Hokkien community

Singapore Infopedia


The Hokkiens in Singapore came mainly from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou – two prefectures in China’s Fujian province.1 According to the 2010 Singapore census, Hokkiens form about 40 percent of the Chinese resident population, making them the largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore.2

According to records, the Hokkiens first immigrated to Malacca in the 15th century, and were known to have established trading networks in the region.3 As Singapore grew to become a centre of trade and commerce, many Hokkiens moved from Malacca to Singapore in the 1820s to seize the business opportunities.4 There were also others who left China due to social unrest, poverty and insufficient food, and migrated to Southeast Asia (including Singapore) in search of greener pastures.5 The Hokkiens settled in the areas around Singapore River and Telok Ayer, which was then bordering the coast.6

Trade and commerce
For centuries, the Hokkiens were known for their trade with the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaya and Siam (now called Thailand), and along the entire length of the Chinese coast. Their strong mercantile orientation served them well when they migrated to Singapore. From the early days, the Hokkiens in Singapore were heavily engaged in the spice trade.7 They also traded in coffee, rubber, flour, fodder, Chinese tea, hardware, building materials, textiles, tropical fruit and rice.8

The Hokkiens perpetuated the tradition of the za huo dian or “mixed goods shop” – general provision stores that sold a wide array of goods ranging from household items such as bowls, to canned and dried foods.9

Other than trade, the Hokkien community was also dominant in banking, finance, insurance, shipping and manufacturing, and engaged in the building and construction industry as well.10 Prominent Hokkiens such as Tan Kah Kee, Lee Kong Chian and Tan Lark Sye were involved in several businesses, including pineapple canning, rubber cultivation, banking, shipping and manufacturing.11

Temples and associations
The Thian Hock Keng Chinese temple is one of the oldest temples associated with the Hokkien community in Singapore.12 The predecessor of the temple was a shrine dedicated to Ma Zu, the goddess of the sea, built in 1821 on the temple’s present site.13 In 1839, Tan Tock Seng, a Hokkien entrepreneur and philanthropist, led fund-raising efforts towards the building of the temple. The main building of the present temple was completed in 1840, while the construction for the smaller halls continued until 1842.14 The temple functioned as a religious site and social centre, and was instrumental in establishing the identity of the Hokkien community in Singapore.15 Thian Hock Keng was gazetted as a national monument in 1973, and received an honourable mention in the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards in 2001 for its successful restoration.16

During the re-organisation of the Thian Hock Keng committee from the 1910s to 1930s, the social arm of the temple became the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (SHHK). The association was formally registered as a non-profit organisation in 1937,17 with education as its focus. The educational endeavours of the SHHK included Tao Nan School, Ai Tong School, Chong Hock Girls’ School (now called Chongfu Primary School), Nan Chiau High School, Nan Chiau Primary School and Kong Hwa School.18 In 1955, the association donated a plot of land for the building of the Nanyang University campus.19 Today, SHHK continues to promote education, social welfare and the preservation of Chinese culture.20

During the Chinese New Year (CNY) period, the Hokkiens, like the other dialect groups, observe a host of rituals filled with symbolism, such as the giving and receiving of hongbao (red packets containing money) and the presentation of pairs of oranges for luck.21 The Hokkiens also consider certain fruits auspicious. For example, they are fond of pineapple which sounds similar to “prosperity to come” (旺来) in the Hokkien dialect.22 The pineapple is often incorporated into CNY snacks or decorations.23

Another CNY tradition practised by Hokkiens is the offering of thanks to the Jade Emperor during a Taoist festival known as Tian Gong Dan, or “Birthday Celebrations for the Heavenly Jade Emperor”. Taoists believe that the Jade Emperor is the ruler of heaven.24 Among the many gifts offered during this festival, the sugarcane is essential. According to a legend, the Hokkiens in Fujian were saved from a band of Japanese pirates by hiding in a sugarcane plantation until the pirates left on the night of the eighth day of the CNY. After the Hokkiens emerged from their hiding places on the ninth day, which happened to be the birthday of the Jade Emperor, they offered him sugarcane to thank him for saving them.25 In the Hokkien dialect, sugarcane is called gam jia and this sounds like gam sia, which means “thank you”.26


Jeanne Louise Conceicao

1. Thomas Tsu-WeeTan, ed., “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 9. (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). (Call no. RSING 304.6021095957 CEN)
3. Guardian of the South Seas: Thian Hock Keng and Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, 2006), 9 (Call no. RSING 369.25957 GUA); Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 8.
4. Guardian of the South Seas, 9–10.
5. Guardian of the South Seas, 13–15; C. Chou and P. Y. Lim, “Hokkiens in the Provision Shop Business,” in Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades, ed. Thomas Tsu-Wee Tan (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 21. (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI)
6. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 9.
7. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 9, 10.
8. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 10; Chou and Lim, “Hokkiens in the Provision Shop Business,” 23.
9. Chou and Lim, “Hokkiens in the Provision Shop Business,” 23–25.
10. Chou and Lim, “Hokkiens in the Provision Shop Business,” 23.
11. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 9.
12. Du, Nanfa 杜南发., ed., Nan hai ming zhu: Tian fu gong 南海明珠: 天福宫 [Brilliant pearl of the southern seas: Thian Hock Keng] (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, 2010), 16–17. (Call no. Chinese RSING 203.5095957 NHM)
13. Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board: Landmark Books, 2002), 12. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
14. Du, Nanfa, Nan hai ming zhu: Tian fu gong, 21.
15. Guardian of the South Seas, 144.
16. Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore and Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Thian Hock Keng Temple Preservation Guidelines, vol. 1 (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1991), 4. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 THI); “Temple Bags Unesco Award,” Straits Times, 20 September 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Lin Jingshun 林景顺, Fújiàn huìguǎn huì shǐ “福建会馆会史,” [History of Hokkien Huay Kuan] in Xīnjiāpō fújiàn huìguǎn jiǎnjiè 新加坡福建会馆简介 [An introduction to the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan], ed. Wu Shi 吴适(Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, 1994), 2–3 (Call no. Chinese RSING 369.25957 XJP); Guardian of the South Seas, 168.
18. Liang, Bingfu 梁秉赋, ed., Ruan de xue tang: Xinjiapo Fujian ren chuang ban de xue xiao阮的学堂: 新加坡福建人创办的学校 [My school: Schools founded by Hokkiens in Singapore] (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, 2010), 16, 18, 22, 72, 79. (Call no. Chinese RSING 373.5957 LBF)
19. Guardian of the South Seas, 92.
20. Mo Meiyan 莫美颜, Fújiàn huìguǎn lìshǐ yǒu xīnjiāpō chéngzhǎng yìnjì福建会馆历史有新加坡成长印记,” [The history of Hokkien Huay Kuan reflects that of Singapore], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 24 November 2012, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Wong Kim Hoe, “Do You Know Your Foodie Roots? “ Straits Times, 29 January 1989, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall 新加坡福建会馆, Ruan zhe shi ren: Xinjiapo Fujian ren de xi su阮这世人–这新加坡福建人的习俗 [My life: The customs of the Hokkiens in Singapore] (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, 2009), 83. (Call no. Chinese RSING 390.095957 RZS-[CUS])
22. Huánglíyīn tóng ‘wàng lái’: Guórén xīnnián chī diào 300 wàn gè huáng lí bǐng黄梨音同‘旺来’: 国人新年吃掉300万个黄梨饼,” [‘Pineapple’ sounds similar to ‘prosperity to come’: Singaporeans consume 3 million pineapple tarts during Chinese New Year], Lianhe Wanbao 联合晚报 , 9 January 2001, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “黄梨音同‘旺来’”; Raelene Tan, “Traditions to Chew On,” Straits Times, 14 January 2001, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Yen Feng, “Sweet Tidings for a New Year,” Straits Times, 3 February 2009, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, Ruan zhe shi ren: Xinjiapo Fujian ren de xi su, 87.
26. Feng, “Sweet Tidings for a New Year.”

Further resources
C. Yen, “Hokkien Immigrant Society and Modern Chinese Education in British Malaya, 1904 to 1941,” in Chinese Migrants Abroad: Cultural, Educational and Social Dimensions of the Chinese Diaspora, ed. Michael W. Charney, Brenda S.A. Yeoh and Tong Chee Kiong (Singapore: Singapore University Press; World Scientific Publishing, 2003) (Call no. RSING 304.80951 CHI)

Ke Mulin 柯木林, ed., Shi jie Fujian ming ren lu. Xinjiapo pian世界福建名人录·新加坡篇 [Prominent Hokkiens in the world: Singapore edition] (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, 2012). (Call no. Chinese RSING 920.05957 PRO)

Tou lu: Xinjiapo Fujian ren de hang ye  头路 – 新加坡福建人的行业 [Occupation: The trades of the Hokkiens in Singapore] (Singapore: Singapore Hokkien Assembly Hall, 2008). (Call no. Chinese RSING 338.04095957 TL)

The information in this article is valid as at 2 July 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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