By Wong Kah Wei
The “Peranakan Assembly” at my church had to close down. Numbers were dwindling due to many of the elderly who were ill or who had passed on during the three years of pandemic. The few members who were left decided to move on to a church which had more Peranakans. “So this is what it looks like when a community disappears”, I thought. I was not part of this community but had only just joined them as I wanted to learn Baba Malay. The poignancy was palpable.
I dealt with this stark reality the only way I could – to find out more about it. Even if it had disappeared, the community would still be kept “alive” in books and records.
Knowing how I felt, my pastor passed me a PDF of a slim book chronicling the history of the Brethren church entitled 1864 – 1964: The story of one hundred years of the Lord’s blessing – a centennial brochure of Bethesda Gospel Hall. “Look at pages 53-54, it states “Malay meetings” which are the beginnings of the “Peranakan Assembly””, he said.
These “Malay Meetings” started in 1934 and 40 people met at 417, New Bridge Road. The centennial brochure went on to state that “The locally-born Chinese, usually referred to as “Straits-born Chinese” adopted Malay as their common language”. Interestingly, it explained that “when we speak of “Malay” meetings we do not imply that these consist of Malays, but of people of all races who understand the Malay language. It is common to find Chinese, Indians, Japanese and others meeting in fellowship together through the medium of the Malay language.” In 1934, “a separate Malay-speaking assembly was formed”. Could this “Malay-speaking assembly” be the “Peranakan Assembly”?
Knowing the location “417, New Bridge Road” was the place of the Malay Meeting directed my search further. While helping the “Peranakan Assembly” pack their Kitab Perjanjian Bharu bibles and Sha’ir Puji-Pujian hymnals, I found the address “New Bridge Road Chapel, 417, New Bridge Road, Singapore 2” stamped on a page in the front matter of both “Perjanjian” and “Sha’ir”. Could this confirm that the Malay Meetings of 1934 was the beginning of the “Peranakan Assembly”?
From the centennial brochure, the Compiler’s Notes recorded that the information in the brochure was drawn from an “old Record Book of the assembly” among other sources such as Straits Times, etc. The Record Book was described as a “large leather-bound volume” with “hundreds of pages”. The records of the first few years were “written in a beautiful, neat “copper-plate” hand”. My curiosity was piqued.
Does this “old Record Book” still exist? If it does exist, who has it? Does the Record Book have information on the beginnings of the “Peranakan Assembly”? So began my search again.
A published book entitled The Brethren story: 150 years of history in Singapore I was reading also referred to an “Assembly Record Book” which was written by Philip Robinson (of Robinsons Department Store) and the early leaders of the Bethesda Chapel. This book was described as “a large leather-bound volume of hundreds of pages”. But more importantly, it was “now in the safe-keeping of the Bethesda Hall (Ang Mo Kio)”.
Obviously, the next step was to get a hold of the Record Book to see what it recorded. By this time, the “librarian mode” kicked in. The Record Book as a primary source chronicling the early days of the Brethren movement in Singapore is an invaluable source of information. Including it in NUS Libraries’ Singapore and Malaysia collection will greatly enrich scholarship in Singapore’s history and the Brethren movement in Singapore.
I discussed this with NUS Libraries’ Head of Special Collections and she got excited as well (it is contagious!). We both agreed it was not necessary to hold the physical copy of the Record Book in our collection as we reckon such a precious artefact of the Bethesda churches’ legacy should remain with the church. So, the best option was to request for permission to borrow and digitize the Record Book. The digitized version would be uploaded to Digital Gems. After digitization, the Record Book would be returned. The elders of Bethesda Hall Ang Mo Kio were most accommodating and requested for a copy of the digitized book.
When the Record Book was brought to NUS Libraries for digitizing, I was in awe. It was a huge, heavy tome measuring 25cm by 38cm and had 430 pages. Bethesda Hall had stuck on the cover a piece of paper which read “Bethesda Hall (Bras Basah) Historical Record (1864 to 1933)”. The Historical Record Book was a diary of events written by many different people over the past 150 years. The ink was still clear. Various styles of cursive handwriting filled the pages. Turning the thick pages and reading each entry was like being drawn into a place and time that was surreal to me. It was like reading the thoughts of the writers, words flowing directly from their minds and hearts on to the pages. There were rarely any corrections on the pages.
The first entry was the “First Annual Report of the Church and Congregation assembling at the Mission Rooms, Singapore”, dated 3rd July 1865. The next entry was a year later in July 1866 and was titled “Second Year” recording the events for that year. Subsequent to this, entries of each “Lord’s Day” (Sunday) was recorded. The first record on “Lord’s Day 18th February 1866” stated that “Nineteen believers broke bread together, this is the largest number we have had to surround the Lord’s table.” The entry then listed the names of the nineteen people.
Although most of the entries were on who attended the meetings, who preached, baptisms, marriages and deaths, some were annual reports recording efforts in helping the poor, names of visitors, the collection of funds to build a new meeting place and so on. However, the record-keeping stopped in 1933 – a year before the “a separate Malay-speaking assembly” was formed in 1934.
I did not give up. Surely, even before the Malay-speaking assembly was formed, some mention of the leaders and people of the assembly would be in the Record Book, wouldn’t it?
The only way to find out was to read the entire 430-page Record Book! The reading has started albeit slowly. I struggled to read the cursive, long-hand writing of writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries trying to decipher some words, some which were written with the long or medial “s” (“missionaries” was written “miſsionaries”). If I encounter a Chinese name, I would, then, search to determine if the person is Straits-born Chinese or Peranakan. With this piece of information, I could, at least, place the presence of “Malay-speaking” Chinese at a certain point of time or within a specific context. With this information, I could move on to search for other primary sources of information.
A friend sighed and said to me, “Kah Wei, a season has passed.” (referring to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Even though the Peranakan community who congregated weekly to “pchah roti and minum anggur” (break bread and drink wine) in that little room, no longer met, the history of their forefathers is locked in records and stories waiting to be revealed one day.