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The Peranakan Museum in Armenian Street is probably the best place to go if you want to learn about the origins, history and culture of Singapore’s fascinating Straits Chinese or Peranakan community. But there was no such museum or repository of information more than a century ago. And so for the most part, people looked to a book written in 1879 by Jonas Daniel Vaughan, in which the social customs, religious practices and recreational activities of the Straits-born Chinese in British Malaya are described. Titled The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements, the book is part of the Ya Yin Kwan Collection that was donated to the National Library in 1964. At barely 120 pages long, Vaughan’s work cannot be described as exhaustive. In fact, his writings have been criticised as rambling and uneven, with an obvious ethnocentric bias typical of the expatriate writing of the time. Despite its limitations, however, the book offers a useful glimpse of Baba Chinese culture during British colonial rule in the 19th century. And, as a first-hand…

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…

The early Indian Muslims who settled in Singapore in the 1800s brought with them a varied heritage: their skills as shopkeepers and office workers, their unique customs and beliefs, and a tradition of devout poetry. Indeed, their religious faith was a key source of solace for these transplanted Muslims from the southern part of India, who often expressed their piety in the form of verse. One particularly notable poet among them was Muhammad Abdul Kadir Pulavar, whose Islamic religious poetry collection, Munajathu Thirattu, is the oldest Tamil book held by the National Library. Published by J. Paton, Government Printer, in 1872, the book comprises a total of 55 poems and songs in praise of Muslim saints and the Prophet Muhammad. The verses are written in simple Tamil, richly overlaid with Persian and Arabic words, and are appended with tunes and rhythms. They are divided into six genres: introductory poems in praise of the author (four poems); Munajathu Pathikam (four songs); Thanippaakkal (12 poems); Thanippathangal (30 songs); Sindhu, a lyrical form of Tamil (two poems); and Chitirak…

Written in the 14th century and set during the last days of China’s Han dynasty and the tumultuous Three Kingdoms period (circa AD 220–280), the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a well-known Chinese classic of epic proportions and a cast of thousands. In the late 1800s, a Baba Malay version of this classic was published in Singapore – making this popular tale more accessible to the Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese) community. Titled as Chrita Dahulu-kala, Namanya Sam Kok, Atau, Tiga Negri Ber-prang: Siok, Gwi, Sama Gor di Jaman “Han Teow” (henceforth referred to as Sam Kok), the series consists of 30 volumes translated from Chinese to Baba Malay. The translation was done by Chan Kim Boon, an administrator at law firm Aitken & Rodyk, with the help of two other people, Chia Ann Siang and Tan Kheam Hock. Published between 1892 and 1896 by Kim Sek Chye Press, the entire series totalled some 4,622 pages, and a single volume was sold at a $1 each. Sam Kok is most likely the earliest complete Malay translation of Romance…