WHAT (ON EARTH) IS A CLAN?

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You don’t hear the word ‘clan’ bounced around these days. ‘Community’, sure. ‘Clubs’, ‘associations’, yeah. But the word ‘clan’ tends to elicit an unmistakable sense of nostalgia. At their peak, clans were most active and relevant in the late 19th to early 20th century. But as Singapore has progressed, the importance and stature of these clans have faded, leaving their premises and elderly-majority members as remnants of a once-thriving community group. So to really get to the heart of what a clan is, let’s do a quick history blitz. 

FIRST: AN IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER 

The word ‘clan’ is a bit of a catch-all these days. ‘Association’ is the technically accurate term, but in Singapore, ‘clan’ has become synonymous with ‘association’ because the two function on the same values of kinship and unity.

 
Chinese workmen, circa 1908

Chinese workmen, circa 1908

 
 

NOW LET'S START AT THE BEGINNING

As with almost every good thing in life, clans came about as an answer to a problem. In the late 19th century, Singapore was a prospering port — trade increased 800% between 1824 and 1872 alone! Far away in China, the people were plagued by a number of issues that typically force migration: a corrupt ruling class (the Qing dynasty), violence because of ongoing wars between warlords, and widespread poverty.

Naturally, many Chinese began leaving their homes to seek fortune elsewhere. Many of these immigrants who came to Singapore were healthy men between their twenties and fifties who came here to work as coolies. They often arrived alone and had trouble communicating because they could only speak their dialect. As these immigrants slowly found each other, they began banding together, forming associations that aimed to ease the difficult transition into life in Singapore. These associations were formed through clanship — the district in China they came from, or the dialect they spoke. The oldest clan to date is the Tsao Clan House, founded in 1819 by a cook who arrived in Singapore with Sir Stamford Raffles. 


SO, THERE ARE DIFFERENT KINDS OF CLANS?

Yes, there sure are! Here’s how clans were formed:

  1. Shared family lineage traced by a common surname.
    If we’re going to be technically correct, the word ‘clan’ refers to only associations formed on a shared family lineage. Clans were smaller in size and known for ancestor worship and mutual aid. Their members consisted of the working class.

  2. Locality.
    Associations formed based on a certain migration origin were known as district associations. Sizes tend to vary but some were enormous, owning several real estates and organising massive charity drives.

  3. Language.
    Dialect associations had members who spoke the same dialect, the key five being Fujian (Hokkien), Chaozhou (Teochew), Hakka, Cantonese, and Hainan. Members often included wealthy businessmen, so these associations focused on running schools and raising large sums of money for charity.


Chin Kang School

Chin Kang School

The original Tao Nan School, which currently houses the Peranakan Museum

The original Tao Nan School, which currently houses the Peranakan Museum

CLANS WERE A BIG DEAL BACK IN THE DAY

Imagine being alone in a foreign land and not speaking the language. Scary, right? That’s where clans stepped in. They helped to orientate newly arrived immigrants. They helped their members secure accommodation and employment, and acted as gateways through which immigrants could engage with the wider community.  

Clans were also massively important in the development of Singapore, especially before we gained independence in 1965 and the People’s Action Party (PAP) stepped in. The previous colonial government was largely unconcerned about the welfare of the people living and working in Singapore, which meant that these things were left in the hands of the people.

During this time, clans spearheaded education by raising money to set up schools. The Hokkien Huay Kuan (HHK) —the largest dialect clan at the time — set up the Tao Nan School, which was attended by many who would become influential Chinese leaders of the community, including the late Lee Kong Chian. Tan Kah Kee of HHK set up Singapore’s first secondary school, Chinese High School, while Nanyang University, Singapore’s first uni, was a charge led by Tan Lark Sye (also of HHK).

Clans also improved social healthcare by building hospitals and medical institutions, such as the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (1844) and the Kwong Wai Shiu Free Hospital (1910), established by the Hokkien and Cantonese clan associations respectively. Both institutions still exist today!  

 
The 12th Gan Clan World Conference, held at Guilin, China, in 2013

The 12th Gan Clan World Conference, held at Guilin, China, in 2013

 

CLANS IN CHANGING TIMES

So, in the 1950s, there was a drop in the influx of immigrants to Singapore, which made the primary function of clans irrelevant. This relevance was further threatened when the PAP government came into power as they made sweeping improvements to social welfare through endeavours like constructing functional government schools and establishing public housing that allotted units to applicants without regard for race or religion. This all happened at the same time the Speak Mandarin campaign came into effect, which effectively discouraged the use of disparate dialects. As more Singaporeans were born and bred here, their connection to their ancestral Chinese homeland also increasingly weakened 

Clans still exist today, but their functions have changed radically. Education remains important, although instead of erecting schools, clans focus on distributing bursaries and award scholarships to the underprivileged and promising youth clan members. Clans are also increasingly looking outwards — instead of merely looking after local members, they have started re-establishing ties with native associations in China as well as their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Most significantly, the purpose of clans has moved beyond meeting basic needs of its members to preserving and promoting Chinese culture and language.

 

COME CHECK OUT THE CLANS

For one weekend only, get the rare opportunity to experience history at Street of Clans as five clans along Bukit Pasoh Road open their doors to the public. Working with creative collaborators from different design disciplines, these clans want to share their stories with you through interactive installations that will delight and entertain. Learn to capture precious family memories in Chin Kang Huay Kuan’s journalling workshop or hop on a tour of the Gan Clan history that will transport you all the way back to ancient China.

More than the clans, the rest of the folks along Bukit Pasoh are also joining in the festival fun! Slurp on oysters as you marvel at 8EyedSpud’s illustrations in Humpback, or head on over to Straits Clan and learn from Michelin-starred Candlenut’s Chef Malcolm Lee himself, at his masterclass on refining traditional Peranakan cuisine. There’s so much to see, do and experience at Street of Clans, and we can’t wait. Come and discover more about what truly makes a clan with us.

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Ticket links for masterclasses, workshops and talks coming soon.

Emma Wong