Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)

Chinese Singaporeans

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Chinese Singaporeans

Chinese Singaporeans or Singaporean Chinese (Chinese: 新加坡华人, 新加坡華人, Xīnjiāpō Huárén,) are people of full or partial Chinese – particularly Han Chinese – ancestry who hold Singaporean nationality. As of 2015, Chinese Singaporeans constitute 76.2% of the country's citizens,  – approximately three out of four Singaporeans – making them the largest ethnic group in Singapore. Outside Greater China, Singapore is the only country in the world where ethnic Chinese constitute a majority of the population and are well represented in all levels of Singaporean society, politically and economically. It is the home of the fifth largest community of Overseas Chinese, behind the Chinese communities in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the United States.


In the Chinese language, Chinese Singaporeans clearly distinguish themselves as full Chinese (s 华人, t 華人, p Huárén) rather than overseas Chinese (s 华裔, t 華裔, pin. Huáyì; s 华侨, t 華僑, pin. Huáqiáo).


The Singapore Department of Statistics defines "Chinese" as a "race" or "ethnic group" and "Chinese in Singapore" as referring to "persons of Chinese origin such as the Hoklo, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, Hainanese, Hockchias, Foochows, Henghuas, Shanghainese etc."

Ancestral home

In general, the Chinese in Singapore are grouped according to their respective ancestral home in China or dialect group. Most of the Chinese in Singapore came from the southeastern coast of China in the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan. The Hoklo, Teochew, and Cantonese together form more than three-quarters of the Chinese population. The Hakka, Hainanese, and other groups account for most of the remainder. These are generally the descendants of the free and indentured immigrants from southern China during the 19th and early half of the 20th century and are typically known as "'native' Singaporean Chinese" s 新加坡本地华人, t 新加坡本地華人, p Xīnjiāpōběndì Huárén). The 1990s and early 21st century saw Singapore experience a third wave of migration from different parts of China.


The Hokkien (福建人) constitute around two-fifths of the Chinese Singaporean population. They are the largest linguistic group in Singapore. They come from the Minnan or Hoklo people who originated in the southern parts of the Fujian province, including Xiamen, Quanzhou, and Zhangzhou.

They speak Singaporean Hokkien, the standard of which is based on the Amoy dialect of Xiamen, which is 50.4% comprehensible with Teochew although less so with Hainanese. Hokkien Chinese was a lingua franca among coastal Chinese and was also used by other ethnic groups such as the Malays and Indians to communicate with Chinese before Mandarin came to dominance during the 1980s and 1990s.

Just as in Taiwan, Hoklo people, speakers of Hokkien, refers not to people originating from all parts of Fujian. "Hokkien" refers only to the Minnan (Southern Min) region of southern coastal Fujian. Singaporean Hokkien does not include northern Fujianese such as those arriving from Fuzhou, Putian, and so on. Early Hokkien migrants settled around Amoy Street and Telok Ayer Street, forming enclaves around the Thian Hock Kheng Temple. They subsequently set up clan headquarters (Hokkien Huey Kuan) there and later expanded to Hokkien Street and the vicinity of China Street. The Hokkien were the most active in early trading that centred along the Singapore River.

As early settlers came from the southern coast of China, they were active in sea trade and worshipped one of the patron-deities of Taoist pantheon, the Heavenly Mother Ma Zhu, a protectress of sailors. In Singapore, her idol was at the Thian Hock Kheng Temple, which was thus also known as the Ma Zhor Kheng. Other popular deities are the Nine Emperor Gods and the Jade Emperor, who is celebrated on his birthday on the 9th day of Chinese New Year.

A traditional Taoist practice by a spiritual medium (乩童, p jītóng, Hokkien tangki,闽南语正字:童乩) is also popular. The tangki goes into a trance and purportedly channels a chosen deity for the petitioner. The deity then provides a wide range of help ranging from religious rituals to answering queries to providing protective talismans.


The Teochew in Singapore constitute about a fifth of the Chinese population in Singapore, making them the second largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore. They originated from Chaoshan region in eastern Guangdong, in cities like Chaozhou, Shantou, and Jieyang. Many trace their origins from different Northern cities, but were settled there to maintain as county authorities within the south of China.

Despite similarities, the Teochews and Hokkiens consider themselves distinct and did not get along during their early settlement in Singapore, especially during the British colonial era. The Teochew were dominant for a period of time during the 19th century. Mass immigration from Fujian changed this, although the majority of the Chinese along the banks of the Straits of Johor were Teochew until the HDB initiated redevelopment in the 1980s. The Straits Times reports that Hougang still has a relatively high concentration of Teochew residents.

Most Teochew settled along the Singapore River in Chinatown during the 19th and early 20th century. Teochew who settled in Chinatown worked in many commercial sectors as well as the fisheries. Commercial sectors once dominated by Teochews include Circular Road and South Bridge Road. Other Teochew businessmen set up gambier and pepper plantations in the dense forests of north Singapore and Johor Bahru. The Chinese first started their plantations with the approval of the Sultan of Johor and then developed the kangchu (江厝, p jiāngcuò, lit. "river house") system. Chu was the clan name of the first headman of the plantations in the area. These kangchus gave rise to modern place names such as Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang and Yio Chu Kang, all of which were plantation areas prior to urban redevelopment.

Early Chinese immigrants clustered themselves to form clan and language associations. These clan associations (kongsi) served as unions for the mostly illiterate Chinese labourers and represented them when dealing with their colonial administrators or employers. One of the more prominent associations for the Teochew was the Ngee Ann Kongsi, formed in 1845 and still in operation.


The Cantonese make up 15% of the Chinese Singaporean population. They originated from Hong Kong and the southern region of Guangdong province in China, including Guangzhou, Zhaoqing, Shunde, Taishan, and Heshan.

The Cantonese speak several dialects belonging to the Yue family. Yue Hai is considered the prestige dialect from its occurrence in Guangzhou. Other variants include Luoguang, Siyi and Gouyeung. The Gwainaam is spoken by immigrants from Guangxi and shares close affinity with Pinghua.

The Cantonese worked mainly as professionals and tradesmen during the early and mid 20th centuries, and their businesses dominated the shop houses along Temple Street, Pagoda Street, and Mosque Street. Cantonese women from the Samsui district worked at construction sites and contributed greatly toward Singapore's development. These Samsui women left their families behind in China and came to Singapore to work at construction sites for a living during the early 20th century. Cantonese women from the Siyi district of Jiangmen wore black headgear similar to the Samsui women and mainly worked at Keppel Harbour and the shipyards at the old harbour along the Singapore River. Many Cantonese women also worked as majie in rich people's households. More Cantonese immigrated from Hong Kong in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

As of 2010, Singaporeans recognise Chinatown for having a large number of Cantonese people.


The Hakka constitute 11.4%. They originated mainly from the northeastern part of Guangdong, from such areas as Mei and Dapu.

There are more than 200,000 Hakkas here and they are the fourth-largest dialect group after the Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese. The Hakkas are known for running pawnshops, traditional Chinese medicine shops and optical shops.

Many Hakka women who came to Singapore during the early 20th century worked in construction sites and wore headgear similar to the Samsui women. However, unlike the Samsui, the Hakka women wore black headgear.

Ying Fo Fui Kun (应和会馆), a Hakka clan association, is the oldest clan association in Singapore. Its clan house is located at Telok Ayer Street in the Outram Planning Area, within the Central Area, Singapore's central business district.

In 2015 a Hakka tulou (土樓) replica was built. The replica in Singapore was built by the Fong Yun Thai Association, an umbrella body for three Hakka clans - Char Yong (Dabu) Association, Eng Teng Association and Foong Shoon Fui Kuan. This is the only tulou replica outside of proper China till date.

Other Min

This group constitutes about 5% of the Chinese Singaporean population. Of them, the majority are from Hainan and speak Hainanese. The Hainanese in Singapore originated mainly from north-east part of the island, from cities such as Wenchang and Haikou.

As relative late-comers to Singapore in the late 19th century, most of them worked as shop assistants, chefs, and waiters in the hospitality sector. Hainanese chicken rice became a famous dish. They were also known for their Western cooking, as many of the early Hainanese migrants worked as cooks on European ships.

The Hockchew and Hockchia originated from northeastern Fujian and southern Zhejiang, particularly Fuzhou. They speak various Eastern Min dialects.

The Puxian or Hinghwas originated from Central Fujian – Putian and Xianyou – and speak Puxian Min.


This group numbers around 30,000 (2012) and constitutes less than 2% of Singaporean population. In Singapore, due to their small population, the Taiwanese are often grouped into larger populations, such as the Hokkien and Hakka, according to their dialect or ancestral origin. Newer Taiwanese immigrants have formed a distinctive group on their own. They may speak Taiwanese Mandarin, Hokkien, or Hakka and originate from many different cities, including Taipei, New Taipei, Hsinchu, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung.

According to the book "Japanese's view of Singapore" 《日本人眼裡的新加坡》 edited by Mr. Lin Shaobin, the Vice-Chairman of Singapore Japanese cultural society, the "bank of Taiwan" started its operation in Singapore from 1912 to 1925. The book also indicated that according to Japanese statistics of 1932, there were around 105 Taiwanese living in Malaya (including Singapore). According to verbal accounts by Singaporeans, many of the "Japanese" soldiers involved in the occupation of Singapore during World War II were in fact Taiwanese serving in the Imperial Japanese Army. Similar accounts relate that many teachers of Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s came from Taiwan. After 1965, military ties led to the immigration of some Taiwanese military personnel as high-ranking officers in Singapore Armed Forces. More immigration began during the 1970s and 1980s from investors, businessmen, and students. Most of these were highly educated and employed in professions such as engineering, business, investment, research and education. Intermarriages between Chinese and Taiwanese Singaporeans often resulted in the Taiwanese partner moving to Singapore and obtaining citizenship.


The Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya are early Chinese immigrants from Malacca and Penang who later migrated to Singapore. As they are of mixed Chinese and Malay ancestry, the Peranakans are classified as a separate ethnic group and have a distinct identity from either separate group. The men are known as Baba while the women are known as Bibiks or Nyonyas.

Peranakans in Singapore were once concentrated around the Malay settlement at Geylang and the Chinese enclave at Katong, because they often served as intermediaries for businesses and social groups in colonial Singapore owing to trilingual fluency in English, Malay, and Hokkien. Many Peranakans and Hokkien Chinese moved out of the congested town of Singapore – today's Central Business District – and built seaside mansions and villas along the East Coast in Tanjong Katong for their families. After Singapore's independence, Peranankan people have moved throughout the island.

Many Peranankans converted to Roman Catholicism during the 18th-century Portuguese colonisation of southeast Asia, which saw missionaries set up posts in Batavia (today's Jakarta) and along the Malay peninsula.

New Chinese Migrants

Prior to 1990, Mandarin speakers from Beijing and northern China and Wu speakers from Shanghai and the central Pacific coast of China constituted less than 2% of the Chinese Singaporean population. Most of the current population of native Mandarin speakers immigrated to Singapore much later than the other groups, after the Singaporean government relaxed immigration laws in 1989. Because of this, the members of this third wave are called the "New Immigrants" (新移民, p Xīnyímín). They all speak Standard Mandarin, the lingua franca among mainland Chinese groups today, and many speak other varieties as well. Since the 1990s, the number of mainland Chinese who come to Singapore to study or work has steadily increased every year. Many stayed only for a short time and then returned to China, but eventually many settled down permanently and became permanent residents or citizens of Singapore.

New Immigrants tend to be highly paid white-collar workers in multinational corporations or academics in research and educational institutes. There is also an increasing number of teachers of Chinese from the PRC working in primary and secondary schools and junior colleges in Singapore.


Traditionally, Chinese Singaporeans used their respective mother tongues as their main avenue of communication. Although that led to communication difficulties amongst speakers of more drastically different dialects, it has nevertheless forged strong dialectal bonds amongst the Chinese community.

But today, the speech of Chinese in Singapore exhibits a great amount of linguistic diversity and includes English, Singlish, Mandarin, Singdarin (Colloquial Singaporean Mandarin), Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, Hainanese, as well as other varieties. Most Chinese Singaporeans are generally bilingual, whereby they can speak both English and a variety of Chinese.

Before the 1980s

Before the 1980s, Chinese Singaporeans were either English-educated or Chinese-educated. The English-educated Chinese were educated with English as the medium of instruction and learnt little or no Mandarin in school (in such cases, Mandarin became an optional language). As a result, they became affianced to English-speaking and inevitably distanced from the Chinese language and their respective mother tongues. On the other hand, the Chinese-educated were educated with Mandarin as the medium of instruction but learnt little or no English. They usually speak Mandarin and their respective mother tongues with little or no English. There were of course a portion of Chinese Singaporeans who were bilingual, i.e. simultaneously educated with English and Mandarin as the medium of instruction, or who attended Chinese-based primary schools and subsequently transferred to English-based schools for their secondary education.

After the 1980s

After the 1980s, all schools (including former Chinese-based schools) in Singapore began to use English as the primary medium of instruction with Mandarin as a secondary language. Thus, Chinese Singaporeans educated in the post-80s are usually bilingual.

English is supposedly the first language and therefore presumably spoken by all residents of Singapore. This was partly due to the policy of Singapore's government to make English the medium of instruction in all schools in the 1980s (including former Chinese-based schools), as well as making English the working language for administration and business in Singapore (in short making English the lingua franca among all Singaporean). The presence of the English language in Singapore has its roots originating from Singapore's colonial past, when Singapore was a British colony. As a result of the government's policy, English or Singlish has become widespread among the residents of Singapore, including but not being confined to the Chinese Singaporeans (esp. the young people). The increase of English/Singlish speaking Chinese families in Singapore was a result of misperceived social and cultural values that the preservation of mother tongues is "low-class" resulting in desperate attempts to replace mother tongues with the English language. As of 2010, it was estimated that 32.6% of Singapore Chinese speak English at home. But at work or in the city and business district, English is the official lingua franca, but ironically the Hokkien dialect remains extant amongst Singaporeans, not limiting to the Chinese, and operates as an unofficial common language.

Mandarin is another widely spoken language among Chinese Singaporeans. As of 2010, it was estimated that 47.7% of Chinese Singaporeans speak Mandarin at home. Evidently, Singapore government's Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched in the 1980s with the intention of making Mandarin the lingua franca among the Chinese in Singapore. It was intentionally a way to unify the Chinese from different dialect groups. In the 1990s, this campaign began to target the English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans. As a result of this campaign, Mandarin became widespread in places such as residential areas, neighbourhood markets and even business districts. Mandarin is also often spoken in most "traditional Chinese-based" schools, despite the fact that English is their medium of instruction. Colloquially, as with all other languages spoken in Singapore, the Chinese Singaporeans prefer a localised flavour in mixing words from English, Hokkien, Malay, and some other varieties, into their Mandarin speech. Most young Chinese Singaporeans are capable of conversational Mandarin, but are weaker in their ability to write Mandarin.

Variations according to age group

The linguistic diversity among Chinese Singaporeans varies according to age group. Most young Chinese Singaporeans speak either English or Mandarin while the elderly, though able to converse in Mandarin, have preferred other Chinese varieties, such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, or Hainanese. As the south-eastern Chinese varieties are not taught in school, the number of their speakers has steadily declined. In addition, many parents have begun to communicate with their children solely in English, believing that the language is essential to attain upward social mobility. Many of the young Chinese in Singapore are unable to use their mother tongues fluently. This applies equally even to the more westernised Chinese Christian community, who prefers the English language over any other. This (the Hokkien dialect) apparently seems to be the only struggling force against the loss of Chinese cultural heritage.

Debate over preferred language

The question of which language is preferred in Singapore seem to have caused a debate among the Chinese Singaporeans recently. The question of declining standards in the command of the Chinese language amongst Chinese Singaporeans seems to cause several revisions in the government's education policies towards the Chinese language. The government of Singapore's continued policy towards bilingualism for all Chinese Singaporeans, which is to continue to pursue English as the first language while making Mandarin the lingua franca (or at least the 2nd language or home language) amongst all Chinese has drawn mixed responses. The more English-speaking Chinese Singaporeans generally prefer English as the lingua franca or their home language, while the Mandarin-speakers worry that English will replace Mandarin as the lingua franca, which would eliminate the thin thread of Chinese identity altogether. With the rising economy of China in the 21st century, which has led to more Singaporean companies requiring fluency in Mandarin, Mandarin has been viewed with greater importance amongst the Singaporean Chinese than before. Both English and Mandarin will continue to dominate the language scene among Chinese Singaporeans.

Preservation of other Chinese varieties

There also exists a strong urge and need in preserving the many dialects existing Singapore. The decline of the Chinese indigenous religion, Taoism, has also indirectly contributed to the deterioration of Chinese cultural heritage. Unless the government and Chinese Singaporeans take their own initiative in preserving non-Mandarin varieties, there is worry that they may disappear from Singapore in the near future. There is thus a strong desire to restore the Chinese identity or risk it falling into extinction one day. This exigency is translated into recent renewed efforts by Chinese clan associations in Singapore to impart and revive their respective Chinese mother tongues, which are met with warm receptions, including by the younger generations. Therefore, there lies a greater challenge for the Chinese community in Singapore – the preservation of the Chinese identity – than just the satisfaction of linguistic domination and material gains.


Alongside other ethnic groups, Singaporeans of Chinese origin from all social backgrounds and occupations have achieved significant upward advances in their educational levels, income, and life expectancy and experienced other social indicators. Singapore's rapid industrialisation between the 1960s and the 1990s has lifted numerous people out of poverty and has created a broad middle class for many Singaporeans. During the period of rapid economic growth the process, many Chinese began experience upward social mobility for the first time in their lives. In 2000, Chinese Singaporeans represented the second highest proportion of University graduates after the Singaporean Indians. In 2008, 86.2% of Chinese Singaporean students achieved 5 passes at O-level, the exams taken by 15- and 16-year-olds, compared to 59.3% for Singaporean Malays and 73% for Singaporean Indians.

According to the 2010 Census, 22.6% of Chinese Singaporeans have achieved a bachelor's degree, a figure below the national average of 22.8% and remained the second highest after the Singaporean Indians. This is due to the fact that Singaporean Indians had a larger increase in proportion of university graduates compared with the Chinese and Malays. The increase in proportion of Indian university graduates was partly due to the inflow of Indian permanent residents with university qualifications. Some 60 per cent of Indian permanent residents were university graduates in 2005, up from 51 per cent in 2000.


As of 2005, 47.3% of Chinese Singaporeans work in select white-collar occupations compared with the national average of 44.8%. The labour force participation rate was 63.6% contrasting towards the national average of 63.0%. This figure was up from 46.2% in 2000 and was highest participation rate during that year in the white collar workforce among the three major ethnic groups in Singapore.


While constituting nearly three-quarters of the Singaporean population, Chinese Singaporeans are estimated to control 81% of the Singaporean's publicly listed companies by market capitalisation as well as contributing to 81% of Singapore's GNP. Singaporean Chinese businesses are part of the larger bamboo network, a network of overseas Chinese businesses operating in the markets of Southeast Asia that share common family and cultural ties.

Measured in 1990 dollars, the average household monthly income rose from SGD$3,080 in 1990 to SGD$4,170 in 2000 at an average annual rate of 2.8%. According to the 2005 Singaporean census, both the average and median monthly income for Singaporeans of Chinese origin were (S$3,610 and $2,500 respectively), exceeded the national average. Household and median income for Chinese Singaporeans commonly exceed the national average where it remained the highest out of the three major ethnic groups in 2000. Chinese Singaporeans held the second highest median and average household income among all three major ethnic groups in Singapore after Singaporean Indians in 2010.

Singaporean Education System

Singapore's Chinese education began with the establishment of old-style private Chinese schools (known as "Sishu 私塾") by early Chinese immigrants during the 19th century. These schools predominantly used various southern Chinese varieties (such as Hokkien) as its medium to teach Chinese classics. In the 1920s, as influenced by China's New Cultural Movement, many Chinese schools in Singapore began to change its medium of instruction to Mandarin. During the British colonial times, the colonial government generally allowed the Chinese community in Singapore to organise and develop its own system of Chinese education. By the 1930s and 1940s, with donations and fundings from the public, more Chinese organisations began to set up more Chinese schools. In 1953, the chairman of Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, Mr.Tan Lark Sye organised and helped to establish the first overseas Chinese-medium university (Nanyang University) in Singapore, leading to the establishing of a well-structured Chinese-medium education system (from primary school to university) in Singapore.

However, after the 1960s, the left-wing communist ideology of People's Republic of China and the cultural revolution was in conflict with the capitalist policy of Singapore. To attract western investments, Singapore decided to adopt the fundamental policy of making English its main lingua franca and working language. To prevent the Singaporean Chinese from being influenced by left-wing political thoughts, Singapore greatly promoted English and placed less emphasis on Chinese education. On the one hand, it encouraged Chinese Singaporeans to attend English-medium schools for economic reasons; on the other hand, it initiated a public effort in denouncing communism. Due to a lesser proficiency in English, Chinese-educated Singaporeans often encountered difficulties in finding jobs in Singapore. Thus, the majority of Chinese Singaporeans sent their children to English-medium schools for better job prospects, causing the number of registered students at Chinese-medium schools to drop annually. All these factors (including that of government policy) eventually caused the Chinese-medium education system to perish in Singapore.

Since the early 1980s, the Singapore government gradually abolished the Chinese-medium education system in Singapore. Apart from Chinese language and moral education subjects, all subjects are taught in English. However, to make sure that Singaporean Chinese still maintain and preserve their mother tongue (Chinese) culture, the Singapore government implemented the teaching of Chinese language in all schools: All Chinese Singaporeans had to learn Mandarin Chinese as a "second language". Singapore also established the Special Assistance Plan Schools. These were formerly traditional Chinese-medium schools and were tasked with the nurturing of Chinese language and cultural talents. The Chinese subject in Singapore did not just involve the teaching of Chinese; it was also tasked with the mission of transmitting Chinese cultural values to Chinese Singaporeans. Because of the continuation of Chinese education in Singapore, the Chinese Singaporeans are generally able to speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese. Chinese Singaporeans are thus one of the few overseas Chinese communities (the other being Malaysian Chinese) which still preserved the Chinese language and culture.

Influence on culture of Singapore

Since most Singaporean Chinese trace their ancestral home to southern China, their culture generally has a closer affinity with southern Chinese culture (predominantly that of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan) This is especially true in terms of various southern Chinese dialects, customs, cultural, and religious practices in Singapore.

Although Singaporean culture is diverse in nature, Singapore is one of the few countries outside Greater China with a vibrant Chinese cultural presence. On one glance, Singapore's infrastructure and environment might seem Western, but on closer observation, Chinese culture is generally present across all corners of Singapore. This includes the widespread use of different Chinese varieties, various Chinese writings across Singapore, various Chinese press and entertainment media, a thriving Chinese pop culture, various Chinese organisations, Chinese cultural festivals, Chinese opera, Chinese religious activities, Chinese bookshops etc.


Chinese immigrants to Singapore brought many of their ideas and values with them. Although they were influenced by western culture, many continue to uphold Chinese values such as Confucian respect for elders, filial piety, meritocracy, emphasis on education, courtesy etc. The Chinese taught in Singapore was also critical in propagating traditional Chinese values such as filial piety, respect and care for elders, social harmony and meritocracy etc. to the Chinese Singaporean.

Linguistics influence

Mandarin and other Chinese varieties are spoken by the Chinese Singaporeans. They influence the way other Non-Chinese languages are spoken in Singapore. For instance, Singlish is known to be greatly influenced by Singaporean Hokkien and Singaporean Mandarin in terms of grammar, syntax and lexicon.


According to a 2010 census, 43% of Singapore's Chinese population declared themselves Buddhist (declining from 53.6% in 2000), 20.1% Christian (growing from 16.5% in 2000), 14.4% Taoist (growing from 10.8% in 2000), and 21.8% non-religious (growing from 18.6% in 2000). Chinese comprise the vast majority in these four groups due to their dominance in Singapore.

While the majority of Chinese Singaporeans register themselves as Buddhists, the recent decades have seen a growth in adherence to Christianity (chiefly the Catholic Church) and Taoism, as well as a growth of Chinese who identify as not religious. In Singapore, Chinese folk religions such as ancestor worship and praying to certain deities are often classified under Taoism.


Many Singaporean Chinese dishes were adapted by early Chinese immigrants to suit local circumstances (such as available ingredients) and cannot strictly be considered mainstream Chinese cuisine. Nevertheless, these dishes exhibited local Singaporean Chinese flavours and tastes. Most local Singaporean Chinese dishes such as Bak kut teh, Mee pok, Ban mian, Char kway teow, Chee cheong fun, Hokkien mee, Hainanese chicken rice, Wan ton mee, and Popiah can still be easily found in food centres throughout Singapore. Some Singaporean Chinese are vegetarians, as they may be devoted followers of Buddhism. With the influx of new migrants from all parts of China in the 21st century, Chinese cuisine of a variety of regional flavours and tastes can be found across Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, Singapore or in other regions of Singapore, such as Sichuanese cuisine, northeastern Chinese cuisine etc.

Chinese-language media

In Singapore, Mandarin Chinese is generally propagated through various Mandarin Chinese national free-to-air television broadcast terrestrial media station (MediaCorp TV Channel 8 and MediaCorp TV Channel U), cable television (StarHub TV and Singtel TV) and radio channels (including MediaCorp Radio Capital 95.8FM). Most media in other Chinese varieties (such as those of Taiwanese and Cantonese) are generally censored in the mainstream Chinese media of Singapore, except for some broadcasting in radio channel Capital 95.8FM. Taiwanese media from Taiwan and Cantonese media from Hong Kong are however easily available for sale in shops of Singapore and also present in Karaoke lounges. Some cable television channels in Singapore (e.g. StarHub TV) also have begun to have Chinese media from China (e.g. CCTV-4 Chinese International Channel (Asia)/中國中央電視台中文國際頻道 (亞洲)) and Cantonese media from Hong Kong (e.g. TVB Jade Satellite Channel (Southeast Asia)/翡翠衛星台 (東南亞)).

Chinese press

The major Chinese-language newspaper in Singapore is Lianhe Zaobao (聯合早報), which was formed by a merger of two of the country's oldest Chinese-language newspaper. Lianhe Zaobao was critical in maintaining the Chinese literary scene in Singapore. In addition to this are other newspapers such as Lianhe Zaobao Sunday (聯合早報星期日), Lianhe Wanbao (聯合晚報), Shin Min Daily News (新明日報), My Paper (我報) (prints in both English and Mandarin), zbCOMMA (早報逗號), Thumbs Up (大拇指) and Thumbs Up Junior (小拇指).

Literature in Chinese

Singapore has a thriving literary scene in Chinese. The Singapore Association of Writers (新加坡作家协会) regularly publish Singapore Chinese Literature Journal (《新华文学》), an anthology of literary works by Chinese Singaporeans. A number of writers (or poets) including You Jin 尤今, Wang Runhua 王润华, Liu Duanjin 刘瑞金, RongZi 蓉子 etc. had contributed to the Singapore Chinese literary scene.

The Singapore Chinese literature reflected the immigration and social-historical changes of Singapore. Singapore Chinese literature had its roots from Malaysian Chinese literature, as Singapore was part of Malaya before independence. Early Chinese immigrants started off with the establishment of Chinese schools and Chinese press and as such began to create works of literature.

Early Chinese literary magazines such as New Citizens 《新国民杂志》, Southern Wind 《南风》, and Singapore Light 《星光》 in Singapore portrayed the lifestyle of immigrants in Singapore during pre-war Singapore.

During the 1950s, most of the writers in Singapore had literary works portraying the lifestyle of all social spheres of Singapore. These literary works contain large use of local Chinese slang, creating unique localised literary works. The active writers at that time include Miao Xiu 苗秀, Yaozhi 姚紫, Zhaorong 赵戎, Shushu 絮絮 etc.

After Singapore's independence in 1965, the Chinese literature in Singapore began to separate from the Malaysia Chinese literature and continued to develop on its own.

Chinese festivals

Traditional Chinese festivals are celebrated in Singapore including Chinese New Year, Mooncake Festival, Qingming Festival (also known as Tomb Sweeping Festival). Certain traditional Chinese festivals are made public holiday of Singapore, such as Chinese New Year. There existed some differences in the Singapore Chinese festival customs as compared to that from mainland China and Taiwan. For instance, it was common to carry lantern during mooncake festivals, but mainland China and Taiwan only practised the carrying of lantern on 15 January lunar calendar.

Chinese pop music

Singapore features a thriving Chinese pop music scene and are known for producing Mandopop artists such as JJ Lin, Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua etc. Singapore is also known for holding Chinese music concerts and festivals, including the Taiwanese-originated Spring Wave Singapore Music Festival in 2013.

Cultural and linguistic differences from mainland China

There exists, however, some degree of differences between the Singaporean Chinese and mainland Chinese in terms of mindset, culture, and languages. While mainland Chinese are largely Sino-centric in their outlook of the world, Singaporean Chinese are educated in English medium schools (but also are taught the Chinese language) and are exposed to western influences due to its long history as a British constituent colony of the Straits Settlements. As such, the local Singaporean Chinese culture is a blend and mix of southern Chinese culture, local Singaporean culture (with various influences from cultures of other ethnicity) and western culture.

There are also some differences in the Singaporean Chinese culture compared to that of China. Some traditional Chinese religious and folks custom are preserved by the Chinese community in Singapore, but are no longer practised or seen in China after the Cultural Revolution. This is especially true of regional rites and rituals practised by Singaporean descendants of immigrants from southern China.

There are also distinctive recognisable differences between the Singaporean Mandarin and mainland Chinese Mandarin accents. Colloquially, many Chinese Singaporeans also speak a creole of Singlish and Singdarin or code switch between English and Mandarin or a dialect. Many of the local Chinese dialects in Singapore, such as Hokkien, Teochew, or Cantonese, have also been largely acculturated and differ from what is spoken in China.

Relation with current Chinese migrants

Singaporean Chinese and mainland Chinese have had a testy relationship in recent years. While the reasons for such a contentious relationship are multi-factorial, one of those mentioned was the cultural differences between Singaporean Chinese (whose ancestors were mainly from Southern parts of China) and mainland Chinese (who are mainly from Northern China).

Before 1819

The earliest records of Singapore in Imperial Chinese sources named Singapore as "Long Ya Men 龙牙门", "Ling Ya Men 凌衙门", "Dan Ma Xi 单马锡", "Dan Ma Xi 淡马锡", "Xi La 息辣", "Xi Li 息力" or "Shi le 石叻" etc.

Archaeological excavations of artefacts such as Chinese coins or ceramics in Singapore, which dated back to the period of the reign of Emperor Zhenzong of Song (998–1022) and Emperor Renzong of Song (1023–1063), indicated that Chinese merchants or traders had already visited Singapore since Song dynasty.

The Chinese record Annals of various foreign states (Zhu fan zhi) written by Zhao Rushi in 1225 clearly described Chinese merchant ships arriving in Singapore from Quanzhou and various Chinese trading activities. In this annal, the chapter San Fo Qi men 三佛齐门 (the Chinese name for Srivijaya) clearly recorded Chinese merchant ships must pass by "Ling Ya Men 凌衙门" (the ancient Chinese name for Singapore) to reach Srivijaya for trading. The Chinese record Investigation of Southern Pacific 《南洋测蠡》 (Nanyang Celi) described the presence of Chinese tombs in Singapore (known as "Xin Ji Li Po 新忌利波" in Chinese). On the Chinese tomb, there were words and inscriptions recording the period of Later Liang and Emperor Gong of Song. This could have proven that from 907 to 1274, some Chinese had settled, lived, died and were buried in Singapore.

The Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan, visiting the island around 1330, described a small Malay settlement called Dan Ma Xi (淡馬錫, from Malay Tamasik) containing a number of Chinese residents. According to Wang Dayuan, the Chinese inhabitants of Singapore were dressed in local traditional costumes and generally intermarried with local South-East Asian women, following an amalgamamation of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. These were the earliest Peranakans of Singapore.

Following the decline of Srivijayan power, Temasek was alternately claimed by the Majapahit and the Siamese, but the invasion of 1377 and 1391 caused Singapore to be destroyed. Following that, there were little Chinese records of the visiting of Chinese to Singapore.

The Chinese explorer Zheng He's naval voyage in 1403 indicated Singapore as Dan Ma Xi. In 1420, en route the 6th voyage, Zheng He passed by Singapore, but there were no records of presence of Chinese.


From the founding of modern Singapore by Stamford Raffles till the Japanese occupation in 1942, Singapore was ruled as a colony by the British. When the British first arrived in Singapore, most of the inhabitants on the island of Singapore were fisherman, seamen or pirates, living in small houses. There were about 150 people; about 30 were Chinese, while the rest were Malays.

When Singapore became a Straits Settlement, there were very few Chinese. After Singapore became a British trading post as part of the Straits Settlement, the first batch of Chinese came from Malaysia, predominantly from Malacca and Penang. Amongst these Chinese from Malacca and Penang, many were Peranakans or descendants of Chinese in Malaysia for several generations. Most of them were traders who could speak Chinese and Malay, though many were also English-educated and could communicate with the British. In the Manners and customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements, Singapore, it was described that the Straits-born Chinese regarded themselves as British subjects instead of Chinese subjects; their lifestyle were more westernised. By the time of the first census of Singapore in 1824, the Chinese migrants were noted as being either Peranakans, or from Macau, Guangdong and Fujian.

The Chinese quickly formed the majority of the population in Singapore, by the census of 1826 there were already more Chinese (6,088) than Malays (4,790) excluding Bugis (1,242) and Javanese (267). The Chinese became the dominant group by the 1830s (the largest ethnic group at 45.9% in the 1836 census), and by 1849, 52.8% of the total population of 52,891 were Chinese. The Chinese population reached over 70% of the total by 1901 and has stayed there since.

The early Chinese migrants to Singapore were predominantly males. In 1826, the official census figures show that out of a total population of 13,750, there were 5,747 Chinese males but only 341 Chinese females. Most of the Chinese females in this early period of Singapore were nyonyas from Malacca as women from China were discouraged from emigrating. It was noted in 1837 that there were no Chinese women in Singapore who had emigrated directly from China; even as late as 1876, a British official in Singapore wrote that he did not know of any respectable Chinese woman who had emigrated with her husband. The imbalance of the sexes of the Chinese community continued for a long time with the continual flow into Singapore of male migrant workers who were either single or had left their wives and children behind in China; for example, the 1901 census figures show that there were 130,367 Chinese males compared to 33,674 Chinese females. For a long period, most of the Chinese population in early Singapore were immigrants as many did not intend to settle permanently to raise their family there; even by the late 1890s, only around 10% of the Chinese population in Singapore were born there. The early migrant Chinese workers worked to send money back to their family in China, and many would then return to China after they had earned enough money. However, an increasing number would also choose to settle permanently in Singapore, especially in the 1920s when more chose to remain in Singapore rather than leave. Change in social attitude in the modern era also meant that Chinese women were freer to emigrate from China, and the sex ratio began to normalise in the 20th century. This gradual normalisation of sex ratio led to an increase in the number of native births. Immigration would continue to be the main reason for the Chinese population increase in Singapore until the 1931–1947 period when the natural increase in population would surpass the net immigration figures.

Many of the early migrants were Chinese traders who were attracted by the free trade policy after Singapore became the capital of the British Straits Settlements in 1832. Many also came to work in the plantations, with 11,000 migrants recorded in one year. Singapore became one of the entry and dispersal points for large number of Chinese and Indian migrants who came to work in the plantations and mines of the Straits Settlements, many of whom then settled in Singapore after their contract ended. Because of a booming commerce which required large number of labour force, Chinese coolie trade also appeared in Singapore. Indentured Chinese labourers (known as coolie) were contracted by coolie traders and brought to Singapore to work. Because China banned the travelling of Chinese overseas before the Opium War, any form of coolie trade was conducted mainly through the Portuguese-controlled Macau. Thus any form of large migration of Chinese labourers overseas in the beginning of the 19th century is quite unlikely. It was only after the Treaty of Nanking signed on 1842 (due to Opium War) that large migration of Chinese coolie began to appear. In 1860 under the 2nd Opium War, Chinese coolie trade became legalised and reached a high peak. The large influx of coolies into Singapore only stopped after William Pickering became the Protector of Chinese. In 1914, the coolie trade was abolished and banned in Singapore.

The large influx of Chinese to Singapore led to the establishment of a large number of Chinese associations, schools, and temples in Singapore and, within a century, the Chinese immigrant population exceeded that of the Malays. During this period, Christian missionaries from Europe began evangelising to the Asians, especially the Chinese.

Peranakans or those English-educated Chinese who had descended for many generations in Singapore were typically known as "Laokeh" (老客 – Old Guest) or "Straits Chinese". Most of them paid loyalty to the British Empire and did not regard themselves as "Huaqiao". From the 19th till the mid 20th century, migrants from China were known as "Sinkeh" (新客 – New Guest). Out of these Sinkeh, a majority of them were coolies, workers on steam boats etc. Some of them came to Singapore for work, in search of a better living or to escape from poverty in China. However, most of Sinkeh who came mostly from Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan province paid loyalty to China and regarded themselves as "Huaqiao".

1937–1945 (World War II)

The Second Sino-Japanese War, started in 1937, revived a perceived sense of patriotism in the local Chinese to China and soon the Singaporean Chinese imposed an embargo against Japanese goods and products in Singapore. During the war, fearing for the safety of their relatives in China, some of the immigrants returned to China to fight the Japanese, while established entrepreneurs sent economic aid or military equipment to China. After the Japanese took Singapore in 1942, the Kempeitai tracked down many Chinese who aided the Chinese war effort against Japan. However, the Kempeitai's Sook Ching Operation was simply a massacre designed to drive fear into the local populace, so the Kempeitai simply picked out people based on accounts of masked informers, which in many cases were false accounts based on personal vendettas. There were also active anti-Japanese resistance during the war, such as Force 136, headed by Lim Bo Seng.

After 1945

Race riots were common during the early post-war period, predominantly in the period between self-governance and independence in 1965. One major riot took place during birthday celebrations in honour of Muhammad, on 21 July 1964. There were records of high casualties (23 killed and 454 injured), as well as claims that the riot was politically motivated to oust the then Prime Minister (Lee Kuan Yew) and his cabinet as well as to prevent the promotion of a Malaysian Malaysia concept in Peninsular Malaysia.

After the independence of Singapore in 1965, Singapore began to foster a more racially harmonious society in Singapore. Following the construction of Singapore national identity and nationhood, the Chinese in Singapore began to change their mindset from temporary stay to permanent settlements in Singapore, thus taking roots in Singapore. Following this transformation, the Chinese in Singapore gradually began to recognise nationally as "Singaporeans", while racially as "Huaren" instead of "Huaqiao".

Chinese migrants from China during the late 20th century and early 21st century were generally known as "Xinyimin 新移民" (new immigrants). They came from various parts of China.

Historical Background

When the Chinese migrants first arrived in Singapore in the 19th and early 20th century, they settled in an enclave such as Chinatown. They tended to group themselves according to dialectal similarity, with those from nearby Chinese regions grouping together. This led the Chinese to form 5 dialectal Cohorts (known as Bangqun 幫群), namely the Hokkien Bang, Teochew Bang, Cantonese Bang, Hakka Bang and Hainanese Bang.

During the British colonial period, the colonial government basically adopted the approach of using "the Chinese to govern the Chinese". They appointed Chinese leaders to govern the Chinese community. Effectively, the Chinese community existed in a half-autonomy state. Most Chinese leaders used the Chinese civil societies (small organisations) to help govern the Chinese community and to help new Chinese immigrants settled into Singapore, including finding jobs and lodgings for them.

As most of these Chinese civil societies were involved in Chinese family religious activities such as funerals or ancestral worship, they were in fact religious-oriented. This gradually evolved into the development of Chinese Temples or Chinese clan associations in Singapore. As time passed by, the Chinese had grown to have more achievements in the business and education in Singapore. Some rich and powerful Chinese businessmen began to establish Clubs, such as the Ee Ho Hean Club (怡和轩) in 1895, and Chamber of Commerce, such as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to broaden the Chinese social circle. Established in 1906, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry was the highest body of organisation within the Chinese community in Singapore. It was responsible for fighting the rights of the Chinese in Singapore during the British colonial period. During the World War II, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry had managed to help raise funds and resources to help relieve the sufferings in war-torn China.

After Singapore gained independence and autonomy in the 1960s, the Singapore government undertook measures to help foster racial harmony in Singapore. It encouraged various races of different languages and religious backgrounds to intermingle and to live side by side. Following the growth of Singaporean nationhood and national identity, the Chinese immigrants began to change their mindset from temporary migration to permanent settlements, thus soiling their roots in Singapore. With the strengthening of Singaporean national identity, the Chinese clans association gradually declined in terms of importance. Their role of organising and governing the Chinese community was soon taken over by the Singapore government.


Today, all Singapore's clans associations came under the flagship of Singapore Federation of Chinese Clans Association (SFCCA). They function as the cultural role for connecting Chinese Singaporeans to their Chinese roots or Ancestral home. In addition, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) continued to look after the interests of the Chinese business community as well as sourcing business opportunities in China. The Chinese Development Assistance Council was founded out of these two organisations (SFCCA and SCCCI) to help nurture and develop the potential of the Chinese community in contributing to the continued success of multiracial Singapore. There are also various Chinese cultural organisations such as Singapore Chinese Calligraphy Society, Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Nanyang Confucian Association, Singapore Chinese Opera Institute etc. In addition, there are also major Chinese religious Associations such as Singapore Taoist Federation, Singapore Buddhist Federation to look after the religious affairs of Chinese Singaporeans.

All these Chinese organisations continue to play an important role in the economical, cultural and religious activities of Chinese Singaporeans.

List of Chinese Singaporeans

  • List of Chinese Singaporeans
  • References

    Chinese Singaporeans Wikipedia

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