Proud lion, hidden dragon


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2016年2期

BY James Wilkinson

Singapores Chinese and the mainland culture gap


Singapore is an anomaly in many ways. The worlds only island city-state, this tiny country—smaller than New York City—had a grim life expectancy when it emerged from British colonial control in the mid-20th century. And yet, in just 51 years, it has become an economic powerhouse with the highest ranking of any Asian country on the UNs Human Development Index (it comes in at 11 worldwide, beating the likes of Sweden, the UK, and France).

But what really makes Singapore unique is its demographics: it is the only non-Chinese country with a majority ethnic Chinese population. In 2014, for example, 74 percent of its 5.47 million residents were of Chinese origin. And yet, the country prides itself on not privileging one group over another; a year in Singapore will give you the opportunity to be dazzled by the Chinese New Year fireworks, marvel at Hindu dancers during Diwali celebrations, breakfast during the Malay-Muslim holiday of Hari Raya (known elsewhere in the Islamic world as Eid al-Fitr), and sing Christmas carols under twinkling lights.

So while the countrys main ethnic groups—Chinese, Malay, and Indian—maintain their own communities and cultural and social traditions, they connect with one another to form a wider sense of community that is uniquely Singaporean. Michael Chan, a Chinese-Singaporean now working in China as a business development director at EtonHouse International Education Group, recalls: “I grew up with Indians and Malays; we ate each-others foods—no pork when serving Malays, no beef when serving Indians—and celebrated each-others festivals. We attend each-others weddings and baby showers and tell racist jokes to each other…but were always being careful to tell racist jokes about our own races so as not to offend!”

The countrys cultural pluralism—its official languages are English, Mandarin, Malay, and the Indian/Sri Lankan language of Tamil—was the work of the countrys architect, Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), and his Peoples Action Party (PAP). They were the first to be elected when the country began self-governance in 1959, and continued their rule through Singapores declaration of independence in 1965 and up to the modern day—though fierce control of the political sphere and media by Lee, who prioritized stability over civil rights, had some say in this.

Lee, who eschewed both Communism and Western liberalism, nevertheless maintained strong bonds with both China and the West, even welcoming Chinese leaders to study Singapores success as they searched for a post-Mao direction; a China Daily report on Lees death in 2015, quotes Xi Jinping as saying that Singapores openness “played an important role in…Chinas construction for modernization”.

But cultural penetration in the other direction has been minimal. Instead, the criss-crossing lives of the Lion Citys multicultural inhabitants have created a blend of cultures unique to the area. For a delicious example, head to the bustling “hawker centers”—aromatic food halls that attract people from all parts of Singaporean society—and pick up a bowl of laksa. This spicy noodle soup combines Malay and Chinese flavors and originates with the Peranakan Chinese, aka Straits-born Chinese, whose ancestors emigrated from the mainland to the Malay Archipelago 400 to 600 years ago. In the 1960s, they were swept up with Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka, and other dialect groups to form the “Chinese” demographic, though all remain as distinct sub-groups today.

Singaporeans are bound by language: English is the lingua franca but children are made to learn a second language, their “mother tongue”, in schools. For Chinese this is Mandarin, but that doesnt mean communication with mainland Chinese is always fluid. “Some of the words we used are different,” says Michael. “In Shanghai, tudou(土豆) means potatoes, but in Singapore we call them malingshu(馬铃薯), and in Hokkien tudou refers to peanuts. My wife laughed like crazy when our [Anhui-born] domestic helper once bought fish-heads(鱼头y%t5u) instead of yams(芋头y&tou).”

Candy Lee, founder of Yi Mandarin, a Singapore-based, expat-focused Mandarin school, agrees: “After a few decades of English as a first language, colloquial Mandarin in Singapore is usually mixed with English, Chinese dialects, and even Malay. We do understand the Mandarin spoken by mainlanders though, and after conversing with them we usually think to ourselves, ‘I havent use that word for a long time!”

In fact, this mixing has led to the creation of a Creole language, Singlish, which incorporates English, Malay, Tamil, and various Chinese dialects. Once discouraged by the government, which runs Speak Good English campaigns, it nevertheless flourishes at street level. In fact, it is such a part of the national identity that 2015s Jubilee Year celebrations featured Singlish in its advertising campaigns, and the National Day parade had floats proclaiming “Leh” and “Lah”—words used to modify the tone of a sentence, similar to ba(把) in Mandarin.

And it is national identity, not ethnic identity, that matters to modern Singaporeans, says Michael. “My generation tend to identify ourselves more with our nation of Singapore, rather than with our ethnicity. My parents generation would take a more middle-ground. My grandparents were racist, if you get what I mean—they felt that they were superior to the Malays and Indians, and fawned on the Europeans. I personally identify myself as more Singaporean than Chinese.”

Daniel Fok, a student in Singapore, adds, “I think culture is the primary reason why people like me separate mainland Chinese from Singaporeans even though we know that we are all [human]. Singapore is, after all, a land of immigrants and most of us originate from the Chinese mainland. But I identify with Singapore more than with China.

“A Singaporean can always sense the intangible feeling that [someone] is Singaporean. I suppose Singlish does play a part. However, I have a Malaysian-Kiwi friend whom I consider to be Singaporean. In all honesty, I feel that an actual true Singaporean identity doesnt exist, which is what really makes us Singaporean. If you dont identify with your home country as much as you do with Singapore, you might very well be Singaporean.”

Unfortunately, the divide between Chinese-Singaporeans—or Singaporeans in general—and mainland Chinese seems to be growing, thanks to negative reports of misbehaving expats and tourists. In 2014, a woman was snapped defecating in a Singapore rail station. Although her nationality was not confirmed and rail staff told media they believed she was of “unsound mind”, users of STOMP, a Singapore “citizen journalism” site, left reams of comments deriding mainlanders.

“Because of media reports and some bad experiences,” says Michael, “Singaporeans generally view mainland Chinese as rude, uncouth, reluctant to assimilate into our society—new citizens thinking of themselves as Chinese with a Singaporean passport—unwilling to speak English rather than Mandarin, and, worst of all, husband-snatchers. The relationship is very frosty because of how the media blow up all these cases.

“Imagine this: a [mainland-born] Singaporean friend of mine got into an argument with a Chinese-Singaporean because he was rude. She ended up telling him off, in English, that he behaves like a mainland Chinese!”

Still, while friction exists between their peoples, the official relationship between Singapore and China remains strong. Joint projects like the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park continue to be built; Singapore was an early investor in Chinas Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and last November saw a positive meeting between Xi Jinping and Singapores heads of state.

But it is the soft power that might prove most useful, says XuBeixi, who was born on the mainland but lived in Singapore from the ages of five to 20: “The most telling things [about Singapore-Chinese relations] are the full-scale exchange programs that are occurring. My sister is in high school [in Singapore], and recently went on a home-stay, month-long trip to live with a host family [in China] with the rest of her classmates. And the year before that, [she took] a learning journey to Beijing where Singaporean students were paired up with local students, exchanged gifts, and became friends. There are even pen-pal programs with mainland students—thats not a coincidence.”

Michael is similarly positive about the present, but does have concern for the future: “The Chinese government recognizes that Singapore is like a relative that understands how ‘barbarians think, and thus continues to cultivate a relationship with this strange relative who looks and talks like them but has different values and cultures…We are almost like Chinas eye to the Western and South-East Asian world. I cannot help but wonder, though, whether this can continue after the death of the elder Mr. Lee. In him, we have lost a sharp eye for world affairs. Once Singapore stops being that strange relative, would China still give us the same accord they give us now?”