The Cultural and Traditional Settings of Singapore's Chinatown

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The mid-day sun was merciless, roasting the streets of Chinatown. Glorious food scents mixed with the rich tatse of garlic, onions, and stir-fry perfumed the air, an alluring mix that lured us to an alley. Before us, picturesque rustic Chinese shophouses elegantly mirrored the orange tinge of the afternoon, while traditional Chinese melodies played harmoniously alongside modern tunes, revitalising the street. Amidst the crowd, foreign and local sightseers flocked from stall to stall while chattering enthusiastically in their distinct dialects, heightening the jocundity of the streets. At a corner of the bustling street where the sweet scent of Nyonya sweets wafted through the air, groups of Westerners and Indians gathered together and bit into the succulent, juicy delicacies, and their expressions turned into one of bliss. A mere step away, a Malay lady twisted her wrists gracefully like a Chinese opera-singer, and while swaying around, she resembled a willow in the wind, drawing high-spirited applause from passers-by. The traditional Chinese hand-held fan in her hand was an extension of herself, much like how medieval swordplay would look, if it were replaced by fans. Stalls selling Chinese traditional costumes next to an Indian temple – the Sri Mariamman Temple – along the hustle and bustle of Chinatown street, were like the perfect blend of the Australia wilderness – a savannah alongside a desert, while so different, blended together with such perfection that resembled the connection between a mother and her child.

The blend of various cultures in the midst of Chinatown was fascinating, acknowledging its evolution from a mono-ethnic street into a multicultural and multi-ethnic street, reflecting the Singapore identity – a harmonious nation built on immigrants and individuals from all walks of life. Singapore is truly a melting pot where individuals of all backgrounds can live harmoniously together. This thus leads one to question: does Chinatown serve more purposes besides preserving traditional Chinese culture in Singapore?

Singapore’s identity is shaped by myths – partial truths that paint an unrealistic picture of our everyday lives to show the way forward for our society as a whole. Kah Seng Loh, Pingtjin Thum, and Jack Meng-Tat Chia (2017) posits that multiculturalism functions as a myth by constructing a “romantic narrative” of Singapore’s victorious emergence from its dark past of racial tension, warning Singaporeans to maintain the status quo of peace and harmony in a multiracial society. Albeit stemming from incomplete truths, myths are not always a vein of evil as they could be used to sway perspectives for the right purposes, such as the myth of our “Singapore story” that promotes multiculturalism and serves to bring diverse cultures together. To understand why Singapore’s multiculturalism is a myth and by extension, an artificial construct, there is a need to “take away their naturalness and reveal them to be man-made” Kah Seng Loh et al (2017). State media, government agencies and higher authorities are typically responsible for enforcing the concept, “one people – regardless of race, language or religion”, to foster tolerance and acceptance of all racial groups. Thus the construction of multiculturalism by higher authorities factors it as a myth and since the development of Chinatown explicitly promotes the existence of multiculturalism in Singapore, there is a need to further explore the intended social and political motives behind the development of Chinatown.

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Our “Singapore Story” has been outwardly established as Singaporeans blatantly acknowledge that they can work and celebrate with others of different races and religions, as seen in Chinatown. It cannot be refuted that multiculturalism has become an integral facet of our daily lives, further illustated by the development of Chinatown. It is also heartening that our bilingual education system encourages interactions among students from diverse cultural backgrounds. Personally, I have made life-long friends from a mix of races from as young as a toddler, and I am confident of forging many more meaningful future relationships with others of different backgrounds. Moreover, the Singapore National Anthem written in the Malay language passionately sung during National Day celebrations evokes immense pride in all Singaporeans, regardless of our ethnic identities. The argument whereby we call ourselves “Singaporeans first before our race” has never been more true. The occasional nods and smiles along the streets of Chinatown from visitors entering the Indian temple, customers dining at Chinese hawkers and locals shopping for diverse ethnic traditional costumes from stalls was what made me feel at home and welcomed as I identified strangers as my fellow Singaporeans – instead of their races and ethnicities. Besides serving as a popular heritage site and tourist destination, Chinatown can thus serve as a tool to foster the illusion of the Singapore’s multicultural identity that brings Singaporeans of all cultural backgrounds together, reaffirming the idea of “One people” in Singapore. This ideal image of unity in the tightly-knitted community of Chinatown asserts our beliefs about racial tolerance and acceptance in Singapore. While the social motive to spur greater accommodation towards diverse races is not of ill-intention, there is still a need to unfold this glamorous portrayal of “multiculturalism”. We have to rediscover this myth of multiculturalism by questioning – are Singaporeans truly accepting of different racial and ethnic groups? Is multiculturalism merely a form of control exerted by the government to prove its legitimacy in Singapore?

The development of Chinatown undertaken by the Singapore government is not only to integrate a fragmented society or to preserve Chinese heritage, but also an avenue to demonstrate the ruling party’s capabilities in promoting multiculturalism. Ien Ang and Jon Stratton (2018) recognises that leaders of Singapore are obsessed over maintaining law and order through tight control over citizens and “moulding people into law-abiding national citizens” through a series of “intense moral education”. The act of “moulding” citizens highlights the capability to shape beliefs, paint illusion and sway perceptions of citizens especially in the form of myths by those in power. The three guiding principles of Multiculturalism, Secularism and Meritocracy laid out crafts the perception that we are all gifted with equal opportunities to create an ideal future for ourselves regardless of race or religion. However, does following these principles and setting aside any inherent differences a sincere demonstration of racial and religious acceptance in Singapore? Kah Seng Loh et al. (2017) refutes this belief, explaining that Singapore’s multiculturalism is only a negative illusion that would ultimately “weaken the sense of the nation”. As individuals are forced to co-exist due to strict multiracial policies being implemented, there is a false portrayal of highly valued multiculturalism in Singapore. A recent controversial “Rap video” countering an insensitive portrayal of minorities in an advertisement was immediately taken down under the order of government. The insults hurled at the Chinese in the video had offended me initially, as it was deemed as an attack on my race. However, why am I offended when the video reflected actual minority sentiments? Why is there a need to remove the video and stop further discourse about racism in Singapore? There has to be a flaw in the portrayal of multiculturalism if citizens are not allowed to raise dissatisfaction against the treatment of their community. The move to silence and disguise any racial concerns as an intention only to divide the populace serves as an excuse for majorities to gloss over the existence of racism. The lack of pragmatic steps to ensure true multiculturalism would eventually be a divisive force in our social fabric.

However, Ien Ang et al. (2017) counters that the hybridisation of Singapore and efforts to fit ethnicities into a “larger national culture” has also been successful, delivering stability and economic growth that is enjoyed by Singaporeans. In the same vein, multiculturalism has been generally inculcated by the government through many policy prescriptions to nurture trust and understanding, such as racial quotas in housing estates and compulsory national service for Singaporeans all of race and religion to work together, and the promotion of a mix of cultures in Chinatown. These policies have largely benefitted citizens like me and generated more opportunities to interact with individuals of different backgrounds regularly. Overtime, I have forged strong ties with my neighbours despite our ethnic or religious differences. Therefore, to some extent, multi-ethnic activities in Chinatown functions as one of the many symbols for the PAP’s successful multicultural policies implemented in the city, glorifying the efforts of the ruling government in bringing the nation together. Hence, the heterogenous races conducting activities together at Chinatown displays sheer success of the government’s role in promoting the myth of multiculturalism that enabled individuals to set aside fundamental differences in their racial identity and to reap the greater good of ecominc prosperity and stability.

Chinatown – a mix of cultural settings, is definitely not solely intended to preserve Chinese heritage, but to ingrain the value of multiculturalism and assert the legitimacy of the ruling party by glorifying its capabilities in upholding the myth of multiculturalism to keep a fragmented nation together. The sturdy structures in Chinatown thus served well as a timely reminder that different races and ethnicities can live together, as a nation for the nation.

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