together and look out for each other as life was difficult. As a result, they congregated in today’s Bugis area, so much so that the main street was officially named “Hylam Street”, after the Hainanese pronunciation of Hainan. There were multiple Hainanese clan associations in the area. Even today, three Hainanese clan associations remain in Bugis. Today, Hylam Street is one of the indoor air-conditioned shopping streets inside the Bugis Junction shopping mall.

Clan associations played an indispensable role in supporting the new and existing members, even providing temporary accommodation for new migrants and helping them find jobs. 

Ching May 如果他也是姓黄的,然后他来琼崖黄氏公会(求助)的话,那你们可以帮他做什么?[If a Wong clansman from Hainan arrived in Singapore and came to Heng Jai Wong clan association for assistance, how could the clan association help?]

Mr Wong Toon Tung 那个时候应该就是…找工作 lor 找地方住lor。第二就是让他有一个遮雨的地方,有一个地方住啦。可能就在会所里面住啦。有一些同乡会,公会啊有够地方,他们就在在会所里面住。让他住几个月先,帮他找工作。等到他有工作有一些收入啊,他才去外面租屋子啦。[Back then I guess, it would be to help them find a job and a place to live in. Get him a shelter, a place to live. Maybe at the association. Those associations with enough space can let them stay. We can let him stay and help him to find a job. He stay until he lands a job and earns some income.]

Ching May Besides providing immediate relief like shelter and job prospects, clan associations were also important cultural agents. They organised seasonal ancestor-worship ceremonies. They hosted life events like weddings and funerals. Some larger associations even set up schools and clinics for exclusive use of their clansmen. 

These services made life in Singapore easier for the Chinese migrants. But they did not forget where they came from. Historian Philip Kuhn has written that clan associations (quote)“ensured that the adjustment to a new locale was accompanied by reinforcing hometown ties”. (end quote). The very fact that these services were limited to members of specific clans and locality means that migrants were constantly reminded of their origins. 

Migrants and their hometowns existed in a mutually symbiotic relationship. On one hand, migrants needed their hometown as a conduit to attain help. On the other, the hometown needed the financial resources that migrants sent back. The president recalled the enthusiasm that earlier generations of Hainanese demonstrated for the development of Hainan. 

Mr Wong Toon Tung 那时候中国穷嘛…说三四十年前,四五十年前。我们是从那里出身的,从那边过来。我的祖父跟父亲是那边(海南)出生的,所以他们还有联络,每年都会回去。回去那一边就会帮忙嘛,或者寄钱给他们。建学校啦,建路啦或者是建医院啦 。[China was poor thirty to fifty years ago. We originate from there. My grandfather and father were born in Hainan. So they kept in contact with the town. They went back every year and helped out. They also sent money back to support construction of schools, roads and hospitals.]

Ching May The level of interaction between clan associations and their hometowns has changed in recent decades, as previous generations have passed away and as China has become an economic giant. 

Ching May 现在中国发展的已经很不错了嘛,那么其实会不会因为这个原因所以它跟外面的公会联络也就是比较少了呢?因为他不算是一个很必要的(存在)。可以这么说吗?[Would you say there has been less interaction between China and clan associations overseas because of the country’s development? Because clan associations do not seem  very necessary now.]

Mr Wong Toon Tung 也是有影响到。okay 比如说乡村啦。以前我们乡村建路啦,进去乡村,因为有人住嘛。现在的乡村那一边。他们那一边本身的年轻人也不在那边住了。他们都移去镇,或者市。所以乡村本身啊,以前我们花很多钱去建路,lead to 那个乡村啊,人少了 lor。一个乡村应该是有三十四户人家吧。现在只剩下七八家。所以联络方面呢也是慢慢减少了。为什么,主要的原因就是说祖父啦、父亲不在了。他们那边的祖父、父亲也不在了嘛。那我们年轻人感情是比较单薄嘛,因为我们不是那边出身的。所以我们这边,也曾经父母有带我们回去过,还有一些,一丝微的感情。不过我们不再那边住嘛,那边没有朋友,甚至是通过父辈的介绍才知道认识。[Yeah that played a part. We used to donate money to build roads into the villages because there were people living there. Nowadays, young people do not live there anymore, they have moved to either towns or cities. So there are fewer people in the villages that we built roads to. There used to be about thirty, forty households in a village. Now, only about seven or eight. So there has been a reduction of contact between the village and us. The main reason for the reduction of contact is the passing of our grandfathers and fathers and the passing of their grandfathers and fathers. We younger generations do not feel as strongly for the village because we were not born there. We do feel something because our parents brought us to visit the village. But we do not live there after all. We do not have friends there. We only know some people because our parents introduced us to them.

Ching May Indeed the two generations of Chinese, those born in China and those born in Singapore, share a very different sense of home. For the earliest generations, Singapore was simply a temporary working destination. These migrants’ sense of home was directed more towards their villages in China, where they expected to eventually return. For instance, Mr Wong Soon Lian said his parents always wanted to return to Hainan.

Mr Wong Soon Lian 我们的这个老爸老妈总是说在工作多几年,有钱了,我们就回家。就是回去海南岛,回去家乡。[Our parents always say that we will return home after a few more years of work and savings. We will go back to Hainan.]

Ching May Many first-generation migrants were men, coming to Singapore alone to seek their fortunes. But they eventually settled down, sometimes finding wives through the clan association. For their children and grandchildren, who were brought up in Singapore, China evokes little sense of home.

Ching May 在这里出生的海南人对海南是怎么样的想法?你们还会把海南当是家吗?还是,就是海南在你们心目中是怎样的?[How do Hainanese born here feel about Hainan? Do you still see Hainan as home?]

Mr Wong Toon Tung 我们的家是这一边了,落地生根了。海南岛对我们来讲是一个…也不是有很深的怀念啦。就是说因为我们是海南人嘛。海南岛又是我们父辈、祖父辈的出生地。那么我们有去过那一边, 有跟他们一起做过事,帮助过他们。我看就是到此为止。不会说有一天我们要回去那边终老还是什么,没有这个念头。 [Our home is here. We have settled down. Hainan to us…does not evoke much sense of nostalgia. Yes we are Hainanese. And Hainan was where our parents and grandparents were born. We have been there and worked with people there. But that’s it. It is not like we would want to spend our retirement there. That is not something we consider. ]

Mr Wong Soon Liang 我的父辈,海南岛是第一家,新加坡是他的这个旅居的地方。但到我这一辈的话呢,新加坡是我的第一家乡,海南岛就变成我的第二的选择了。但是如果是我的儿女辈的话呢,他就没有这种概念了。[For my parents‘ generation, Hainan is their first home. Singapore is a temporary host. But when it comes to my generation, Singapore is my first home. Hainan is my second choice. For my children’s generation, they do not see Hainan as home at all.]

Ching May While sojourners wished to return “home” to China, their descendants are Singaporeans with a locally-oriented sense of identity. 

This generational shift in identity is closely related to the transformation that Singapore and its people have undergone.

In 1957, the government passed the Citizenship Ordinance. This allowed Chinese migrants in Singapore to change their status from overseas Chinese to Singapore citizens.

Nearly a decade later, Singapore gained independence. Since then, the government has stepped up to provide more public services and to promote a Singaporean identity. Clan associations are no longer vital places for people to search for work, socialize, and maintain contact with their ancestral hometowns back in China.

Several language policies have also weakened the linguistic ties between Singaporean Chinese and their hometowns. In the past, Chinese dialects were a major glue tying locality-based groups together. But in the 1980s, Singapore restricted Chinese dialects by banning them from broadcasts and simultaneously promoted Mandarin as an official language. This gave birth to a more unified Chinese ethnic identity. The identity negotiation didn’t stop there. The use of English as a standard method of instruction and the designation of one’s mother tongue as a second language in school limited Singaporeans’ exposure to their respective linguistic and cultural roots. 

 The weakening of this ancestral identity stands in stark contrast to the strengthening of national identity. Every day in every primary and secondary school in Singapore, students recite the pledge in unison.

On every Total Defence Day and National day, we were reminded of the blood, sweat and tears that our forefathers shed to build the city-state we live in today,  and we are asked to contribute to the continual prosperity of the country.

Today, Singaporeans, regardless of background, see themselves as primary stakeholders of this city-state.

Given the declining significance of clan associations as bridges between migrants and their hometowns, many of the clan associations have rebranded themselves as promoters of Chinese culture. The Heng Jai Wong Clan association now focuses on encouraging interaction among clan members and fostering traditional Chinese values such as filial piety, loyalty and etiquette, which are deemed definitive of Chinese identity.

Ching May 在现在的时代,会馆的存在,或者是公会的存在还有什么样的一种意义呢?[What is the significance of clan associations in the modern era?]

Mr Wong Toon Tung 这其实意义更加重大啦。为什么更加重大呢,就是说,以前说,我们都讲方言嘛。从方言方面呢,父母会传授我们更加多的知识,说传统的价值观,说做人的道理,做人的根本。好像这样的美德啊,其实我们父母都一直在教我们。孝顺孩子。悌,就是兄弟姐妹之间互相亲爱。忠,忠于国家。礼义廉耻。耻是要有羞耻心嘛,廉,是要廉洁嘛,不贪嘛。义,就是要有义气嘛,要对人对得起啦。礼就是要有礼节。从小,父母都会教我们。如果是说现在呢,都讲英语的关系嘛,传授这样的价值观,机会就很少了。讲方言的机会,根本是越来越少。所以这个公会的新的使命就是传承嘛。传承这些有价值的,有传统的,优良的价值给下一代。怎么去传承呢?那就是通过平时的交流,然后通过平时的活动,还有通过佳节,好像中秋节啦,那个赛龙舟的,端午节,新年团拜,大家聚在一起。[I think the significance of clan associations is particularly high in the modern era. Why? In the past, we all spoke dialects. And through dialects, our parents inculcated us with knowledge, say traditional values,  principles to live by. Our parents have always taught us values. Xiao, is filial piety. Ti, is love between siblings. Zhong, is about loyalty. Li Yi Lian Chi (礼义廉耻). Li, is about etiquette. Yi, is righteousness. Lian, is incorruptibility. Chi is a sense of shame. Nowadays, there is little chance to impart such values because everybody speaks English. There are fewer opportunities to speak dialect. So the new mission of our association is to continue traditions. To pass on what is valuable, what is traditional… the values that are good. How to go about doing it? Through regular interaction, regular activities, and through festivals, like Mid-autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, New Year Reunion, events when people get together.]

Ching May From functional agents connecting migrants to their hometowns abroad, the Heng Jai Wong Clan Association has evolved into a promoter of Chinese traditional values. 

Why the focus on values? For Chinese migrants who still trace their roots to a faraway land, these values are aspects of home their ancestors brought with them. The values connect them to places and people left behind. As current members pass on these values, they reaffirm their identity and recall their past home, while not denying their current home in Singapore. 

Chris The Heng Jai Wong clan association has reinvented itself to be a center to pass on Chinese cultural values, but it is only one of hundreds of associations in Singapore and around the world. What are other associations doing? I met with Professor Kenneth Dean, Head of the Department of Chinese Studies at the National University of Singapore and an expert on huiguan to get a better sense of the scale of these associations and how they are changing with the times.

Chris Of course we’re talking in this podcast about these associations here in Singapore but of course they were all around South East Asia. Do you have an idea of the geographical scope of….

Kenneth Dean There’s now worldwide associations and this is the latest development, where especially the clan associations are capable of creating worldwide networks and bringing all kinds of people back to supposed founding ancestral halls in central China. It’s not really important whether they really were descendants of that original family line, but the fact you can – the deeper you go the less likely the connections are but the broader the connections the better the networking and the bigger the party. So, this is also a phenomenon we’re seeing all over China and South East Asia and around the world now. So clan associations are particularly active at this point and doing this type of worldwide networking.

Chris Is this generational?

Kenneth Dean It’s partly a feature of advanced transportation and communications in the modern age and partly it’s a response to the destruction of a lot of the lineage structures within China during the last half of the 20th century. So that has allowed for a lot more creative construction of associations of various levels, so there is a huge boom now in China with people rewriting genealogies-  the thickest book on my bookshelf is one of them.

That’s the Sarawak who claimed to have thousands of relatives, but already a long time ago the anthropologist Tian Rukang showed that a lot of South-East Asian clan associations have created fictive ancestors to link through actually unrelated branches of the same surname together in a tomb with nothing in it – in front of which you can do rituals because that brings you into association. So this is a whole phenomenon partly developed out of possibility for forming connections using these cultural repertoire in South East Asia, but the huiguan go way back in China as well and there were hundreds there that developed.

Chris When I talk to my students, many of them don’t know about clan association or don’t have any desire to join. What does the future hold for clan associations?

Kenneth Dean I think that is a difficult question, there is a lot of despair in some sectors and a lot of decline in membership and a lot of ageing of the membership, very rapid-ageing of the membership and the great difficulty in bringing younger people in many of the Huiguan we visited. On the other hand, some of the more active Huiguan are amongst the few places that are trying to expand the teaching of dialects again in Singapore. So the Chaozhou Hui Guan have courses in Teochew and Fujian Huiguan teaches Hokkien. It’s very hard to find those kind of resources elsewhere in Singapore these days and in some ways they’re again it’s their last chance to provide a lifeline for these dialects before they completely die out. So if they can continue in that way and expand those kinds of linguistic and cultural activities they may be able to bring more younger people back into the huiguan as a kind of cultural conduit. If they can figure out ways to interest younger people in the kinds of networking that they’re doing in China, they may be able to bring middle-aged or entrepreneurs back into their organizations. 

Chris People who would be networking anyway, and this is another avenue for that networking.

Kenneth Dean It is quite a specific one tied back to specific regions of China where they have extensive knowledge; local knowledge of business circumstances, resources and the local political scene. So they can provide a lot of information that other groups or other international companies might not have, especially at the local level. So from that point of view, they do still have a potential role in economic networking and business networking, especially with China.

Chris After learning so much about the role of clan associations in connecting migrants with their previous homes, and helping them make a new home in a foreign land, I turned the question of clan associations back to Ching May, who migrated to Singapore like so many Chinese before her. 

Chris So this episode is about clan associations. And when we first started talking about this, brainstorming this episode, you mentioned that you never joined a clan association. And you never imagined joining one. Can you tell me why? And follow up question is: Now that you know about them, would you consider joining?

Ching May Okay. So for the first question on why I have not heard about clan association, I think it’s because my experience of settling down into Singapore never really required a clan association because things are taken care of mostly by the government already.

Chris Or by your parents.

Ching May Yeah or by my parents. Getting help from clan association is not something that had crossed my mind to be very honest. And on the question of whether I would consider joining a clan association, I think I am interested in learning more about how they want to promote Chinese culture but that’s gonna be the intention of me joining. So I am not there to seek help, but more like to learn about Chinese culture in Singapore. So I guess the motivation of joining itself is different from what previous generations of migrants consider.

Chris How does a foreign land become your homeland? Migrants need information, social networks, job prospects, as well as practical things like familiar food to not only survive but thrive while they live and work far from home. In Singapore clan associations long served these purposes. But as times changed and migrants found other sources for such necessities, clan associations became less vital. 

Indeed, in my own experience as a migrant to Singapore nine years ago, I did not need any such groups. Perhaps a century ago I would have turned to the exclusive American Club to help me settle into my new life here. Instead, I just used the internet and my new colleagues to help me adjust. 

Much like Ching May, for me, Singapore became home gradually, almost as an afterthought. So perhaps, the most important element to making home is not the social networks or the information that helps one settle in, but what that Tang Dynasty official said: a foreign land will become a homeland with enough time. 

This episode was written and produced by Leong Ching May, with help from Toh Jia Han and me. Our sound engineers were Johann Tan and David Chew. Special thanks go to the Heng Jai Wong Clan Association and Professor Kenneth Dean for sharing their insights on clan associations. Thanks also to Dr Seng Guo Quan for providing Ching May with a historical overview of clan associations. 

Please visit our blog, where we have transcripts of all our episodes, photos of the places we feature including some 360-degree photos, as well as links and news to academic articles on every topic. It’s at

Thank you for listening.

Published in Transcripts S2


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