The upcoming Indian Heritage Centre and annual Singapore HeritageFest provide colourful avenues to discover and celebrate our cultural roots.
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Published on 13 April 2015
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Singapore is known to celebrate its milestones of progress. On the surface, what many see is a landscape of skyscrapers, clean streets and people living in harmony. But beneath that lie rich layers of history and heritage. Collectively, these layers tell stories of a diverse group of people who came from far and wide and ended up calling Singapore home.
Modern Singapore started out as a vibrant trading post when Sir Stamford Raffles landed on our island in 1819. The British East India Company, which Raffles worked for, had its headquarters in Calcutta, India. With the East India Company carving pathways into Singapore, other Indian communities from all over the subcontinent started to follow the monsoon winds to the island.
And just like the Chinese immigrants who brought their different dialects, the Indians have about 20 languages, over 100 dialects and an overwhelming diversity of sub-cultures ranging from Parsi to Punjabi, Sindhi to Gujarati and Chettiar to Malayalee.
By no means is the heritage of Singapore’s Indian community homogeneous. Come May, the immigrant stories of this multi-faceted community will be told when the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC) opens its doors to the world.
“IHC is not about India’s heritage. If you want that, go to the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM),” says Dr Gauri Krishnan, IHC’s centre director and a former senior curator with ACM’s South Asia gallery. “IHC is about the Indian community in Singapore, those who settled here from the colonial period onwards and their contribution to our country.”
From traders to plantation workers and soldiers to convicts, these early Indians came for a variety of reasons. Among the first to arrive was Naraina Pillai, Singapore’s first building contractor who founded the Sri Mariamman Temple, our oldest Hindu place of worship.
“There were also Indian women who came to work in the plantations with the view of escaping the misery of home,” reveals Dr Krishnan. “They took the risk and made the ship journey — without men — to gain their independence here.”
The IHC will focus on individuals and institutions from the British colonial era onwards, with stories falling along thematic lines, celebrating the contribution of the Indian community to every sector of growth in Singapore.
The initiative to collect these stories began in 2009, when a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the National Heritage Board and the various ethnic community-led foundations.
“When we embarked on this endeavour seven years ago, the greatest challenge we faced was that there was very little published research material. We had to sift through government documents, newspapers, colonial records, and tap on oral history,” recounts Dr Krishnan. “We started by identifying a handful of pioneering families and getting their stories. Then by word of mouth, one led to another.”
Conceptualised as a museum, the modern four-storey IHC building, located at the junction of Campbell Lane and Clive Street in Little India, features five permanent galleries, educational facilities and activity spaces. When opened, it will run workshops, demonstrations, talks, film screenings and guided tours by volunteer guides or docents.
Dr Chitra Varaprasad, a senior lecturer with the Centre for English Language Communication, National University of Singapore, is a docent with the IHC. “I’ve been guiding at ACM since 2005 and subsequently at both the National Museum of Singapore and the Peranakan Museum. Through the experience, I’ve obtained interesting insights into the immigrant cultures of Singapore,” she shares.
“Being Indian, I wanted to have a deeper understanding of the Indian immigrants to Singapore, particularly their struggles and contributions. I wanted to hear voices narrate this story and to see the artefacts come alive, all under one roof,” she says, adding that the training sessions have been personally enriching. “I especially learnt a lot about the Sikh and Parsi communities and their contributions to Singapore.”
IHC opens 8 May with a month-long CultureFest. Visit www.indianheritage.org.sg for more information.
The First Wave
The earliest Indians to set foot on modern Singapore were 120 soLDIers from the Bengal InFantry who arrived with Sir Stamford Rales in 1819.
The Chitty Melaka
Just as Chinese immigrants married local Malay women and birthed the Peranakan Chinese, the Indian immigrants Inter-marrIed too. The Chitty Melaka practised HInDuIsm but followed the Malay culture in terms of food, language and dressing.
Though not a big number, women convicted of crImes In InDia were sent to Singapore and were among the first to arrIve — some even brought along their children.
First National Service Enlistee
Mr ALBel SIngh is officially the first NatIonal ServIce (NS) enlistee in Singapore. He was foremost in line for NS registration on 28 MarcH 1967.
The Dawoodi Bohra are a Shi’ite Muslim trading community with a presence in Singapore since the 1880s. Early prominent businessmen include FN Tyebally, Abbasbuoy Mohammed and Moiz Nomanbuoy.
Mrs Salma Moiz, a veteran member of this community, explains why she decided to loan artefacts to IHC, “When my father died and we had to move house, it broke my heart. Things we collected through the years or had been passed down had piled up and nobody wanted them. Sharing these artefacts with others, through IHC, is the best thing.”
The Singapore HeritageFest (SHF), organised by the National Heritage Board, swings into its 12th edition this year. For the first time, the start of the festival will coincide with World Heritage Day on 18 April, and instead of running for the usual 10 consecutive days, this year’s festival spans five weekends, ending on International Museum Day on 18 May.
“We cannot possibly fully understand ourselves without knowing where we come from, and I believe, hardwired in us, is a curiosity to discover our roots, our past,” says Angelita Teo, who is both SHF festival director and director of the National Museum of Singapore.
“Over the years, there has been an increasing number of individuals and community groups keen to be actively involved. The extension of the festival will allow for more community contributors and connect people from all walks of life in celebration of their shared experiences and memories,” says Teo. “It’s truly a people’s festival.”
SHF2015 will garner unprecedented community contribution, with over 100 programmes supported by close to 80 partners. While previous editions featured a series of fixed themes, with exhibitions held at specific satellite hubs, this year’s SHF will see events held all over the island — from Chinatown to the Singapore River, Tiong Bahru to Jurong — with programming extended to both day and night.
Night programming is a first for SHF. Some fun events to look out for include the Telok Ayer Street Light Up, Night Out at Tiong Bahru, Reliving New World Singapore, From the Belly of the Carp at the Singapore River, and Jiving Through The Ages.
This year’s festival will also uncover lesser-known elements of Singapore’s heritage. For the first time, Armenian culture is put in the spotlight. Gevorg Sargsyan, an Armenian volunteer with SHF2015, sheds some light on his community. “Early Armenian settlers in Singapore were traders who came to explore new opportunities in the early 19th century. They established businesses across the Straits of Malacca and left behind a rich heritage not only in Singapore but also Malacca and Penang.” Few know that the iconic Raffles Hotel, Vanda Miss Joaquim (Singapore’s national flower) and The Straits Times were all established by Armenians!
It’s often said that Singapore is a melting pot of cultures. But perhaps what initiatives like SHF2015 and IHC serve to remind us is that immigrant cultures should be celebrated in their rich diversity — appreciated as a tossed salad, with each ingredient retaining its full form and flavour. This is the sort of legacy we’d want to pass on to the next generation.