Singapore's Chinese residents were the descendants of immigrants from coastal southeastern China, an area of much linguistic and subcultural variation. The migrants spoke at least five mutually unintelligible Chinese languages, each of which contained numerous regional dialects. Singaporean usage, however, following the common Chinese tendency to assert cultural unity, referred to mutually unintelligible speech systems as "dialects." All the Chinese languages and dialects shared common origins and grammatical structures and could be written with the same Chinese idiograms, which represent meaning rather than sound. The primary divisions in the immigrant Chinese population therefore followed linguistic lines, dividing the populace into segments that were called dialect communities, speech groups, or even "tribes". In the nineteenth century, each speech group had its own set of associations, ranging from secret societies to commercial bodies to schools and temples. The groups communicated through leaders conversant with other Chinese languages or through a third language such as Malay or English.
The nomenclature for Chinese speech groups common in Singapore and Southeast Asia is confusing, partly because each group can be referred to by several alternate names. Most of the names refer to places in China with characteristic regional speech or dialects, and include the names of provinces, counties, and major cities.
The distribution of Singapore's Chinese speech groups has remained fairly stable since 1900. The largest group were the Hokkien, who came from the area around the trading port of Xiamen (Amoy) in southern Fujian Province. Hokkien traders and merchants had been active in Southeast Asia for centuries before the foundation of Singapore. In 1980 they made up 43 percent of Singapore's Chinese population. The second largest group were the Teochiu (sometimes written Teochew), comprising 22 percent of the Chinese population. Their home area is Chaozhou, in Chao'an County in northeastern Guangdong Province, which has as its major port the city of Shantou (Swatow). Chaozhou is immediately south of the Hokkien-speaking area of Fujian, and both Teochiu and Hokkien are closely related languages of the Minnan group, mutually intelligible to native speakers after sufficient practice. Hainanese, from the island of Hainan south of Guangdong, made up 8 percent of the population. Hainan was settled by people from southern Fujian who arrived by sea, and Hainanese is a Minnan language whose native speakers can understand Hokkien or Teochiu with relatively little difficulty after practice. Speakers of Minnan languages thus made up 72 percent of the Chinese population, for whom Hokkien served as a lingua franca, the language of the marketplace.
The third most numerous group were Cantonese, from the lowlands of central Guangdong Province around the port city of Guangzhou (Canton). They made up 16 percent of the Chinese population. Hakka, a group scattered through the interior hills of southern China and generally considered migrants from northern China, were 7 percent. Other Chinese call them "guest people", and the term Hakka (Kejia in pihyih romanization) is Cantonese for "guest families." There also were small numbers of people from the coastal counties of northern Fujian, called Hokchia, Hokchiu, and Henghua, whose northern Fujian (Minbei) languages are quite distinct from those of southern Fujian and seldom spoken outside of Fujian. A final, residual category of Chinese were the "Three Rivers People," who came from the provinces north of Guangdong and Fujian. This group included people from northern and central China, and more specifically those provinces sharing the word "river" (jiang) in their names--Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. They would have spoken southern Mandarin dialects or the Wu languages of Shanghai, Ningbo, and Hangzhou. In 1980 they were 1.7 percent of the Chinese population.
A significant category of Chinese, although one not listed in the census reports, were the Baba Chinese or Straits Chinese. They were Chinese who after long residence in Southeast Asia spoke Malay or English as their first language, and whose culture contained elements from China, Southeast Asia, and sometimes Europe as well. An indication of the size of the Baba Chinese community was provided by the 1980 census report that 9 percent of Chinese families spoke English at home. Stereotypically the Baba were the offspring of Chinese migrants and local women. In the nineteenth century, they tended to be wealthier and better educated than the mass of immigrants and to identify more with Singapore and Southeast Asia than with China. In spite of their language, the Baba considered themselves Chinese, retained Chinese kinship patterns and religion, and even when speaking Malay used a distinct Baba dialect of Malay with many loan words from Hokkien. Never a large proportion of Singapore's Chinese population, in the late nineteenth century they took advantage of opportunities for education in English and promoted themselves as loyal to Britain. In Singapore, many Baba families spoke English as a first language and produced many of the leaders of Singapore's independent political movements, including Lee Kuan Yew. Although the Baba, in a sense, provided the model for the current Singaporean who is fluent in English and considers Singapore as home, the community fragmented in the early twentieth century as Chinese nationalism spread. After the 1920s its members gained no advantage, economic or political, from distinguishing themselves from the rest of the Chinese population and tended increasingly to become Chinese again, often learning to speak Chinese as adults. In the 1980s, Baba culture survived largely in the form of a well-known cuisine that mixed Chinese and Malay ingredients and in some families who continued to use English as the language of the home.
As the majority of the population and the ethnic group that dominated the political system and state administrative structure, Singapore's Chinese exhibited the widest range of occupational, educational, and class status. Those with little or no formal education occupied the bottom rungs of the occupational hierarchy and led social lives restricted to fellow members of the same dialect group. The level of formal education and language of education--Chinese or English--divided the Chinese into broad categories. Status for those working in the internationally oriented private sector or in government service depended on command of English and educational qualifications. In the still substantial Chinese private sector, status and security rested on a position in a bounded dialect community and a network of personal relations established over a lifetime. Although the latter exclusively Chinese category was shrinking, by the late 1980s it still contained some quite wealthy men who helped set the international price of rubber, controlled businesses with branches in Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and other countries of the region, and supported Singapore's array of Chinese charities, hospitals, and education trusts. Singapore's Chinese society was one with a high degree of social mobility and one in which status increasingly was determined by educational qualifications and command of English and Mandarin.
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