A true-blue S’porean’s view of China

Source: The Sunday Times, Dec 5, 2010

My ancestors may hail from the mainland but I have not an iota of Chinese chauvinism
By Lee Wei Ling

I picked up Journeys: An Anthology Of Short Stories by my close friend Ho Minfong the other day.

A mixture of memoir and fiction, it has a chapter entitled ‘Home Coming’, in which she narrates how 40 members of her family – led by her father, the late businessman Ho Rih Hwa – once visited Sunhwei, their ancestral village in Guangdong province.

I learnt from Minfong’s book that the government of the Qing dynasty had been harsh towards those of its subjects who had left China. In 1740, in response to a Dutch apology for the massacre of Chinese workers in Java, the Qianlong Emperor said that China had washed its hands of the overseas Chinese. ‘These people are deserters of the celestial empire, they deserted their ancestral tombs and sought benefits overseas, and the Court is not interested in them,’ he said.

But the Chinese government was also calculating. Rich Chinese migrants who returned to China and gave money to charitable causes there were treated with courtesy and respect. The famous philanthropist Tan Kah Kee, for example, donated large sums of money to education in China and was declared a good son of the country.

My father is a fourth-generation descendant of migrants from the once impoverished Hakka village of Dabu in Guangdong. My mother was a fifth-generation descendant of migrants from Tong’an county in Fujian province.

Their families had adapted to the language, cuisine and attire of Malaya and Singapore. They transmitted Chinese culture and values to their descendents through Baba Malay, a patois consisting of Malay and Indonesian words mixed with some Chinese words. They had a distinct Peranakan culture, while adhering to Chinese practices like ancestor worship and Taoism.

By contrast, Mingfong’s family had clung to the Chinese language and traditions. So it feels natural for her to write: ‘Stubbornly and single-mindedly, we overseas Chinese clung to things Chinese.’

I have never felt the urge to visit my ancestral hometown, though I know I must have distant cousins there. My paternal great great- grandfather Lee Bok Boon had returned to China after he had made enough money in these parts.

Fortunately for me, his wife, my great great-grandmother, refused to leave Singapore. She had been born here and did not wish to abandon it for a country she had never seen. So, she hid herself and her children, and Lee Bok Boon had to return to Dabu alone.

There he married again, built a large house, and bought himself a minor mandarinate. I do not think well of Lee Bok Boon. Buying a mandarinate seems to me questionable, though it was accepted practice in those times.

Some years ago, Chinese officials presented my father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, with his family genealogy. It showed that one ancestor, six generations removed, had been a military governor of Guangsi province.

Chinese officials also offered to arrange for my father to visit Dabu. He declined, explaining that our neighbours suspect Singapore of being a Chinese country, and his visiting his ancestral hometown might be seen as evidence of Chinese chauvinism.

The local authorities in Dabu have converted Lee Bok Boon’s home into a tourist attraction. The Char Yong Association in Singapore, a Hakka clan association, has donated money to renovate the house. Chinese nationals as well as Hakka Singaporeans visit it.

Indeed, I’m told there is a big signboard on the road leading to the premises, with an arrow pointing in the direction of ‘Lee Kuan Yew’s ancestral home’. When my brother Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister, his name was added to the signboard.

The genealogy of my mother’s Kwa family reveals an ancestor, Ke Qingwen, who successfully sat the Imperial Examination in 1024 and was awarded the degree of advance scholar. He was later appointed second-class secretary to the board of agriculture. Because of this, he was accorded the status of the earliest ancestor in the Kwa (Ke) genealogical record.

My cousin, historian Kwa Chong Guan, has visited Tong’an and has met our distant relatives there. He made a donation to the Kwa ancestral temple. When he next visited Tong’an, he found the temple spruced up, and he received a warm welcome.

My nine years in a Chinese school probably did plant a seed of Chinese chauvinism in my mind, along with an appreciation of Chinese culture. But my first visit to China in 1976 led me to conclude that it was an arrogant country. I had heard repeatedly on that visit that China was the only country in the world with ‘5,000 years of uninterrupted glorious history’ (a phrase that had also been used often by my Chinese teachers here). The Chinese people, we were told, were confident that China will one day, again, be the centre of the world.

Mao Zedong was still alive when I first visited China. I saw poverty and filth everywhere, as well as political slogans written in big Chinese characters pasted on walls. We visited Mao’s World War II base in Yan’an, and heard the tour guide extol the heroes of the Long March, including Zhou Enlai’s stuffed horse. My father listened attentively but my mother and I wandered off.

What I saw and felt during that trip ripped out whatever little Chinese chauvinism there was in me. I concluded that ‘5,000 years of uninterrupted glorious history’ had led the Chinese to look backwards, not forwards, and was impeding their progress.

That all changed, of course, when Deng Xiaoping, a great man, assumed power in China. He visited Singapore in 1978, saw what we had accomplished, and determined that China could do the same.

I have accompanied my father to China many times since 1976, including on trips last year and this. I can see that China has undergone tremendous transformations. I have no doubt it will succeed further. But I don’t feel anything in particular about China’s success – no swelling of pride. I see China through the prism of my home, Singapore.

I am a Chinese Singaporean – with the stress on the noun.