Written by: Vincent Mai


As a society, we are, as it stands, neglecting the inherent value of a diversity of cultures. Some estimate that at around 8000 BC, over 20,000 languages were in use[1]. Today the number stands at 6,909, and half of them expect to be lost by 2100.[2] Linguistic and cultural identities are rich. Diversity, in culture and biology, is a fundamental factor in the dynamism of life. If biological diversity continues to see a reduction, the possibilities of living will decline.

The linguistic, religious, musical identity, as it sculpts the brain, is a form of culturally generated biological diversity.[3] The following analysis will support the preservation of the Yueh Hai Ching Temple in Singapore, a culturally significant site for the “Baba” Straits-Chinese. Their languages today face the danger of extinction.

I was first drawn to this site when searching for critical cultural locations for the Teochew diaspora. As it stands today, many languages including Teochew are in danger of being lost forever due to political campaigns such as the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC)[4], which discourages the use of other languages in Singapore such as Baba Malay, Hokkien, Teochew, and Hakka in favor of Mandarin[5] and English[6]. The rich history of this site is significant in describing the complex relationships between ‘Straits-Chinese’ peoples and much of the East, South-East, and Austro-Asiatic.

Today in Singapore, these endangered linguistic populations represent direct reactions to the government’s attempt to turn the country into a homogenous China-centric hub that favors Mandarin-speaking mainlanders. These initiatives clash directly Singapore’s distinct ethnic and linguistic history and reduce “Chineseness” to a dehistoricized skill set to serve international markets between mainland China, and the West[7].

Additionally, it has often been the norm for political violence against ethnic and religious minorities to preceded with the destruction of cultural sites that indicate a history of peaceful coexistence. From the Armenian genocide of Christian minorities to the more recent Khmer Rouge, the erasure of a shared and diverse history has often been integral to the persecution of resident minority groups deemed invaders. Therefore, it is imperative to preserve these sites that demonstrate shared pasts indicative of both the right waves of peace and historical violence.

Wak Hai Cheng Bio, otherwise known as Yueh Hai Ching Temple, is the oldest Teochew temple in Singapore.[8] Paying tribute to Mazu (The Goddess of the Sea) and Xuantai Shangdi (The Mysterious Emperor of Heaven)[9], the temple served many roles in addition to being a place of worship for the Teochew diaspora. While most consider the fatherland of Teochew people to be in Chaozhou province, the first Teochew settlers in Singapore are composed mainly of Teochew plantation laborers from Indonesia and Siam.

They fled the high taxes that Dutch invaders imposed on Riau[10].
The archives of Teochew oral tradition challenge the notion of “Baba culture” as concrete proof that the spirit of cooperation, tolerance, and compromise dominated the relationship of the early Chinese immigrants and the first Malay residents of Singapore[11]. However, one should note that the Teochew oral account composes a period of growing Chinese nationalism and anti-colonial sentiment.

With this in mind, the report is still a significant historiographic source in understanding the relationship of the Teochew settlement of Singapore. The documentation includes the pre-British Teochew arrangement in Singapore and the names of the founders of Yueh Hai Ching: Heng Kim and Heng Hong Sung.

The oral account also details two waves of Teochew travelers who eventually settled in Singapore. A translation of it reads, “According to the oral traditions, in the beginning, a group of more than ten persons from Hai Ior traveled afar to Singapore, but they were all tragically killed by local Malays. Subsequently, several Teochew sojourners came from Siam. They lived at Sua Kia Deng (that is the present Wak Hai Cheng Bio grounds) and around Boat Quay, which became the base of the Teochew sojourners in Singapore.” [12]

From this establishment, more red-flagged ships (junks) would moor in front of the temple carrying Teochew sojourners from the North to Singapore, significantly increasing their population. [13]

The descendants of these settlers eventually became known as “Babas,” an honorific term that celebrates its diasporic development. In certain respects, and at certain times, Babas are “more Chinese than the Chinese, more Malay than the Malay, and more English than the English,” [14] This may explain how Babas conserved many traditional Hakka, Teochew, and Hokkien customs, religions, and languages that were uncommon among mainlanders or those with more recent ties with China; that Baba men dressed like Englishmen and engaged in English sports; that the Babas published the first newspaper in romanized Malay, and had master poets in dondang Sayang (an art in which singers, accompanied by violins, drums, and gongs, try to outdo one another chanting quatrains around a central theme through a series of impromptu exchanges).[15]

As a result of their long history of diverse influences, the rich cultural past of Babas is often in myth and fairy-story-like distortions (often with vested interests in tourism).
To avoid the danger of an overly abstract, circular discourse around Baba history, we must include an empirically mediated internal relationship of the “object.” While this definitive approach also is a distortion through an assumed and unrealistic “group-uniformity,” a conceptual outline of Baba history provides the opportunity to reflect on how it defines itself and how society defines it.[16]

Therefore, the shortcomings of the approach may be understood and provincialized through Chakrabarty’s concept of a “history 1”, which is perpetually usurped and challenged by more universal and particular “history 2s”.[17]

As a result of China’s legislation prohibiting the emigration of women outside of China until 1850, there was a radical imbalance in sex among Babas; this led to a disproportionate number of Straits-Chinese men intermarrying with Malay women, nominal Muslims, Batak, Bugis, Balinese, Siamese and Orang Asli (indigenous people), and Malaka Chitties.[18] While these intermarriages mark the beginning development of a distinct Baba culture that had begun long before British documentation of their existence in 1819, the name Baba did not come about until the 19th century.[19]

The advent of this distinct identity may explain radically different political, economic, and social conditions faced by Babas and new Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. It was almost exclusively that Singaporean Chinese leaders were Baba due to the elite status granted by the Baba’s widespread plurilingualism, which allowed the utilization of European business modes and local networks/knowledge.[20] This elite Straits-born minority differed significantly with the China-born Chinese immigrants, who mainly constituted the lower class of society.[21]

This community distinguished itself through the adoption and modification of Malay, Chinese (especially Teochew and Hokkien), and European cultural markers. Many Babas were British subjects, had lost touch with China, became the natives of the Malayan states. Some continued to serve as custodians of Chinese culture in a foreign land that they had settled.[22]

For the British, the Baba was an essential part of Singaporean administration due to its role in countering the increasingly influential China-oriented Chinese leadership [23]; this his led to the creation of the Straits Chinese British Association (SCBA), which eventually organized the Chinese Company of the Singapore Volunteer Infantry, which aided the British war effort in World War I.[24] This also led to the Babas being profoundly affected by the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.

Many Babas were singled out for looting by Japanese forces because they made up the majority of the targeted groups: (1) former members of volunteer military forces, (2) the pro-British, thus anti-Japanese local professional/intellectual elite, (3) British subjects with sympathies to the British government, and (4) non-disabled, tough-looking men.[25] Japanese soldiers raped many young Baba women during this time, and Baba men were threatened with execution if the British attacked Singapore.[26]

These events place 1959 as a turning point for Babas. Being Baba or Peranakan went from a privilege to a liability.

Many regard the post-1959 period as the decline of Baba culture.[27] Baba cultural traditions were no longer transmitted. Despite this, many Baba continued to speak their Straits-Chinese language (Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese) and Baba Malay and English. With the 1981 introduction of Mandarin (a word that many Baba regards as “alien”) as the compulsory “mother tongue,” many believe the future of all the Babas’ minority languages (Baba Malay, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese) to be doomed and replaced with Mandarin and English.[28]

This is especially true for the Baba’s Chinese minority languages (Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew) because most Babas of today only picked up their minority language leisure time, or for men, during National Service and only to a useful and marginal degree.[29]
While most Babas have a closer relationship to Baba Malay, their Chinese minority language, and English than to Mandarin, few parents want to want to burden their children with 3rd and 4th languages in an already competitive education system.[30]

There is also a sentiment that a choice between Baba Malay, their Chinese minority language, and Mandarin might be crucial to future generation’s sense of identity in an increasingly Anglicized world.[31] While the symptoms of language death have been apparent since the Second World War, there have been revivals in interests in Baba culture. New versions of Baba theater portraying Baba life in the 1930s done in English have been unexpectedly popular among Babas today.[32]

This renewal of interest is a positive sign for the continuation of Baba culture. While the preservation of a single art form or historical site will not single-handedly save the Baba languages and culture, its continued existence and rival are fundamental pieces in understanding the Baba identity.
[1] Michael Krauss, “The World’s Languages in Crisis,” Language 68.1 (1992)
[2] Michael Krauss, “The World’s Languages in Crisis,” Christopher Moseley (ed.), Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. (2010), Paris, UNESCO Publishing.
[3] Franco Fabbro, Identità Culturale e Violenza. Neuropsicologia delle lingue e delle religioni (Udine: Bollati Boringhieri, 2018.), 3
[4] Peter Tao. “Ideological Dissonances in Singapore’s National Campaign Posters: A Semiotic Deconstruction.” Visual Communication 3, no. 2 (June 2004): 189–212.
[5] Terence Chong, Chinese Opera in Singapore: Negotiating Globalisation, Consumerism, and National Culture. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 34(3), (2003) 461
[6] Guowen Shang & Shouhui Zhao, “Bottom-up Multilingualism in Singapore”: Code Choice on Shop Signs. English Today (2017), 33(3), 12
[7] Jean Michel Montsion, “Chinese Ethnicities in Neoliberal Singapore? State Designs and Dialect(Ical) Struggles of Community Associations.” Ethnic & Racial Studies 37 (9) 2014.: 1486
[9] Yeo Kang Shua, 6
[10] Yeo Kang Shua, 8
[11] Jurgen Rudolph, “Reconstructing Collective Identities: The Babas of Singapore.” Journal of Contemporary Asia, (1998), 28(2), 203
[12] Phua Chye Long, The Teo-chews in Malaya (馬來亞潮僑通鑑), 年 新加坡南島出版社 (1950), 83
[13] Phua Chye Long, 85
[14] Jurgen Rudolph, 203
[15] Jurgen Rudolph, 204
[16] Jurgen Rudolph, 205
[17] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, 2000), 70
[18] Jurgen Rudolph, 206
[19] Jurgen Rudolph, 207
[20] Jurgen Rudolph, 207
[21] Jurgen Rudolph, 207
[22] Jurgen Rudolph, 208
[23] Jurgen Rudolph, 208
[24] C.F. Yong, Chinese leadership and power in colonial Singapore, Singapore: Times Academic Press, (1992), 88
[25] Jurgen Rudolph, 210
[26] Jurgen Rudolph, 211
[27] Jurgen Rudolph, 218
[28] Jurgen Rudolph, 225
[29] Jurgen Rudolph, 225
[30] Jurgen Rudolph, 225
[31] Jurgen Rudolph, 225
[32] Stella Kon, Emily of Emerald Hill, Singapore: Raffles (2000), 3