Teochews Can Take Pride in Successes

Since at least the 1800s, Chinese immigrants speaking the Teochew dialect have moved to many regions of Southeast Asia in search of a better life. Many of them have become the most successful groups in their adopted countries, says Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Sometimes they seem "more than proportionately represented" in top-notch positions such as the Thai Cabinet, which is even said to be able to conduct a Cabinet meeting almost entirely in Teochew. In another example of early globalization, the Teochews' who fanned out across Asia have established some of the most successful banks and industries in the region and helped build up new economies. At the same time, Lee says, they also brought with them a strong sense of community and cultural identity and always kept their traditions. Just as "if all Singaporeans believed they were global citizens, Singapore would not exist," Lee says, maintaining a strong ethnic and linguistic identity is essential to maintaining the integrity of the Teochew group. – YaleGlobal

Teochews Can Take Pride in Successes

Lee Hsien Loong
Monday, November 24, 2003

THERE are about 25 million Teochews around the world, of which more than half - 60 per cent - are living outside China. Over half a million are in Singapore. They form 20 per cent of the Chinese population, making them the second largest dialect group after the Hokkiens.

The Teochews are like the other coastal communities in China in the provinces of Guangzhou, Fujian and Zhejiang, who because of natural disasters, societal unrest and poor economic conditions, decided to leave home in search of a better living. They came in large numbers to Hong Kong, Thailand, Indochina, Johor-Riau and Singapore.

Teochew culture dates back to the Tang dynasty, when the famous poet and intellectual Han Yu went to the Teochew area. He stayed there for less than a year, but left such a legacy that he is worshipped by the Teochews as Han Wen Gong. He got rid of the crocodiles which terrorised the locals. The river Han Jiang is named after him. A temple was built for him in Chaozhou city. After Han Yu, the Teochew area became a high culture area with a tradition of scholarship.

The Teochews brought this tradition with them when they went overseas. Though they arrived poor, many went on to become successful businessmen, and leaders in the local communities and in government. Their economic and social contributions are out of proportion to their numbers.

In Indochina, the Teochews controlled the rice trade along the Menam and Mekong rivers. Till today, many leading Thai businessmen and politicians are Teochew. I recently met Mr Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, who owns the famous Chang Beer in Thailand. Mr Charoen's Chinese surname is Su and he is a Teochew. He was visiting Singapore with a Thai deputy prime minister, Dr Somkid Jatusripitak, who is also a Teochew.

Many other Thai ministers are Teochew too - it has even been said that you could almost conduct a Cabinet meeting in Bangkok in Teochew!

In Hong Kong, many of the tycoons are Teochews. The most successful, Mr Li Ka-shing, started by selling plastic flowers, but went on to build a large group of companies that form a major pillar of the Hong Kong economy.

Mr Li remembered his roots. He contributed generously to the establishment of the Shantou University in 1981. Beyond the very substantial donations, his personal involvement and dedication must have contributed greatly to the success of Shantou University today.

In Singapore, the Teochews have also stamped their mark. Some of them were pioneers who contributed significantly to the development and progress of Singapore.

For example, Mr Seah Eu Chin came to Singapore in 1823, started a business, was later known as the King of Gambier and ran Tan Tock Seng Hospital when it was first set up. Mr Lim Nee Soon ran a successful rubber business, and also co-founded the Chinese High School with Mr Tan Kah Kee in 1919.

Mr Lien Ying Chow arrived in Singapore with only a few dollars in his pocket. During World War II, he went back to Chongqing, the wartime capital, to help the Chinese government fight the Japanese invaders. Later, he was awarded a banking licence by the Chinese government, started the Overseas Chinese Union Bank, and later opened the Overseas Union Bank in Singapore.

Today, the Teochews continue to be successful in Singapore. Out of 19 full Cabinet ministers, seven, or about one-third, are Teochews. In Parliament, out of a House of 94 members, close to 30, also about one-third, are Teochews.

This is well above their proportion in the population, which is about 15 per cent.

Today's convention is organised by two major Teochew clan associations in Singapore, the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan and Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan was founded in 1929. Over the years, it has done well in promoting the Teochew culture and has been at the forefront of community service and social welfare.

Ngee Ann Kongsi was formed by a group of prominent Teochews in 1845. In the 1930s, Nee Ann Kongsi started to promote education for the community very actively. It founded Ngee Ann Primary School and Ngee Ann Secondary School. It contributed substantially to Singapore's education system, with the establishment of Ngee Ann College in 1963, which later became Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

As the community looks back on its successful past, it should also recognise the challenges ahead of us. We now live in a smaller and more globalised world. Competition is intense.

Some groups will rise to the occasion and succeed, while others lacking the skills and ability to compete will fall behind. As a result, income gaps will widen.

In such an environment, the more successful members of society must help out with the less successful. Community organisations, such as clan associations, can play a major role in this effort.

Another challenge arising from globalisation is to anchor our unique identities. For the older generation, this is not a problem.

The participants today hold different nationalities, yet all of you share something in common that transcends national boundaries. And I am sure when you meet a fellow Teochew in another part of the world, you feel an instant connection and kinship, particularly if both speak Teochew.

But it is more difficult for the younger generation to do that. They are the second, third, even fourth generation of overseas Chinese.

Technology has made travelling and information dissemination very easy. So they get all kinds of information from newspapers, magazines and the Internet. They have grown up in a totally different environment. Many no longer speak their parents' dialect, or perhaps even Chinese. Their sense of heritage and tradition is less strong.

And without strong roots, it is harder for them to face the challenges of globalisation with confidence and security.

Moving forward, a key task for the community is to ensure that the younger generation continues to carry the torch of your customs, traditions and values. These enriched and sustained the lives of many previous generations and brought success to many members of the community. They are precious and important to preserve. But their forms will need to be adapted, to suit the new environment and the younger generation.

Clan associations can play a role in helping our younger generation discover their cultural roots. We have to do this through lively and interesting events, to capture the interest of the young.

Hence the Poit Ip Huay Kuan has been organising Teochew language courses, which are quite popular with the youngsters.

We are also developing a permanent centre and exhibition to tell the story of the overseas Chinese. It will be called Hua Song (In Praise Of Overseas Chinese) and will be located at Haw Par Villa. This is a collaborative effort between the Chinese Heritage Centre and the Singapore Tourism Board.

It will feature the struggles and triumphs of early Chinese immigrants around the world, and will be completed by the end of next year. I hope that it will tell this story to new generations of visitors, both local and foreign.

A young and diverse country like Singapore faces a particularly acute challenge. We do not have 5,000 years of history, and at the point of independence, had no national identity to start with. If all Singaporeans believed they were global citizens, Singapore would not exist.

So we have to progressively build up our national identity, by drawing upon the rich cultural and historical heritage of our multi-ethnic community, and at the same time enlarge the common space among various communities.

Lee Hsien Loong is the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. These remarks are taken from his speech at the 12th Teochew International Conference.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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