Thursday, March 27, 2014

Clan Associations

In the old days, apart from the temples initially being the place for worship, they were also community centres for the Chinese to meet to seek help or employment (kind of employment centre as well). Soon as more people from the same town or village arrived, they started to form clan associations so that they could look out for each other. And then, in each clan, they would worship their ancestral patron Deity. As time went by and the members become well to do, arts began to flourish. Opera (of the dialect of the clan association), music group, Lion and Dragon dance troupe were formed. This gave the members activities where those who had the skills could share with the other members, especially the children as families began to form.

Schools became another necessary facility for the children to go to. Many early Chinese schools were started by the clan associations. Here is one posting on the Ning Yeung School set up by Ning Yeung Wui Kuan 宁阳会馆, probably the earliest clan association in Singapore.

And then, as the people got old there was a need for mutual help. Mutual Aid funds were started to help look after the old, to help the bereaved family in the expense of the funeral when they pass away. Some of the Teochew clans are well known for their "Kong Kuan" (percussion group) that would be performed during festive events, including temple celebrations, as well as for funerals. At that time, they would only perform for members only. In many clan associations, there are also a "Tang" 堂 (hall) where there is an altar where the tablets of members who have passed away are placed. Many clan members in the early days, especially the single coolies and majie, would reserve a tablet in their clan association knowing that they might not make it home (back to China). Sadly, many died without their friends knowing that they had already reserved their own tablets in the clan association. You could see fading red papers still covering these tablets in the Tang.

At the last count, through my walk along the streets of the greater Chinatown (Dai Po in Cantonese, Tua Po in Hokkien/Teochew and Da Po in Mandarin), I have counted some 55 of such clan associations in this area alone. While there are much more all over the older parts of town, that spans from Geylang Road to Jalan Besar and Beach Road (check out this facebook group on clan associations), most of the oldest clan associations were set up in Chinatown.

Because of urban renewal programme in the early days, some of the clan associations have moved. The Cantonese ones moved into the inner part of Chinatown, such as Ang Siang Hill or Keong Saik Rd. Some moved to Geylang which seemed to be the next concentration of clan associations. Some Hokkien clan associations could be found in Telok Ayer St and Amoy St area. For the Teochew clan associations, they are probably found more in Geylang and Upper Serangoon (Hougang), that was known to be where the Teochew live (more of the country side). These are my very general observations that would need deeper studies.

The Chinatown portal provides some information on the clan associations. The URA has also been active in promoting heritage and conducts tours to clan associations during events like Heritage Fest and the coming Chinatown coLAB event (which is an interesting project between CBA - Chinatown Business Association - and STB - Singapore Tourism Board which brings together interested participants to come up with ideas on how to leverage digital technology to record, store and share knowledge, experiences and information on our Chinatown heritage).

While quite a number of clan associations are hoping to get more younger members to join and be active in the activities of the association, there are also a number of the associations which are active with many activities. There are some associations where you can find the old people gathering each day to meet up old friends and chat (how many could speak the beautiful dialects?). There are some with programmes such as opera singing, wushu (martial art) and lion/dragon dance that are bringing in new members of various ages. The younger members are beginning to make their associations known in the cyberspace work, notably in the facebook where most of the youngsters "meet", and probably moving to Instagram as well. Events were uploaded to these sites almost instantly to be shared with friends. Some went viral within minutes.

In the old days, clan associations were there to serve many purposes. Self help within the community from the same place back home was the main objective. In later days when businesses were growing, clan associations provide the linkage to fellow clans around the world. These days, various clan associations in different parts of the world take turns to host international conference of the same clan associations. Singapore has been one favourite place and many of our local clan associations have hosted such events. When you see fellow clansmen (similar with women) meet and greeting each other in their local dialect, you can see and feel the familial warmth! Of course, in conferences, the official language would be Mandarin (the putong hua) and the dialect, as many descendants could not longer speak their "mother tongue".

Today, most of the young who are born in Singapore do not see any need of the clan association, unless they have been brought there when young and appreciate the linkage to the ancestors as well as fellowship with the same clansmen. Hence, there is a challenge for the associations to see renewal in membership and leadership. But it could be seen that there is still hope as some clan associations have shown the way.

Of the buildings conserved in Chinatown, probably, some of the most outstanding ones are those of the clan associations. Sadly, some were demolished before their heritage values could be appreciated.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Haw Par Villa Revisited

Many older folks in Singapore would know Haw Par Villa as Haw Par Bit-su (in Hokkien). To probably the English-speaking world or the tourists, maybe would know it as Tiger Balm Gardens. What an innovative way to introduce one to the garden and to the world famed Tiger Balm. It is a "cure-all" that my grandma and mum would use, from mosquito bites to bed bugs (in the old days, they were our constant companions) to headache and sniffing noses. We would use the white cream (although the red cream is said to be stronger, they stained the clothing) and oil. One could almost never get away from it, be it in a bus or even in a plane when the old folks travel!

Haw Par Villa is a favourite place for us kids in the old days but we got to visit it only during the Chinese New Year holidays. That's the time when our parents would bring us there, probably the cheapest to go because there was no admission fee and all we needed was bus fare. Although I have been to this park for many a times, I could not fully understand all the characters there. Apart from the marketing part of it (which was also great for us to see miniatures of other countries), it was Chinese mythologies and teachings. Grandpa (interestingly, in such a case, grandpa would take over, well, in my case, it would be my father who came from China) would be seen as the authority on the stories of ancient China.

Ancient China has three teachings (I would consider them as teachings, to be closer to the Chinese description of them as san jiao, meaning three teachings, versus religions) that cross-influence society since a long time. As a result, we have the best of all worlds in having a better society. If we were to adopt, that is. In modern times, much of the teachings have gone down the hill in a rapid and frightening diminishing rate. Haw Par Villa might help to arrest the slide and kick off an interest in our young and not so young about our cultural heritage, which is part of Singapore's cultural heritage.

But I leave the discussions on Haw Par Villa, its colourful history (the park and the original owners) and characters to the forum at this facebook group known as Friends of Haw Par Villa.

The Chinatown Connection
In the greater part of Chinatown, you can say that it is just at the outskirt of Cantonese speaking Chinatown, at the corner of Craig Road and Neil Road is an iconic building. This is the building that has seen many different tenants in succession over the years. The residents of Craig Road, which was where I enjoyed my childhood, called this building simply as Eng Aun Tong or Aw Boon Haw (after the person who ran this business with his brother, Aw Boon Par - more stories about them can be found in Haw Par Villa facebook page or in a recently published book on Aw Boon Har (in Chinese) by the Char Yong Association.

The Aw Family stories span from China to Burman (Myanmar) to Malaya and Singapore, and HongKong (which used to have a Tiger Balm Garden as well, but I understand that it is no longer there). More information can be found on Aw Boon Haw from the National Library.

Back to this iconic building. In the 50s, when I was still a kid, running up the length of Craig Rd, oblivious to the existence of any secret societies or gangsters, I used to go to the Aw Boon Haw building, especially in the evening. In front of the main office, which would have been closed, would be placed a charpoy (a rope weaved bed on strong wooden frame) where the Indian Jagas would be sleeping or rather lying down and ensuring that no one tried to break in. As kids, we could sit and lie on the charpoy much to the amusement of the jagas.

I remember one of our neighbours (we were just a tenant family in this house along Craig Rd which had many tenants with a rather strict Bibik - Peranakan lady) was working in the Aw Boon Haw building. I think on the upper floor was a factory or assembly plant. The ladies would be wearing light blue samfoos to work. At 4pm each day, they would end the day and that was when we would see them streaming out of the building.

There seemed to be a warehouse (we were not so curious in those days) on the other side of what used to be the railway track (long before my time) which was then a basketball court and park on which the Chin Woo pugilistic association would have their martial arts (including Taiji) and lion dance training. At that time, it seems like Chin Woo was the only association with the northern lions. Oh yes, the warehouse was the place where the jaga would live during the day. Where the warehouse was, today it is part of the huge Pinnacle flats.

When I was much older and could take a bus to Pasir Panjang Road where the Haw Par Villa is, I would sometimes meet the same jagas there.

Diagonally across from the Aw Boon Haw building, on the row of shop houses, is the Eng Teng Association which was supported by Aw Boon Haw. The Aw family came from Eng Teng (Yong Ding) in Fujian province, I wonder if they were a member of this association. You can see the names of Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par inscribed in many stelle in Malaysia and Singapore, as they donated generously to the society. In another Hakka Guild in Singapore, the Nayang Khek Community Guild, you can also find the connection.

Will Singapore remember Aw Boon Haw's legacy? I think the Haw Par Villa and the Eng Aun Tong building probably will be the visual memory, with much information kept in the National Library and the related Hakka associations.