The History of Clan Associations in Singapore

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In the early 19th century, waves of Chinese immigrants arrived in Singapore, in a bid to escape the extreme poverty back in their home villages. Feeling isolated and homesick in an alien environment, the immigrants banded together to help new arrivals with accommodation and employment. Eventually, their early efforts to foster unity and kinship gave rise to the formation of clan associations, based on locality or kinship (surname). 

Since the founding of the Cho Kah Koon in 1819, more than 300 locality and surname clan associations have been registered with the Registrar of Societies.  Locality clan associations are classified into four major groupings: Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan and Sanjiang.  The clan associations under Guangdong grouping are more complex. If grouped along dialect lines, there are Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and Cantonese/Hakka (this last group admits members who speak the two dialects). Kinship clan associations are formed by clansmen sharing a single surname or clansmen with different but related family names.  A minority of clan associations are also formed based on different trades.

As clan associations grew and prospered, their reach extended beyond assisting clan members in their daily lives and needs, and into social efforts like setting up schools, hospitals and driving charity efforts.  The prosperity of the Chinese community would not have been the same without the early clan associations’ contributions in so many arenas and the preservation of their values remain integral to the development of our society as a whole.

As Singapore develops into a first world nation, the role of clan associations is slowly but surely being redefined. What started out as associations formed to feed the basic needs of the Chinese immigrant community is slowly transcending into a higher purpose: the preservation of our rich Chinese heritage. Apart from holding cultural activities and traditional festival celebrations, much effort is also expended in the promotion of Chinese language. Some clan associations even organize inter-country events, to promote international cooperation and awareness.

Renewal is a crucial factor in ensuring that clan associations continue to thrive in Singapore. Thus, it is crucial for clan associations to constantly update and reinvent themselves to stay relevant and attract new members, especially youths and new immigrants.

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