“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people”, said the great Mahatma Gandhi, who led India’s nationalist movement against British colonial rule.
Gandhi’s wise words certainly ring true of Singapore, whose multi-ethnic and multicultural society is the product of colonialism as well as successive waves of immigration that began in the early 19th century. These immigrants brought with them their culture, traditions and customs along with qualities such as resilience, thrift, kinship and entrepreneurship, which together have left behind an indelible stamp on Singapore society.
This issue of BiblioAsia on “Culture & Communities” highlights the contributions of some of Singapore’s early migrants: Cantonese amahs from Guangdong province, Chettiars from Tamil Nadu, Armenians of Persian stock, and Scots from where else but Scotland.
The cover story by Janice Loo pays tribute to the once ubiquitous black-and-white amah – who was highly valued for her superior domestic skills – from China’s Pearl River Delta region, while Peter Lee pays homage to Ah Sim, the amah who tenderly raised him from child to adulthood.
The strong kinship ties shared by these unmarried domestic servants were also evident among the Chettiars from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. Marcus Ng writes about this close-knit community who once ran a thriving moneylending business at Market Street, Singapore’s first banks, as it were.
The Scots have similarly left their imprint here in landmarks and streets named after Scotsmen, such as John Crawfurd, John Anderson, James MacRitchie and Robert Fullerton. Graham Berry remembers the legacy of his fellow Scots in an excerpt from his book, From Kilts to Sarongs: Scottish Pioneers of Singapore.
In the 1830s, a small but thriving Armenian community in Singapore led to the construction of the Armenian Church, which is today a national monument and tourist icon. Unfortunately, its counterpart in Penang – which was consecrated earlier in 1824 – no longer exists, as Nadia Wright tells us.
We also highlight the creative arts of the Peranakan and Malay communities in this issue. Cheah Hwei-F’en presents a small selection of exquisite Peranakan beadwork inspired by print media, while Mazelan Anuar takes us back to the advent of Malay printing in late 19th-century Singapore. Don’t miss the opportunity of seeing some of these rare printed works on display at the “Tales of the Malay World: Manuscripts and Early Books” exhibition on level 10 of the National Library Building.
Other essays in this issue include a short history of the nationalisation of Singapore’s bus industry in the 1970s by Lee Meiyu; a thoughtful reflection on Bras Basah Road and its environs by Yu-Mei Balasingamchow; and Kevin Khoo’s explanation on the symbolism behind the colonial-era Third Charter of Justice document.
Last but not least are three highlights from the National Library’s collections: Vicky Gao traces the history of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Singapore; Ong Eng Chuan previews a collection of postcards written by the Peranakan luminary Song Ong Siang (and his wife) during their European holiday in the 1920s; and Zoe Yeo traces the evolution of Singaporean fashion through related publications from the Legal Deposit Collection.
We hope you enjoy reading this edition of BiblioAsia.