Cantonese community

Singapore Infopedia


The Cantonese originated from the Guangdong  province of China.1 According to the 2010 population census, they form about 15 percent of the Chinese population in Singapore, making them the third-largest Chinese subgroup in the country.2

At the time of the founding of Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819, Singapore had a population of only 150, with around 30 Chinese. The colony grew quickly and by 1840, the Chinese were the largest group, numbering about three-quarters of the population. At least five subgroups were identified, one of them being the Cantonese.3

The Cantonese community in Singapore came from the vicinity of Guangdong province, particularly south-west Guangdong near the Pearl River Delta. Sometimes the Cantonese are called Macaos, in reference to their overseas travels from the port of Macao before the opening of Hong Kong in 1842. The first recorded instance of the arrival of a junk to Singapore was in 1821.4

The Cantonese are hardworking, enterprising and vocal people. They can be found in various trades but most worked as artisans, craftsmen and miners. Some of the most skilled carpenters, mechanics, goldsmiths, carvers and paperwork craftsmen in Singapore are Cantonese.5 Many medicine wholesalers and retailers are also Cantonese. A famous example is Eu Yan Sang, a traditional Chinese medicine company established in 1879 by Eu Kong, who hailed from Foshan in Guangdong.6 Today, the company has more than 270 outlets in Singapore, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Macau and Australia.7

Unlike the females of the Hokkien and Teochew communities, Cantonese women could work outside their homes and did not normally practise foot-binding. The samsui women in  their trademark red headgear, for example, are best remembered for their work as earth-carriers and labourers in Singapore's construction industry in the 1950s and ’60s.8 They came mainly from the Sanshui (“Sanshui” in Cantonese means “three waters”) county of Guangdong.9

Temples and associations
The first traditional Chinese association, Ts'ao Clan House, was founded in 1819 by a Cantonese named Ts'ao Ah Chih, alias Chow Ah Chi or Cho Ah Chee. He was believed to be either a cook or carpenter on board the Indiana, which took Raffles from Penang to Singapore in January 1819. Ts’ao established the Ning Yeung Wui Kun, a Canton locality-based association in 1822.10

In 1824, the Cantonese and Hakka communities built the Fuk Tak Chi Temple on Telok Ayer Street.11 Apart from serving a religious function, it was also the headquarters for the Cantonese and Hakka communities. The temple closed in July 1994 and was converted into Singapore’s first street museum in 1998. It is now known as the Fu Tak Chi Museum housing some 200 artefacts contributed by residents of Chinatown.12


The Cantonese, like other Chinese dialect groups in Singapore, practise various Chinese customs, rituals and beliefs. For example, during Chinese New Year, it is a Cantonese tradition to give Mandarin oranges to friends and relatives. In the Cantonese dialect, Mandarin oranges are called “kam”, which has the same pronunciation as gold.13 It is believed that the Cantonese brought yusheng, a dish of raw fish mixed with various seasonings and raw vegetables, to Singapore. The mixing and tossing of the ingredients with chopsticks is called lo hei, which means “toss up good fortune” in Cantonese. Yusheng is usually eaten during Chinese New Year, and the lo hei ritual is now practised by other Chinese dialect groups in Singapore.14 The Cantonese are also believed to have introduced  the custom of the prenuptial hair-combing ceremony to Singapore.15 The ritual is still being practised by some couples today. It is traditionally held after 11 pm on the eve of the wedding during which the bride and groom’s hair are combed by their parents at their respective homes. The father recites the blessing while the mother combs the hair three times.16


Jeanne Louise Conceicao

1. Thomas Tsu-Wee Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 11. (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI)
2. Department of Statistics Singapore, Census of Population 2010. Statistical Release 1, Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion (Singapore: Dept. of Statistics, Ministry of Trade and Industry, 2011), 27. (Call no. RSING 304.6021095957 CEN)
3. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 341, 350, 356. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
4. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 11–12.
5. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 12.
6. G. L. Ooi, “Cantonese and Hakkas in Medicine Wholesale and Retail Business,” in Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades, ed. Thomas Tsu-Wee Tan (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 51, 62 (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI); Teo Kuan Yee, “Chinese Medicine Man's Long, Long Story,” New Paper, 10 July 2000, 4; Uma Shankari, “Eu Yan Sang on Mission Possible,” Business Times, 4 July 2005, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Retail & Distribution,” Eu Yan Sang, accessed 23 September 2016.
8. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 12.
9. Koh Siew Tin, “Renewed Interest in the Pioneers of Building Industry,” Straits Times, 5 May 1986, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 12; Ray Tyers, “Our Heritage,” New Nation, 20 April 1973, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Lin Wendan and Feng Qinglian 林文丹 and 冯清莲, eds., Xinjiapo zong xiang hui guan shi lue 新加坡宗乡会馆史略 [History of Clan Associations in Singapore], vol. 1 (Singapore: Singapore Clan Association Federation, 2005), 223. (Call no. Chinese RSING q369.25957 HIS)
12. “Historic Fuk Tak Chi Temple to Close,” Straits Times, 6 July 1994, 21; Clarissa Oon, “No More Termites, Step In,” Straits Times, 19 November 1998, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Feast,” Straits Times. 9 February 2009, 87; Lee Lye Ying, “Symbols of Luck,” Straits Times, 19 January 1992, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 7; “The Origins of Yu Sheng,” New Paper, 9 February 1989, 21; Say Kim Choo, “Toss Up a Prosperous New Year!,” New Paper, 24 January 1993, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Tan, Chinese Dialect Groups, 6.
16. Janice Tai, “Retro Nuptials,” Straits Times, 27 July 2008, 47; “The Practices,” Straits Times, 27 July 2008, 47. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 23 September 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.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.