Day 1: Chinatown Heritage Center + Roaming around Chinatown
We began our trip by visiting the Chinatown Heritage Center, learning about how my ancestors travelled a long, arduous journey to Nanyang. Prior to this, I never thought of my economically privileged position, and disregarded the fact that my ancestors hard to put in lots of hard work in order to provide a better life for themselves and later generations. It was unsurprising to learn that the Chinese shop owners tried to maximize profits by squeezing into one room for their family, and renting out the other 6-8 rooms on the second floor (since the Chinese were known as the “Jews of Asia”). It felt familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, to learn about the structure of shophouses, because a large part of the layout is similar to what can be found in China, which I have visited (in Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen and surrounding areas of the cities). However, the houses have also been structured to adapt to Singapore’s hot humid climate (such as the air well built in the middle of the house to allow air into the further area of the house). After the tour around the center, we interviewed the tour guide, who happens to be an FASS graduate who majored in Sociology. He pushed me to think what the point of finding my identity is, if at the end of the day, we are all global citizens. What is the point of labelling ourselves? This made me a bit nervous, because it destabilizes our travel fellowship, and made me question whether it was worth travelling to find my identity, and whether I will find anything at the end. If everything else is a social construct, what makes identities different? I’m wondering since identity is something that we construct in our own way, how do we learn from listening to how other people construct theirs?
Day 2: Chinese Garden + Interviewing Xianda’s parents and Esther Foo
We started the day by visiting the Chinese Garden, and it was a big garden with pagodas, plants, and statues. The garden is accessible to anyone and reminds me of how the use of places has changed over time, although the garden is also being used in an efficient way to showcase Chinese culture, with the Confucius and Hua Mu Lan statues, pagodas and explanations of Chinese plants.
After interviewing Xianda’s parents (first generation Chinese immigrants) and Esther (third generation Chinese), I’ve discovered that identity does not seem to be as important to other people, particularly because Chinese people have assimilated into Singaporean society quite well. Perhaps Chinese people in Indonesia/Philippines/Vietnam/Thailand will have different experiences due to being the ethnic minority in those countries. Despite being first generation Singaporean Chinese, Xianda’s parents seem to have assimilated well, and rarely think about going back to China (once or twice). They identify as 华人 and don’t think it matters where they live, as they will always be “Chinese”. On the other hand, Esther was born in Singapore and never separated her “Chinese” identity from her “Singaporean” identity (which I have) as she considers her identity of being “Singaporean Chinese” as a whole. She has never visited China and feels like carrying out traditions are more of an obligation than celebration, indicating her distance from her cultural/ancestral roots. I lived in Xiamen for four years when I was 6 to 10, and that is close to where my great grandparents were originally from (Tong An, Fujian Province), hence I’ve had first hand experience with my ancestral roots. However, I never knew that my great grandparents were from there until I came to university and researched on this and asked my dad, so realizing this now has impacted my view of the four years I have lived there. I have a separate “Chinese” and “Singaporean Chinese” identity, for two reasons- 1. My mother is from Shanghai, so I’m half Mainland Chinese; 2. I lived in China, hence developing my Chinese identity as a separate one that is different from my “Singaporean Chinese” identity, as my experiences of being a fourth generation Singaporean Chinese, and my experience of living in Singapore feed into this identity. I feel like I also have a Western identity, despite having lived in the East my entire life, because I have received Western education (both American and British) by going to international schools. This has created an issue for me, as I do not completely understand all the cultures I am affiliated with, since I keep being exposed to new ones, hence I tend to combine all of them without much thought. Despite being difficult to think about and confusing at times, the notion of identity is very important to me because I want to know how to balance the different parts of my identity, which ones I identify with the most, and where I am right now, despite the non-static nature of identity.
Day 3: Peranakan Museum + Meeting Timothy Chua
I learned so much at the Peranakan Museum on how Chinese traditions meet with Malay traditions. One quote really struck me-
“It’s not necessary for you to know me as a Baba. I am a Baba. If you don’t accept me as a Baba, it doesn’t matter, because I am.” -Clement Tan (Hokkien Peranakan)
It reminded me that it doesn’t matter what other people view me as, since identity is something that we construct ourselves, so the only important view of my own identity is the one that I hold myself. It is also interesting how the Chinese and Malay cultures merged through the mixture of the races, which formed new words and new traditions. Another important note is that photography is important as it is a way to construct our identity, as photography is a way to express ourselves. The medium and setting that we choose to display it in indicates how much agency we have over our own identities and also shows how other cultures influence this (eg. through colonization). There was a large part of the exhibition which showed that people framed their photos in circular frames, influenced by the Europeans, and how photography and the idea of photography travelled to the East from the West.
Day 4: Geylang tour → Da Sheng Kong and Foo Hai Chan monastery
We went to the Da Sheng Kong Temple thinking it was a Buddhist temple, and asked about the Vesak Holiday. It turned out that it was actually a Taoist temple and we ended up talking to one of the members of the association at the temple, and she talked about the Taoist community (the temple often collaborates/celebrates with other Taoist temples nearby). This really reminded me of PPT2, when we learned about how people conform to rituals but can still show individuality as people process information and apply it differently. The value of religion is different to people, and whether religion defines/impacts our identity is dependant on the individual. Another interesting thing from today was that the Foo Hai Chan monastery is adjacent to the Sri Sivan temple (different religion), and I really learned to appreciate how Singapore is a place where two temples of different religions can coexist literally right next to each other, allowing people to experience the different religions/cultures the city has to offer simultaneously, and to be able to appreciate other people’s identities without tearing down each other’s beliefs.
Overall, starting at Singapore was a great idea, as it helped me get familiar with my “own” culture, and learn about the culture that my ancestors were exposed to.
Thanks for these reflections Nicole – I love that you both explored Singapore first and found so much to learn about right here at the home base. Can’t wait to see how these reflections change after your journey, when you return to Singapore.
With the question about why it is important to “find one’s identity” if we are all “Global Citizens”, I wonder if we can interrogate the term Global Citizen more. What does this term actually mean? Who is entitled to be a Global Citizen, what forms the privilege does being one give? What are the responsibilities involved with being one? What effect does travelling have on GC status?
I’d love to hear more! Remember that even though something is a social construct, that doesn’t make it “fake”. Social constructs are constructed understandings that have been created and accepted by people in society – these ideas and their associated meanings have real power and implications on our lives. For example, “race” is a social construct and a tool of organization as we’ve learned in CSI. But the races people have been categorised into have very real implications on how they are treated by the state and by their fellow citizens.