I was born a happy and healthy baby boy at Mount Elizabeth Hospital on Sunday, 27th of April 1997. Growing up in a typically Singaporean Chinese family, I was often pushed to excel in my studies—an expectation not lost on me from an early age.
My mother’s side of the family is Hokkien, while my father’s side is Hakka, or Khek, as it is known to some people. In my Primary school days, I was often brought to the Hakka Wong Clan Association in Jalan Besar for a yearly dinner and to receive a bursary award—an event like the ones held at Community Centres where Members of Parliament hand out money to students who perform well in their academics. Fast forward a few years and these functions started being more of a rarity when I was in a secondary school as my grades began to slip.
A decade later, I became curious about my identity—I am a Hakka, and I am also a Wong. But is there a deeper meaning to my dialect as well as my surname? Who am I in the grand scheme of things? Who were my forefathers, and where did they come from?
A quick Google search of Hakka associations brought me to Yin Fo Fui Kun. After a brief correspondence on Facebook, I headed down to the clan office in Commonwealth which also doubles up as a cemetery and a columbarium. Nestled in the middle of industrial buildings and blocks of flats, we were immediately greeted by rows upon rows of tombstones. I later learnt that these tombstones are the resting place for some of the deceased members of the Hakka community.
Aside from the cemetery, the Yin Fo Fui Kun in Commonwealth is made up of two other buildings. The first building with a blue roof is the main building, and the second, a red-roofed structure which serves as a columbarium as well as an ancestral hall. Despite their age, both buildings were well-preserved and did not show even the slightest crack on its walls.
On the first floor of the main building, right outside the clan office is a signboard that reads 礼义廉耻 (li yi lian chi), which are the four social bonds of society—propriety, justice, integrity and honour. The second floor of the main building houses the conference hall where meetings are held, as well as some antique rifles which were used to defend the clan building during times of unrest.
We met Ah Koon on our visit to the ancestral hall. He was wearing a yellow and red polo tee bearing the crest of the Yin Fo Fui Kun, and he motioned for us to come over. There was a sparkle in his eye when he saw us—a sure sign that this place does not receive many visitors like us.
I asked him if he was the only caretaker, and he motioned the number 82–the year he began working for the Yin Fo Fui Kun. He then gestured that there were others working as caretakers too; however, they left because the salary was not competitive.
Ah Koon shared with us that the ancestral hall was a popular final resting place for the Hakkas due to its low “rent”. I also learnt that you could tell the social status of a deceased by the font on the tablet—the neater the words, the more money his/her family had.
Ah Koon showed us the five-star stone at the back of the ancestral hall. The text reads “Five star stones represent the culture of Hakka. They represent Earth, Wood, Gold, Water, and Fire. According to legend, these five stones can cast away evil spirits.”
The compound at Ying Fo Fui Kun was mainly a space used by some Hakkas to honour the deceased. Although I did not learn much about my ancestry here, I learnt the importance of filial piety and of preserving our Chinese heritage. It was heartening to see that despite the deceased having passed on many decades ago, their tablets are still well cared for by current family members.
The quest for my identity continued at the Nanyang Khek Community Guild, a Hakka clan association that has been around in Singapore for almost a century.
Pushing open the glass door of the association, I was greeted by an ample space with long tables forming a U shape. Pictures of members of the association were plastered all over the walls of the premises.
A staff member opened up a meeting room for us. Pictures of previous functions held at the association adorn the glass cabinets, and Chinese memorabilia and antiques of various shapes and sizes were displayed neatly on the long wooden dressers.
One notable item on display was a letter dating back to 2009 from the late Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew who is a Hakka himself. In this letter, he expresses his gratitude for the Nanyang Khek Association for their support during the 1955 General Elections. He also expresses his admiration for the association’s youth group.
I spoke to a staff member and learnt that the Nanyang Khek Community Guild was set up 90 years ago for Hakka migrants from China to provide healthcare, education as well as livelihood during trying times. Currently, it exists to support government campaigns to preserve Chinese culture. The Nanyang Khek Community Guild also corresponds frequently with other Hakka associations around the world.
The Hakka are known as 客家人 (ke jia ren)—the first Chinese character means “guest”. Unlike the Cantonese who hails from the Guangdong province and the Hokkiens from the Fujian province, the Hakkas are generally scattered in the Southern region of China amongst people of other dialects. It stands to reason that due to this lack of permanence, wherever we go, we will always be considered a guest.
In comparison to the Hakka locality clans, Kinship clans are a tighter-knit community of people, as each clan consists of only people sharing the same surname. In this case, I belong to the Singapore Hakka Wong Clan Association.
A search on the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan’s website revealed, to my relief, that the Clan Association is still operating. I immediately got in touch with Mr Wong Yoong San, the Assistant Secretary of the association. After learning that I had been a part of the association’s activities once, Mr Wong was more than eager to show me around the clan office.
My memory of how the clan office looked a decade ago was very different from how it was in the present day. The clan office used to occupy the entire shopfront; now, the first floor has been rented out to the Tiramisu Hero café.
Mr Wong was playing golf as part of a clan activity prior to our visit and was dressed for the occasion in a dri-fit tee and cargo pants. He welcomed us with a huge grin on his face, and throughout the two hours we spent there, his smile never abated.
I began the search for my grandfather’s name on one of the inscriptions on the wall. These inscriptions are dedicated to members of the clan who have contributed money to either the construction or renovation of the clan building over the past few years. And sure enough, my grandfather was one of the donors to the building renovation in the year 1971.
I was unable to find my father’s name on any of the inscriptions as half of them were from before the time he was born. I asked Mr Wong if he could pull out a nominal roll of all existing members of the clan and after much flipping, I found it. It was heartening to know that despite my father’s inactivity, his membership status was neither suspended nor revoked.
However, I wanted to learn more than just about my direct descendents, so I asked Mr Wong about the history of my ancestry.
Before Qin Shi Huang—the emperor of the Qin dynasty—united the seven kingdoms as one, there was a country based off my surname called 潢国 (huang guo) . It was sadly overrun by 楚国 (chu guo) which resulted in a large population of the Wongs being scattered to the south.
Mr Wong explained to me that we are the descendants of Qiao Shan Gong, who was a minister of labour in the Tang Dynasty. When he was 80 years old, he gathered his 21 sons during the tail end of the Tang Dynasty and instructed all but his three elder sons to disperse as the Tang Dynasty was in a state of turmoil. His portrait, along with that of his three wives, is displayed in the clan office.
When Qiao Shan Gong asked his sons to disperse, he left a poem for his sons and descendants as a way for them to identify as a member of the Wong clan. This poem is inscribed on the dressers under the portraits of Qiao Shan Gong and his three wives.
Mr Wong explained to me that he is the descendant of the ninth son of the second wife of Qiao Shan Gong. He elaborated that the process to trace back his ancestry was very long and complicated, and would take too long for me to find out in my short time here.
I was unable to find out my ancestry, but I gained tremendous insight into my culture and my roots. Mr Wong was extremely knowledgeable, and even shared with me bits of China’s rich history—which was just as enriching.
Through my visit to these three places today, I learnt how important it is to embrace our culture as a Chinese in Singapore. Throughout the day, I was embarrassed by the fact that I struggled to understand the Mandarin of the people I spoke to. Flipping through the nominal roll of the Hakka Wong Association also made me realise how little interest millennials such as myself have in our Chinese culture.
This is a journey I would encourage others to take. There are many associations for dialect groups and surnames, and a quick search at the Singapore Federation of Chinese Associations may bring you a step closer to learning more about your origins as a Chinese descendent. While you may not have to take a leap of faith and join an association, it will undoubtedly be an eye-opening journey.
I shall end this post with a meaningful poem that I found at the Nanyang Khek Community Guild, which describes the Hakkas.
“The Hakkas travel the seas,
leaving their home behind.
Despite that, we never forget our roots.
With music and passion,
everyone is family.”
Now I understand why I have a love of travelling. It is, after all, in my bloodline.
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