Sunday, April 30, 2006

East or West, where do you stand?

Whilst researching on the 4 royal plaques, came across accidentally on many web resources on the fall of China and its awakening. While Singapore has been favourably praised by Western visitors with terms like 'Asia lights', 'everybody speaks English here', and 'its so clean' etc, the Chinese-speaking countries view Singapore as an anamoly and backward in cultural sophisication due to the Chinese population's superficial understanding of mainstream Chinese culture. In a rather chauvanistic manner, Taiwan's prominent political figure and commentator derides Singaporeans as 'stupid'. I can understand what he is talking about having worked in China myself. I vividly remembered how I was criticized by a Beijing friend as having 'no culture' when a group of his friends were discussing Chinese poetry and history. I felt stupid, Li Ao was absolutely right. The Chinese speaking world just cannot fathom why Chinese Sngaporeans could not speak or write Chinese properly. It is only natural for them to think Singaporean Chinese are not very educated on this light as this is their usual gauge for sophisication - Chinese must speak and write Mandarin, even more so when they watch your Mandarin soaps for the past decade!

On a more objective comparison between the Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia, one would notice that there are more interests in Chinese heritage and culture across the causeway. Yet, these Malaysian Chinese perform equally well when put in an overseas context. Yes, we use alot of English in Singapore, but sometimes I feel that Singlish seems to be the norm nowadays. Most educated Chinese Singaporeans write in English, while majority speaks Mandarin. English is merely a working language to the majority Chinese Singaporeans. Singlish becomes the informal social language. The hybriding of local dialects with English is a natural choice as speaking in a manner like one would in a 'Masters of the Seas' manner would be rather alien to most Singaporeans. Even for Mandarin speakers in Singapore, the form of local Mandarin slang mixed with dialects appear a little strange to the mainstream Chinese speaking world. What is the conclusion? In a span of about 40 years since interpendence, we have created two dialects - Singlish and Singdarin. Given another 100 years, I am sure a new language would have evolved!

From this observation, it is clear that many of us are unwilling to part with our dialects. Our dialects are important as these are our actual mother tongues. Try tellng a French to use English as their first language and French as their second, see what will happen. Yet the problem in Sinapore is that we are not made up by one majority dialect group as in Taiwan, Hong Kong or provinces in China. In a tiny place like ours, we are alomst like a mini Southern China in terms of the eclectic mix of Chinese from the different provinces. We can witness this from our diverse heritage of Chinese architecture in Singapore. The elite ruling class in Singapore with their scholarly backgrounds speaks English. Meaning, if you want to be 'Atas', you had better speak English. Also, due to the displacement of Malay as the common language, English has become the common language for inter-racial communication. For me, there are no reasons to be pro-East or pro-West, I would be happy just to speak Cantonese, a language which was my first language learnt when I was young. However, in order to carry on daily communications with other people, knowing Chinese and English is a necessity. Triligualism is the best for all Singaporeans I think. I remembered that when I was working in Shanghai, the Shanghainese told me that during the colonial days, educated Shanghainese could speak English, Shanghainese and Mandarin. Now, that is truly cosmopolitan. It is my hope that Singaporeans would be proud of their multilingual abilities and yet bring them to a profienciency that can be appreciated by a global audience.

For more information on the history of language divide in the Chinese community, see (in English)

Lessons from the Royal Plaques

This long weekend has finally given me time to do some research on the Qing royal plaques found in Thian Hock Keng, Wak Hai Cheng Bio and Kek Lok Si. I was curious under what conditions these plaques were presented to temples in Singapore & Penang as they were all from the same emperor - Guang Xu emperor. As there were no royal connections bewteen the temples in Nanyang until the latter half of the 19th century, there had to be some reasons for the sudden interest by the Manchu government with the Chinese community in Nanyang. Here are some details of the 4 plaques bequethed by the emperor :

1. Wak Hai Cheng Bio - Zhu Hai Xiang Yun (1899)
2. Kek Lok Si - Da Xiong Bao Dian (1901), Long Chang (?)
3. Thian Hock Keng - Bo Qian Nan Ming (1907)
There is one rare plaque from the emperor's foster mother, Ci Xi :
4. Kek Lok Si - Hai Tian Fo Di (1901)

Other plaques presented by Qing court officials :

5. Heng San Teng - Shan Yu Zhong Ling (1891) from Chen Hui Ming, Qing Naval defence officer
6. Kek Lok Si - Wu Wang Gu Guo (?) from Kang You Wei , Qi Yan Jie lu Shi (1906) from Chen Bao Shen
7. Shuang Lin Si - Zhang Zhe Tang (1904) from Lin Guo Qing, Qing official , Couplet on pillars outside Zhang Zhe Tang (1904)
8. Thian Hock Keng - Xian Che You Ming (?) from Zuo Bing Long
9. Seng Ong Beo - Cong Ming Zheng Zhi (1907) from Zuo Bing Long, 3rd Qing Consul General in Singapore

If we were to look at some of the older temples in Taiwan, we would realise that the presence of royal plaques bequethed by the Qing emperors are not uncommon. However, when we looked at the oldest temple in Malaysia, Cheng Hoon Teng (1645), there was not a single royal plaque. Looking at the wealth and population of the Chinese before 19th century, they perhaps did not pose a threat to the Qing court. However, with the countless uprisings, invasions and a threatened soverignty towards the end of the 19th century, the QIng treasury was in a pretty bad shape. Loyal Qing court officials such as Kang You Wei had to flee China after implementing an unsuccessful '100 day's reform', a major revamp of the Qing constitution in 1898. Emperor Guang Xu was put under house arrest for colluding with his tutor, Kang's reformist movement.
From the dates listed above, it is quite clear that all the plaques from Guang Xu were bequethed to the temples in Singapore and Penang whilst he was under house arrest. The dowager Cixi became the regent and official ruler of China whilst his sister's son the emperor was kept in a bricked-up room in the Summer Palace. So were these calligraphy really Guang Xu's or merely edicts issued by the Dowager to gain support for the Qing court? The original scroll from Thian Hock Keng has been restored at a cost of S$10,000 by specialists in China, I think it would be an interesting exercise to get other specialists to ascertain the authorship of the scroll. Incidentally, the Thian Hock Keng scroll was bequethed one year before Guang Xu's tragic death (legend had it that he was poisoned by his foster mum the dowager) in a miserable bricked-up room at the Summer Palace called the 'Hall of Magnolia'. I have visited the Summer Palace years back when I was in Beijing, the more memorable scandalous relic was the well in which Xu's favourite 'Pearl' concubine committed suicide. Had the empress listened to Kang, it would have been a less tragic ending for herself and the rest of her people. However, she chose to believe in Yuan Shi Kai, whose only ambition was to become emperor himself. There were confucian scholars and reformists who had supported Kang in the Qing court, unfornuately real power was in the hands of warlords like Yuan Shi Kai.

The royal scrolls in Wak Hai Cheng Bio and Kek Lok Si were dated much earlier than the Thian Hock Keng scroll. If they were really from Guang Xu, we can assume that the emperor continued his daily duties under the instruction of her mum. The intention of these plaques were obvious - the refomists, royalists and revolutionaries like Kang You Wei and Sun Yat Sen were getting financial support from the Nanyang Chinese in their cause to topple her majesty's regency. Kang was in support the emperor, his student and bitterly against the idea of a woman as an empress for it was in contrary to Confucian principles. He was in Singapore for a while in 1900 on a invitation by Khoo Seok Wan, the scholar-poet who funded the building of Sen Ong Beo near Tanjong Pagar MRT station. The interesting thing about the Kek Lok Si plaques is that they were plaques from three persons that were locked in a hopeless internal battle , benefitting only the encroaching colonists all to eager to loot treasures and resources from the technologically backward empire. Perhaps only when we reflect on Kang's 'Wu Wang Gu Guo' plaque in Kek Lok Si, we shall remember and understand why our ancestors had come thus far to make a living.

For more info on the Qing Empress Dowager Ci Xi, see
For more info on Qing Royalist Kang You Wei, see
For more info on the last Qing emepror's grand tutor, see