Hakka community

Singapore Infopedia

by Conceicao, Jeanne Louise


The Hakka community is the fourth-largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore. According to the 2010 Singapore census, the Hakkas made up about 8 percent of the Chinese resident population.1 Originating from southern China, the Hakkas were already in Singapore by the early 19th century.2 A famous Singapore-born Hakka was the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who is credited as instrumental in transforming Singapore from third-world country to a thriving metropolis.3

At the time of Singapore’s founding in 1819, there were only about 30 Chinese among a population of 150. By 1827, the Chinese had become the largest group of inhabitants, outnumbering even the Malays. The Chinese population, by 1840, was large enough for at least four dialect groups to be identified, and the Hakka was one of them.4

The ancestors of the Hakkas originated from the provinces of Henan and Shanxi in north China, migrating south during the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties. The name “Hakka”, or Khek, which the community is also known as, literally means “guest people”.5 They were associated with this name during the Ming dynasty when the provinces where they finally settled in classified them as “guest inhabitants” to distinguish them from the local residents.6 Their migration to Singapore was an extension of their southward movement within China, which had resulted in large populations of Hakkas in the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong.7

The community in Singapore was once concentrated in areas like South Bridge Road, North Bridge Road and Lorong Tai Seng (in Paya Lebar). However, like the other Chinese dialect groups, they are now spread all over the island.8

The Hakka immigrants were involved in agriculture when they first arrived in Singapore, especially in the cultivation of pepper and gambier.9 They also ventured into, and later dominated, the Chinese medicine business. It has been said that in the 1920s, the largest Chinese medicine halls were owned by Hakkas.10 A famous Hakka in the Chinese medicine business was the late Aw Boon Haw, an eminent philanthropist and community leader who was also known as the “Tiger Balm King”, after the brand of Chinese medicated balm that he founded together with his brother Aw Boon Par.11

Another trade in which the Hakkas dominated was pawn broking. A Hakka by the name of Lan Qiushan (蓝秋山) is considered a pioneer in the local pawn broking industry. In 1872, Lan set up a pawn broking business with his friend at Silat Road. The Hakkas continued to dominate the industry in the 20th century, mainly because of the preference towards Hakkas when existing operators chose their business partners and employees, and the fact that their network consisted primarily of the Hakkas.12

Hakka women are noted for their resilience and independent nature.13 In the early days, many Hakka women worked in construction sites and wore head gear similar to those of the samsui women. However, unlike the samsui women who wore red head gear, the Hakka women wore head gear in blue or grey colours or with floral patterns.14

Temples and associations
The Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple, built by the first Hakka immigrants for the deity Tua Pek Kong, is believed to have existed since the founding of Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819.15 This makes it possibly the oldest Taoist temple here. Better known as the Wang Hai Da Bo Gong Miao (望海大伯公庙), it is located at the foot of the former Mount Palmer off Shenton Way.16 Another early temple built by the Hakkas was the Fuk Tak Chi Temple (福德祠) at Telok Ayer Street. This was established together with the Cantonese community in the early 1820s and was also dedicated to Tua Pek Kong.17 It has since been converted into a museum.18

One of the oldest Hakka clan associations in Singapore is Ying Fo Fui Kun (应和会馆), established in 1822.19 Ying Fo Fui Kun began as a temple serving the needs of Hakka immigrants, but its founder Liu Runde (刘润德) had envisaged it as a public institution that would not only provide welfare services – the conventional role of a clan association – but also act as a kinship bridge between Hakka communities in Singapore and China.20

Ying Fo Fui Kun looked after the welfare of its members, including making funeral arrangements for deceased members.21 In 1905, it opened the Yin Sin School, which was then considered a modern Chinese school, to provide education for the children.22 The clan house has undergone major renovations several times, but has remained at its original site in Telok Ayer. It was restored extensively from 1997 to 1998 and gazetted as a national monument in 1998.23 The house features inscriptions and carvings from the 19th century; the oldest artefact which can be dated is an 1841 inscribed couplet.24 In 2010, it was reported that the building was affected by the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit’s Downtown Line, and cracks on the building were visible.25 The building was closed in 2013 for repair works and scheduled to re-open as a free public gallery in 2016.26

Hakka dishes traditionally reflect the lifestyle of the ancestors. Being migrants, they were constantly on the move, so they used salt to preserve their food, hence salt features strongly in Hakka dishes.27 An example of such a dish is salt-baked chicken.28 Rice wine is another common ingredient in Hakka food. Rice wine was a popular beverage of the community in ancient days as it helped them fight the cold of the north. Hakka cuisine also features many meat dishes. This reflects the farming background of many Hakkas, who ate a lot of meat to provide nourishment and bolster their strength for the back-breaking farm work.29

Certain dishes are specific to the province that the Hakka immigrants came from. For example, suan pan zi (算盘子) or “abacus seeds” – a dish consisting of flattened pieces of yam fried with tiny pieces of shrimp, mushrooms, bean curd strips and minced pork – originated from Dapu in southeast China.30 This and other traditional Hakka dishes would often be served at the Chinese New Year reunion dinner.31

The dish yong tau fu (酿豆腐), in particular, is a staple reunion dinner dish. This is because the ancestors of the Hakkas came from north China, where dumplings were often served during Chinese New Year. Upon migrating to south China where wheat was not grown, they could not produce flour to make dumplings. Thus, they made yong tau fu as a replacement.32


Jeanne Louise Conceicao

1. “Singapore Census of Population 2010 Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion,” Department of Statistics, accessed 14 June 2016.
2. Huang Xianqiang 黄贤强, ed., “Preface,” in Xinjiapo ke jia 新加坡客家 [Singapore Hakka] (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 1. (Call no. Chinese RSING 305.895105957 XJP)
3. Tommy Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Heritage Board, 2006), 227, 295. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 341, 350, 355. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
5. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 227.
6. Lam Pin Foo, “Hakkas: China’s Migratory People,” Straits Times, 4 February 1996, 8–9. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Thomas T.W. Tan, ed., “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 12. (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI)
8. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 13.
9. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 13.
10. G. L. Ooi, “Cantonese and Hakkas in Medicine Wholesale and Retail Business,” in Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades, ed. Thomas T.W. Tan (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 51. (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI)
11. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 13; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
12. Zhang Hanbi 张翰璧, “新加坡当铺与客家族群,” [Pawnbroking trade and Hakka community in Singapore] in Xīnjiāpō kèjiā 新加坡客家 [Hakka in Singapore], ed. Huang Xianqiang 黄贤强 (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 100, 108. (Call no. Chinese RSING 305.895105957 XJP)
13. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 14.
14. Mo Meiyan 莫美颜, Kèjiā fùnǚ néng dǐng bànbiāntiān客家妇女能顶半边天,” [Capable Hakka women], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 1 April 2002, 32; Mo Meiyan 莫美颜, Kèjiā gōngdì nǚgōng bù dài hóng tóujīn 客家工地女工不戴红头巾》[Hakka women working at the construction sites do not wear red headgear], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 1 April 2002, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Gao Changhua 高昌华, Dān róng bā gé kè shǔ bā yì fú dé cí  “丹戎巴葛客属八邑福德祠,” [Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple] in Bǎinián gōngdé bèi nán bāng: Wànghǎi dà bógōng miào jìsh ì百年公德被南邦:望海大伯公庙纪事 [The living heritage: Stories of Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple], ed. Chen Bosheng 陈波生主 (Singapore: Singapore Chayang (Tai Po) Hall, 2006), 10 (Call no. Chinese RSING 299.5145095957 LIV); Leong Weng Kam, “Group Seeks to Preserve 187-Year-Old Taoist Temple,” Straits Times, 27 July 2006, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Leong, “Group Seeks to Preserve 187-Year-Old Taoist Temple.”
17. G. Uma Devi, Singapore’s 100 Historic Places (Singapore: Archipelago Press; National Heritage Board, 2002), 72. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
18. “From Grungy to Glorious,” Straits Times, 8 July 1999, 40. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Wu Longyun, Hong Yanyan and Pan Huizhu 吴龙云, 洪燕燕, 潘慧珠,Xīnjiāpō kèjiā huìguǎn (shàng piān): Yìng hè huìguǎn, huìzhōu huìguǎn, guǎngxī jì gāozhōu huìguǎn “新加坡客家会馆(上篇): 应和会馆、惠州会馆、广西暨高州会馆,” [Singapore Hakka Assembly Hall (Part 1): Yinghe Assembly Hall, Huizhou Assembly Hall, Guangxi and Gaozhou Assembly Hall] in Xīnjiāpō kèjiā 新加坡客家 [Hakka in Singapore], ed. Huang Xianqiang 黄贤强 (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 31. (Call no. Chinese RSING 305.895105957 XJP)
20. Huang Furong 黄富荣, Xīnjiāpō yìng hè huìguǎn shǐ lüè “新加坡应和会馆史略,” [Brief history of Ying Fo Fui Kun] in Xinjiapo ke jia 星洲应和会馆一百四十一周年纪念特刊 [140th anniversary of Singapore Ying Fo Fui Kun souvenir magazine] (Singapore: Publisher unknown, 1965), 10. (Call no. Chinese RSING q369.25957 YIN)  
21. Xin jia po ying he hui guan yi bai liu shi wu zhou nian ji nian te kan, 1822–1987 新加坡应和会馆一百六十五周年纪念特刊, 1822–1987 [Singapore Ying Fo Fui Kun 165th anniversary commemorative souvenir publication, 1822–1987] (Singapore: Ying He Club, 1989), 25. (Call no. Chinese RSING 369.25957 SIN)
22. Ou Rubai 区如柏, Xīnjiāpō zuìzǎo de xuétáng – yīng xīn xuéxiào “新加坡最早的学堂 – 应新学校,” [Ying Sin School, the first modern Chinese school in Singapore] in Cheng qian qi hou, wen gu zhi xin: Ying he hui guan 181 zhou nian hui qing ji da xia chong jian luo cheng ji nian te kan 承前启后,温故知新:应和会馆181周年会庆暨大厦重建落成纪念特刊 [181st anniversary and inauguration of Riverdale Residence 1822–2003] (Singapore: Publisher unknown, 2003), 96. (Call no. Chinese RSING 369.25957 YFF)
23. Gao Huachang 高华昌, Yìng hè huìguǎn shǐ lüè “应和会馆史略,” [Brief history of Ying Fo Fui Kun] in Cheng qian qi hou, wen gu zhi xin: Ying he hui guan 181 zhou nian hui qing ji da xia chong jian luo cheng ji nian te kan 承前启后,温故知新:应和会馆181周年会庆暨大厦重建落成纪念特刊 [181st anniversary and inauguration of Riverdale Residence 1822–2003] (Singapore: Publisher unknown, 2003), 33. (Call no. Chinese RSING 369.25957 YFF); Bā jiànzhú liè wèi shòu bǎocún gǔjī八建筑列为受保存古迹,” [Eight buildings gazetted as national monument], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 19 December 1998, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Gao Huachang, Yìng hè huìguǎn shǐ lüè, 34.
25. Elgin Toh, “MRT Works Cause Cracks in 188-Year-Old Clan Building,” Straits Times, 24 December 2010, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Melody Zaccheus, “Hakka Clan Place to Reopen as Free Gallery,” Straits Times, 2 November 2015, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Alessa Pang, “Learning Tradition Through Food,” Straits Times, 24 January 2009, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Huang Xianqiang, Feng Mimi and Guo Meiyu 黄贤强, 冯咪咪, 郭美妗 Xīnjiāpō kèjiā shāngē hé kèjiā cài “新加坡客家山歌和客家菜,” [Hakka folk songs and dishes in Singapore] in Xīnjiāpō kèjiā 新加坡客家 [Hakka in Singapore], ed. Huang Xianqiang 黄贤强 (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2007), 229. (Call no. Chinese RSING 305.895105957 XJP)
29. Pang, “Learning Tradition Through Food.”
30. Pang, “Learning Tradition Through Food.”
31. Mo Meiyan 莫美颜, Yīyàng de xiāngqíng bù yīyàng de niáncài  “一样的乡情 不一样的年菜,” [Different dishes to fulfil similar affection towards ancestry place], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报 , 27 January 2007, 57. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Qiuchi 湫池, Chúxì yè tuányuán yè 除夕夜团员夜 [Reunion on the eve of Chinese New Year], Lianhe Wanbao 联合晚报 , 21 January 2000, 49. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at June 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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