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.