Straits Chinese Stories

Intersecting Voices: Stories from the Straits Chinese Magazine


Her One Redeeming Feature” — Chia Cheng Sit
Lost and Found” — Lew See Fah
The Travels of Chang Ching Chong
Rodney’s Salvation
The President’s Ball” — “T. B.G.”
Is Revenge Sweet?”  — Wee Tong Poh
Ways and Means” — “Datoh”
A Daughter’s Portion” — Bertie Armstrong
Ada Wing’s Marriage” — Kelwin Baxter
The Old Story” — “Homo”
From My Father’s Diary” — Chia Cheng Sit


In 1897, a new journal appeared in Singapore. Published quarterly, The Straits Chinese Magazine contained a mixture of essays, news, editorials, and short stories. Modelled after contemporary British monthly magazines such as Blackwood’s or Macmillan’s, the Straits Chinese Magazine was unique in that it attempted to give non-Europeans a voice in colonial society. While it emerged out of the concerns of members of the pre-existing Strait Chinese community in the Straits Settlements, it was not bound by the limits of that community. Rather, it attempted to reach out to a new, modern community of the “Straits-born” through the medium of the English language, describing itself as a “journal of oriental and occidental culture.”

The two editors of the magazine were young men returned from studying in England, Song Ong Siang and Lim Boon Keng. Of the two, Song was perhaps more stereotypically Straits Chinese. Straits Chinese culture was a hybrid of Chinese, Malay, and later English influences. Straits Chinese were ethnically Chinese, and retained many Chinese customs. Many, however, spoke in a Malay patois, and dissociated themselves from the larger community of China-born Chinese who immigrated to Malaya and the Straits Settlements in the Nineteenth Century. Straits Chinese identity, in appropriately Victorian fashion, was strongly based upon a division between public and domestic spheres. Straits Chinese men, or Babas, were active in the outside world, and often constituted the most wealthy members of colonial society: they wore either Chinese, or, increasingly, European dress. Straits Chinese women, or Nyonyas, presided over the home, wearing the Malay-influenced baju panjang and evolving a distinctive, Malay-influenced cuisine. We should not think, however, of Nyonyas as being totally passive: there was, apparently a tradition in Singapore at the turn of the century in which, on one day each year, young Nyonyas dressed up as men and drove along the Esplanade, behaving in a suitably boorish manner.

Given the relative wealth of some members of the Straits Chinese community, and their openness to different cultures, it was perhaps inevitable that they would become a comprador class under colonialism, especially in the late nineteenth century. At this time, British attitudes towards colonial rule in Malaya were changing. Since Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819, the East India Company, and later the colonial government, had adopted a policy of free trade and laissez-faire capitalism. Each community was left to govern itself: Malays through traditional rulers, Chinese through the huiguan and gongsi societies. In last two decades of the nineteenth century the “Forward Movement” saw British influence extend over much of the Malay Peninsula. At the same time, governors of the Straits Settlements such as Frederick Weld and Cecil Clementi Smith attempted to gain a much more thorough-going control over all aspects of colonial society. In order to do this, they needed a class of middle-men, English-educated non-Europeans who could mediate between the colonial authorities and the Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations. The Straits Chinese were ideally suited for this role.

Song’s own life exemplifies this trend. He was born in Singapore in 1871, and studied at the premier school in the colony, Raffles Institution. In 1888 he won a recently-introduced scholarship to study in England, and studied law first at the Middle Temple in London, and then at the University of Cambridge. He was called to the Bar in 1893, and returned to Singapore, and set up a law firm.

Song was very much part of a distinctively Straits Chinese world. He spoke and wrote both Malay and English but little, if any, Chinese. He was a devout Presbyterian, and one of his first acts upon returning to Singapore was to become president of the Straits Chinese Christian Association. Song emphasised that Straits Chinese should gain a proper place in colonial society by claiming their rights as British subjects. In an early essay in the Straits Chinese Magazine, for instance, he explored the legal status of Chinese people born in the colony of the Straits Settlements, and argued that they were British subjects, owing allegiance to the British Crown and not to Qing dynasty China through the Chinese Consulate in Singapore. Song went on to be knighted, to found the Straits Chinese British Association and a local military volunteer corps.

Song should not be thought, however, as a passive recipient of colonial propaganda. Under his and Lim’s editorship, The Straits Chinese Magazine asked hard question about the contradictions of colonialism. If colonialism’s purpose was to educate and uplift subject races, Lim and Song noted, why did the colonial regime continue to discriminate against loyal and educated non-European subjects?

If Song emphasized European, and especially British learning as a means of modernization, Lim, while acknowledging these elements of colonial society, also looked elsewhere. Like Song, Lim had been educated at Raffles Institution, and had then gone to the United Kingdom on a scholarship. Graduating from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in medicine, he carried out research in Pathology at Camridge before returning to Singapore in 1893. Lim had apparently embraced Christianity while a student in Edinburgh, but upon his return to the Straits Settlements he took a very different path than Song. Despite his English education, Lim moved increasingly towards Chinese culture, re-learning written Chinese and moving away from Christianity towards a new, revitalised Confucianism.

Central to Lim’s notions of modernization were the ideas of Kang Youwei, the reform-minded Chinese scholar. Trained as a scholar in the Confucian classics, Kang, perceiving the weakness of China against the European powers, proposed a revitalised Confucianism fused with Western science as a means of reforming and modernising Chinese society. From 1895 to 1898, Kang petitioned the Guangxu Emperor. Many of his suggested reforms were proclaimed as imperial edicts in the summer of 1898, but the “Hundred Days Reform,” as its name suggest, was short-lived. The Empress Dowager Cixi reasserted control. The reforms were cancelled, and Kang fled into exile, staying for some time with Khoo Seok Wan in Singapore.

The reform movement’s ideals can best be summed up in one of its slogans, zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong–Chinese learning for essence, Western learning for use. In the modern world, Lim and others felt, Chinese people should make a new connection with their heritage, but they should use that heritage selectively in order to progress. Lim had been educated in the United Kingdom and trained in Western science. He was committed to a notion of progress through rational scientific investigation, and interested in evolution and eugenics. For Lim Confucianism, purged of all superstitious accretions which had attached themselves to it over the centuries, was the perfect expression of reason. Chinese people could thus become modern by rediscovering their own heritage, and using it in tandem with the fruits of the Western Enlightenment. While Song stressed an attachment to British culture Lim, while asserting his loyalty to the Crown, was more concerned with developing Chinese culture in Singapore. He organised early classes in Mandarin, and was also active in setting up the Chinese-speaking Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. In 1921, he became vice-chancellor of Xiamen (Amoy) University in China.

Lim and Song thus had different, although overlapping views of Asian modernization, and the role of Straits-born Chinese and other non-European peoples in colonial society. In The Straits Chinese Magazine issues regarding modernization, including dress reform, European racism, and the merits of Confucianism compared to Christianity, were raised and discussed. The magazine contained informative articles, editorials, essays expressing opinions on current intellectual and political topics, as well as a few poems. Most significant, however, for this volume, were a number of short stories, produced by Chinese, European, and possibly Eurasian writers, although identification is difficult since most were published either pseudonymously or anonymously. The stories range widely in subject matter and literary sophistication, but collectively they do amount to a significant body of work. They constitute the first literature in English by people concerned to develop a uniquely Straits-born identity, centred upon Singapore. While the stories are frequently heavily influenced by British literary models–Rudyard Kipling and Hugh Clifford were among the English writers discussed in articles in the Straits Chinese Magazine–they nonetheless attempt to create their own, distinctively Straits-born voice, occupying a small, but crucial space within the colonial public sphere.

The stories represented here are in many respects typical of the literature in the Straits Chinese Magazine. While disparate in theme and setting, most are concerned with the issue of identity, and the place of various community, class, and gender-based identities in colonial society. “From My Father’s Diary” is a well-written ghost story, an early example of a genre which has proved popular in Singapore. Stories such as “Ways and Means,” in which the narrator struggles to find money to celebrate Chinese New Year in style, refer both to Chinese tradition and the demands of an incipient modernity.

Central to many of the stories is the creation of a new, middle-class Asian identity as part of a process of entry into the colonial public sphere. Many of the stories featured, such as Bertie Armstrong’s “A Daughter’s Portion,” condemn gambling, and urge self-discipline: others explore personal morality. One such story of moral improvement is “T. B. G.’s” “The President’s Ball.” The story shows a pride in Straits Chinese culture, and is set at the “country seat” of the President of the Baba Club, somewhere in the interior of the island. The President’s sense of taste is repeatedly emphasised: he is “the type of the accomplished gentleman” and, in furnishing his mansion, he has “spent lavishly, yet with a nice perception of order and discrimination”. The narrator’s comment that the President “had travelled in many foreign lands where European culture and refinement find readier acceptance than they do here” is subtly insinuates that two other communities–nouveau riche Chinese immigrants and Europeans–are both deficient in European culture: it is the Straits Chinese who represent true refinement.

The cultured community, however, is threatened by moral dissipation. The President has hired a number of “dancing girls” for the party, and his own partner, “a girl of Dutch extraction” is the “belle of the ball”. Their presence, however, initiates a discussion between the President and his closest friend, Swee Tong, about the “sacred ties of matrimony”. Later his partner, Middy, confesses to him that she has “harboured the hope that we might marry and lead an exemplary conjugal life”: having failed to see this, she resolves to see him no more. Moved by the declaration, the President softens towards Middy, enclosing her with “an embrace which made them feel that thenceforth would they begin to love one another with a love pure and holy, culminating in what they dared not at that moment conjecture”.

Though melodramatic, the story is nonetheless interesting in that it maps notions of respectable bourgeois Victorian selfhood–the ideal of the gentleman not as a feudal aristocrat, but as a bourgeois exemplar of conjugality and manly self-restraint–onto the social objectives of the reform movement.

Other stories explore the place of Straits Chinese as British subjects in the Straits Settlements. The story “Lost and Found,” by the obviously pseudonymous Lew See Fah (who may well be Song himself) emphasizes the rights of Straits Chinese to be tried by British courts, and not to be subject to the threat of banishment at the hands of the Protector of the Chinese. In another story, “Is Revenge Sweet?” by Wee Tong Poh, an obviously wealthy Straits Chinese doctor acts as an intermediary between Chinese “coolies” and the ironically-named Inspector Catspaw of the Gambling Suppression Department, who is clearly misled by informers, and obsessed by bureaucracy. In doing so, the doctor usurps Catspaw’s function: it is only because of his intervention that justice is done. The story hints at the low standard of education of European inspectors in the police force, and the injustice of the clear colour bar which operated in the police force. “Is Revenge Sweet?”, in its manipulation of the popular genre of the detective story, shows considerable literary skill.

One of the most sophisticated stories, “Rodney’s Salvation,” also parodies British fiction. It appears, initially, to be an example of the kind of colonial fiction written by Clifford, Swettenham, and other late nineteenth-century writers who made Malaya their subject matter. The story is anonymous, and the reader’s first impression is that it is written by an Englishman. The narrator seems English also: he is “home” now, and meets the retired John Rodney there. Rodney is mysterious figure, his limbs partly paralysed as the result, apparently, of a stroke. One night, Rodney tells the narrator the story of his life “over our punch” (7).

The short story, so far, covers familiar territory. The framed narrative of adventure recounted in the urbane intimacy of the club, hotel room or even sick-room is very much a feature of colonial fiction of the period set in Malaya. The effect is to produce a distance between European and the colonial landscape: moments of wild adventure are recounted in rational tranquility, and their significance dissected forensically by European observers and their interlocutors. In “Rodney’s Salvation” the form is followed but the effect is undercut by two features of the narrative. Firstly, the narrator himself seems carelessly celebratory of the obverse side of imperialism: rather than noting the moral motivation of colonial service, he rather remarks that Rodney is “one of the thousands of Englishmen who make their “pile” in the East and come home to live on it.” This is scarcely flattering. Secondly, the doctor who diagnoses the true cause of Rodney’s paralysis is Chinese–Dr. Teck–despite the fact that the frame narrative is nominally set in England. Dr. Teck usurps the role of the rational European interlocutor: he is a “great specialist in nervous diseases,” and the story later compares the doctor’s role to that of Sherlock Holmes.

As the story progresses, Rodney, who perhaps initially engages the reader’s sympathy, quickly begins to lose it. He complains of the practice of European men taking concubines in Bangkok, and then proceeds to explain that he took one himself. Rodney’s story carries on, but the callousness of the narrator becomes increasingly apparent. Far from sympathising with him, the reader draws back, and begins to question some of the easy prejudices of racial and cultural superiority with which he views the world.

The other stories here exhibit some variety. “The Travels of Chang Ching Chong” rewrites the genre of nineteenth century adventure fiction with a Chinese, rather than a European, protagonist. In a concluding episode set on the island of “Gainserop,” a transparent anagram for Singapore, the story makes acerbic comments on both colonial rule and the position of women in Chinese society. Both “Ada Wing’s Marriage” and “A Daughter’s Portion” explore, if hesitantly, the role of women in a newly-modernized Asian community, and the tensions in identity created by tradition. The stories, as a whole, are not without contradictions. While many expose European hypocrisy and racism, others, in their anxiety to create a community of acceptably middle class non-European colonial subjects, make sharp discriminations against other communities. “Is Revenge Sweet?”, for example, contains a description of a “Teochew Chinaman, with a cunning and crafty look in his eyes and dressed with bad taste” which replicates many of the racist descriptions of Chinese men in contemporary colonial fiction. “Ways and Means” contains a derogatory description of Indian money-lenders which borders on explicit racism. In creating a modern Asian subject, the writers of the stories frequently needed to exclude other communities from their vision of Asian modernity.

As several commentators have noticed, the amount of fiction includeed in the Straits Chinese Magazine declined over the decade in which it was published. The magazine ceased publication in 1907, the editors having been unable to find a younger generation of Straits Chinese willing to take on the burden of producing further issues. As both Koh Tai Ann and John Clammer have noted, the fiction itself did not give rise to a tradition. There were desultory, individual efforts: the Straits Chinese Literary Association’s Recorder, for instance, published short and elementary efforts, while Lim Boon Keng went on to produce a novel, Tragedies of Eastern Life, in 1927.

For a community of creative writers in English, however, Singapore would have to wait until after the Second World War and the writings of undergraduate poets at the University of Malaya from 1949 onwards.

At the same time, however, it would be a mistake to relegate the fiction in the Straits Chinese Magazine to the status of a museumized curiosity, another facet of a growing heritage industry concerning Peranakan culture. As Jürgen Rudolph has noted, what is conventionally thought of as Peranakan culture existed for only a few decades at the most. If we see Peranakan, or Straits Chinese, or Baba identity as a situational identity, or a series of identities and cultures which show great ability to adapt and appropriate other cultural elements, our evaluation of the place of the stories in the Straits Chinese Magazine is transformed. Rather than being a reflection of a single, deracinated, elite culture, then, the stories become initial attempts in founding and negotiating an Asian modernity, drawing on disparate elements from both daily life and imagined cultural pasts, in order to move forward. As such, they are of continuing and lasting relevance to Singapore today.



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