The Teochew community is the second-largest Chinese dialect group in Singapore after the Hokkien. According to the 2010 Singapore census, Teochews make up about 20 percent of the Chinese resident population.1 The community, together with the Hakka, was singled out for mention by late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in his book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. Lee believed that culture, including the Teochew culture, was the x-factor that helped nations like Singapore succeed, and noted the disproportionate number of Teochew ministers – such as Teo Chee Hean and Lim Hng Kiang – in the Singapore Cabinet.2
At the time of its founding in 1819, Singapore had a population of only 150, with around 30 Chinese. As the colony grew, so did the number of Chinese inhabitants. Within 10 years, the Chinese had become the largest resident group. The Chinese population was so large that by 1840, at least four subgroups could be identified, the Teochew community being one of them.3
The Teochews originated from Chaozhou prefecture in China’s Guangdong province.4 The first Teochews who arrived in Singapore after 1819 were known to have come from the Riau islands of Indonesia, and Siam (now called Thailand).5
In the early years, the Teochew immigrants settled mainly in the northern part of Singapore, specifically Sembawang, Upper Thomson and Punggol. Living near the sea (Punggol and parts of Sembawang) had its advantage as it allowed them to utilise the abundant marine resources available. The fishing industry was a highly lucrative enterprise then and the Teochews chose to concentrate their economic activities around this industry. They worked as fishermen, boatmen, fishmongers as well as fish wholesalers or retailers. Many Teochews became kelong owners and eventually dominated the kelong industry in Singapore.6
Many Teochews also chose to live along the banks of the Singapore River, especially at Boat Quay. This group was involved in trade.7 It was said that the Teochews on the right side of the river bank, up to the first decade of the 20th century, monopolised the trade in sundry goods and textiles, while those on the left bank had a dominant share in the trading of gambier, pepper and other tropical produce.8
The Teochews were also involved in the cultivation of gambier and pepper. These were the two most important crops of the time and accounted for 76 percent of the total acreage and 61 percent of the total agricultural gross revenue in 1848. In the late 1840s, more than 95 percent of Chinese gambier and pepper planters and coolies (labourers) were Teochews. One of the biggest plantation owners in Singapore was Teochew merchant Seah Eu Chin. He is believed to be the first to have started large-scale planting of gambier and pepper on the island.9 Together with the Hokkiens, the Teochews were known as the rich agriculturalists and merchants.10
Temples and associations
Wak Hai Cheng Bio (or Yueh Hai Ching Temple) is the oldest Teochew temple in Singapore. Facing the sea, the temple began life as a simple shrine housed within an attap (palm frond) hut and was a place where newly-arrived Chinese immigrants to Singapore came to offer thanks for their safe journey across the seas.11 The present temple was constructed between 1850 and 1855, and rebuilt in 1895.12 The temple played an important part in the daily lives of the Teochew people, serving as a community centre and a place of worship.13 It underwent repair and restoration work from 1994 to 1996 and was gazetted as a national monument in June 1996.14 A further restoration from 2011 to 2014 resulted in the temple being conferred the 2014 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation (Merit award).15
In 1845, Seah Eu Chin and 12 other prominent members of the Teochew community came together to form a self-help organisation known as Ngee Ann Kongsi. Kongsi means “company” and “Ngee Ann” refers to Ngee Ann County, the old name for Chaozhou, the Teochews’ place of origin. As most of the cemetery grounds in Singapore at the time were owned by either the European churches or local Muslims, there was a lack of proper burial grounds for Chinese immigrants. Hence, a top priority for Ngee Ann Kongsi then was to acquire land for the burial of Teochew immigrants who died in Singapore.16
Through the years, Ngee Ann Kongsi has also been actively involved in educational activities, including setting up Ngee Ann Girls’ School (now Ngee Ann Primary School), Ngee Ann College (now Ngee Ann Polytechnic) and Ngee Ann Secondary School.17 In recent years, the organisation continues to look after the needs of the Teochews and to promote Chinese cultural heritage, in particular, that of the Teochews.18
During Chinese New Year, the Teochews, like the other Chinese dialect groups, practise a host of rituals filled with symbolism.19 For example, it is a Teochew tradition not to finish the dishes served at the reunion dinner so that there will be leftovers brought over to the new year, thus symbolising excess and abundance for the coming year. The leftover food will then be served on the first day of the new year.20
The Teochews consider fish an essential new year dish. In particular, they believe that eating the pek tor he (rabbit fish), with its rich roe, will ensure prosperity in the new year.21
The Teochews would serve areca nuts and mandarin oranges to guests who visited them during Chinese New Year. As the cultivation of areca nuts in Chaozhou became less prevalent, olives were served instead as both share a similar shape. Gradually, the eating of olives became a new year tradition for Teochews, both in Chaozhou and Singapore.22
Jeanne Louise Conceicao
1. “Singapore Census of Population 2010 Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion,” Department of Statistics, accessed 23 May 2016.
2. Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez and Sumiko Tan, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings: Times Editions, 2015), 171–73. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 HAN-[HIS])
3. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 341, 350, 355–56, 375–76. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
4. Thomas T.W. Tan, ed., “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 10. (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI)
5. Sumiko Tan, Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium (Singapore: Ngee Ann Kongsi, 2005), 24. (Call no. RSING 366.0095957 NGE)
6. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades” 10–11; C. Chou, “Teochew in the Kelong Industry,” in Chinese Dialect Groups: Traits and Trades, ed. Thomas T. W. Tan (Singapore: Opinion Books, 1990), 38. (Call no. RSING 305.8951095957 CHI)
7. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades,” 10.
8. Tan, Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium, 25.
9. Tan, Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium, 25.
10. Tan, “Introduction to Chinese Culture, Dialect Groups and Their Trades” 11.
11. Li Jiqing and Chen Zaifan 李集庆 and 陈再藩, eds., Xinjiapo Chaozhou ba yi hui guan ba shi wu zhou nian ji nian te kan新加坡潮州八邑会馆八十五周年纪念特刊：狮城潮商访谈录 [Singapore Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan 85th anniversary magazine: Interviews with Singapore Teochew businessmen] (Singapore: Singapore Chaozhou Bayi Hall, 2014), 54 (Call no. Chinese RSING 305.895105957 LJQ); Lee Geok Boi, The Religious Monuments of Singapore: Faiths of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board; Landmark Books, 2002), 22. (Call no. RSING 726.095957 LEE)
12. Lee, Religious Monuments of Singapore, 22.
13. Li Jiqing and Chen Zaifan, Xinjiapo Chaozhou ba yi hui guan ba shi wu zhou nian ji nian te kan, 54.
14. “170-Year-Old Temple to Be Preserved,” Straits Times, 28 June 1996, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Melody Zaccheus, “New Lease of Life for Oldest Teochew Temple,” Straits Times, 15 March 2014, 1 (From NewspaperSG); UNESCO, “2014 UNESCO Asia‐Pacific Heritage Awards Winners Announced,” press release, 2 September 2014.
16. Tan, Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium, 10, 27.
17. Tan, Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium, 64.
18. Tan, Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium, 14–19.
19. Wong Kim Hoe, “Do You Know Your Foodie Roots?” Straits Times, 29 January 1989, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Gwendolyn Ng, “Cooking in Excess for Auspicious Leftovers,” Straits Times, 24 January 2009, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Ng, “Cooking in Excess for Auspicious Leftovers.”
22. Mo Meiyan 莫美颜 Gè jíguàn xīnchūn shípǐn yìyì shēncháng tǎo jílì各籍贯新春食品意义深长讨吉利 [Auspicious food of the various dialect groups for Chinese New Year], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 8 January 1995, 66. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 23 May 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.