Editor’s Note The book A General History of the Chinese in Singapore (GHCS), edited by Kua Bak Lim, a renowned local historian, was published by the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) in 2015. This 824-page treatise, written in Chinese, attempts to document over 700 years of the history of the Chinese in Singapore from the early years till 2015. This book serves to commemorate both the 30th Anniversary of SFCCA as well as the SG50. After its publication, the Fujian People’s Publishing House republishes the book in China. However, due to overwhelming response, in 2019, Prof Kwa Chong Guan and Kua Bak Lim jointly published the English edition of the book to coincide with the Singapore Bicentennial. There is essentially no vast difference between the Chinese and English editions, except that the English edition attempted to present the different viewpoints in understanding of the history of the Singapore Chinese to a broader audience. Both editions of the GHCS therefore complement each other and need to be read together in order to obtain a fuller and broader perspective of the history of the Chinese in Singapore.
Sometime in March 2016 I received an invitation from Kua Bak Lim and Lim How Seng to lunch. They wanted to discuss an English language edition of A General History of the Chinese in Singapore (GHCS) which Kua was the Editor in Chief for, and Lim one of the Deputy Editors. Lim was a colleague at the Oral History Centre some twenty years ago, while I knew Kua as an eminent historian of the Chinese community. In 2014 he invited me to contribute to a history of the Kuah clan he was compiling for the Nanyang Kuah Si Association.
I accept this Invitation to lunch from Kua and Lim with some hesitation. What could I contribute to an English translation of a massive 800-page encyclopaedic survey of the history of the Chinese in Singapore? The Chinese edition of GHCS, I understood, was to help its readers understand their historical development as a community. The underlying intent was to show the historical development of a distinct Chinese community in Singapore, and their contributions to the economic, social and political development of Singapore. But as Kua and Lim explained over lunch, they were not seeking my ideas or advice for a translation of the Chinese edition of the book they had edited. They realized that a literal translation of the book they had edited may not appeal to a broader audience.
Kua and Lim hoped that I would join them to co-edit an English edition of GHCS which would relate that history of the Chinese community they had edited to other non-Chinese reading audiences. It was with some anxiety that I accept Kua’s and Lim’s invitation to join them in editing a new English edition of GHCS which will attempt to present different ways and points of view of understanding the history of the Chinese in Singapore to a broader audience. The Chinese and English editions of GHCS therefore complement each other and need to be read together for a deeper understanding of the history of the Chinese in Singapore.
I am honoured to have helped Kua and Lim connect the historical development they had edited of the Chinese in Singapore to other developments in the region. New articles commission for this English edition focus on how the development of the Chinese community was shaped by British colonialism, leading to the creation of a new hybrid community of Straits Chinese or peranakans.There are four articles specifically on the Straits-born Chinese who are not discussed in the Chinese edition of GHCS. Other new articles discuss in greater detail the beginnings of the Chinese community in 19th century Singapore and their extensive trade, business and social connections between the Chinese communities in Singapore and other communities in the region and to the southern Chinese homeland of most of the Chinese communities in the Southeast Asia.
We commissioned new articles to reconstruct a more diverse history of the Chinese community on Singapore. For example, in the Chinese edition there was little said about the left-wing political activism of the Chinese community in the 1950’s. In this English edition we have commissioned a new article on Lim Chin Siong and left-wing activism in the fight for nationhood by Kevin Tan. The issue of education has been given more attention with articles by Huang Jianli and Lim Guan Hock.
The major contribution of this new English edition is that it tries to show that the Chinese did not arrive with Raffles or at the invitation of the first Resident, William Farquhar. Instead, the arrival of the Chinese in Singapore predates Raffles and its development into a community was shaped by deep and extensive connections to other Chinese communities in the region. It was these trading networks which the Hokkien and Teochew merchants brought to Singapore that contributed to Singapore’s historical development.
The new contributions to this English edition tries to show that the historical development of the Chinese as a community in Singapore was not only in response to British colonialism, but also to wider economic, social and political changes in the region. In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries these changes lead to the development of a Chinese community in Singapore that was networked with other Chinese communities in the region and China, while developing its own special characteristics and identity. After 1949 the historical development of the Chinese community in Singapore diverged even more from other Chinese communities in the region and especially China. The different Chinese communities in the region had to seek their own places in the new nation states of the region and the rethink the status of their traditional kinship, community and trading ties to China rapidly modernizing as a Marxist-Leninist state.
GHCS is a report on a work in progress about how we think about the place of the Chinese community in Singapore’s historical development. GHCS represents the work of twenty-six authors. Ten of the contributors to this volume have the title “Former” head or director of a department attached to their names. Another three have the title “Senior” fellow or advisor or consultant attached to their names. In other words, half of the contributors, including the two chief editors and editor, are Senior Citizens! So, if there is to be a new edition of this book at some time in the future charting how the Chinese community in Singapore have continued to develop, then it has to the other younger half of the contributors to this volume to undertake this task.