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Ang Seow Leng

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When the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen set in motion his plans to overthrow the Qing dynasty in China and establish a new republic in the early 20th century, he found an ally in Singapore. Teo Eng Hock, a merchant and rubber tycoon, was a close friend of Sun and one of the founding members of the Singapore branch of the Tongmenghui (同盟会; Chinese Revolutionary Alliance), an underground resistance movement founded in 1905 by Sun to gather support for the Chinese revolutionary cause and raise funds for its activities. As Sun’s close comrade, Teo, who was once known as Singapore’s “rubber king”, had intimate knowledge of the revolutionary activities that were taking place, especially in Singapore. Over the nine years that Teo spent as a member of Tongmenghui, he kept about 100 letters and memos relating to the resistance movement. These letters, along with other receipts, documents and photographs, are documented in a Chinese book that he wrote and published in 1933. Titled Nanyang and the Founding of the Republic (南洋与创立民国), the publication – with 57 sections…

Quite ironically, the most detailed account of Stamford Raffles’ momentous arrival in Singapore was captured by a man who was not even there. Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, better known as Munshi Abdullah, gathered reports from those present to piece together a version of the events that occurred during Raffles’ first arrival to Singapore on 29 January 1819. This landmark narrative is included in his autobiography Hikayat Abdullah, or Stories of Abdullah, one of the most important records of the socio-political landscape in Singapore, Malacca and the southern Malay kingdoms of Johor and Riau-Lingga at the turn of the 19th century. Written in Jawi – modified Arabic script used to write the Malay language – between 1840 and 1843 and published in 1849, the book is considered compulsory reading among scholars of Malay literature and culture and is the most renowned of Abdullah’s works. Until the 1970s, it was used as a textbook in every Malay school in Singapore. Born in Malacca in 1797, young Abdullah studied under the best Malay scholars in his hometown and read all…

Many of us would recognise nursery rhymes such as “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns”, but reading Malay versions of these typically British children’s poems in a culturally misplaced context takes some getting used to. A collection of whimsical nursery rhymes given a delightful Malayan spin is the subject of an illustrated compendium published in 1939. Titled Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes, the collection features Malay translations of 100 popular English nursery rhymes. To appeal to its readers, some words in the poems were replaced with local equivalents to give the translated versions a distinctly Malayan flavour. The book is presented in a bilingual format, with the English nursery rhyme immediately followed by its Malay translation (some with accompanying music compositions by H. A. Courtney), and is interspersed with beautiful illustrations. The drawings mostly feature multi-racial characters and settings typical of the era. Additionally, the book contains a glossary of Malay words to help readers with a rudimentary knowledge of Malay to have a better understanding of its contents. According to its…

In the pre-Wikipedia era, scientific and literary knowledge was mainly documented in the form of periodicals and journals. In the early 19th century, most of such publications in circulation in the region comprised missionary-related magazines and Dutch-produced scientific journals of Java. But one local publication stood out for its single-minded focus on the thriving scientific and literary activity within the Straits Settlements. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia marked a pioneering attempt to produce a scholarly journal in the British settlements of the Far East, showcasing the intellectual prowess of writers from professions as diverse as priests, lawyers, doctors, soldiers, merchants and planters. The journal’s main purpose was to introduce its readers to all the available sources of information on the Indian Archipelago, and to treat every subject in a scientific manner. It covered a comprehensive sweep of topics, including history, language, literature, ethnography, natural history, physical science, topography, agriculture and economics. Most of the articles printed in the periodical were first-hand observations of the peoples living in the region. In particular, the journal was…

A dictionary written more than 150 years ago bears testimony to how Malay – the predominant language in the Straits Settlements at the time – was of interest to Europeans in the region. The fact that it was written by a Scotsman speaks volumes about the linguistic ability of the author and his abiding interest in the people and culture of the region.

Love it or hate it, most people find expatriates’ accounts of Singapore endlessly fascinating. One of the earliest newspaper columnists was Charles Burton Buckley, whose writings on Singapore were published as early as 1902 – the first of its kind at the time. This two-volume work spans 48 years of Singapore history from its founding in 1819 to the transfer from the British East India Company to the Colonial Office in 1867. There are a total of six complete sets in the National Library. One set is part of the Gibson-Hill Collection, two sets belong to the Ya Yin Kwan Collection and another set was donated by Yeh Sui-Yen. Organised in a chronological order, the publication is not so much a serious academic work but a collection of Buckley’s lighthearted columns aimed at entertaining the local reading public. The columns were written by Buckley for the Singapore Free Press, along with some new information. An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore is nevertheless an important publication as it offers a selected archive of historical documents that…