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Buffalo Pens

As the European empires crumbled, mostly during the 3rd quarter of the 20th century, newly independent states felt their honour demanded that they obliterate geographical names left behind by the colonisers. So Batavia became Jakarta, Rangoon became Yangon, Tourane became Danang. Over in Malaysia, Port Swettenham turned into Port Klang and Jesselton metamorphosed into Kota Kinabalu.
Fifty years on, the process continues. Calcutta is trying to become Kolkata, Madras wants to be called Chennai and Bombay is a toothless-sounding Mumbai, even though most people alive today associate the names Calcutta, Madras and Bombay with a chaotic self-governing India rather than the British Raj.

Amidst all this, Singapore basks in a self-delusion that we’re a pragmatic people. We’ve kept our statue of Stamford Raffles [1] โ€“ a point very strongly made in Lee Kuan Yew’s second volume of memoirs, which was what kicked off this article (in case you were wondering). Fullerton Building has become The Fullerton, a luxury hotel; Shenton Way still carries the name of Thomas Shenton (a colonial governor) and Victoria Street is still named after that pudgy woman who couldn’t believe that women could have sex with women.

What’s in a name? Well, the point Lee Kuan Yew made was that by not overturning our colonial inheritance out of overzealous nationalism, we provided assurance to foreign investors that we wouldn’t go the “socialist” way, as most other countries, such as India, Burma (oops, Myanmar), Ceylon (oops, Sri Lanka), and especially China, had done. Foreigners were welcome in Singapore. There wouldn’t be wholesale nationalisation of MNCs. The comfort of free markets and Anglo-saxon laws would continue. We don’t kick white asses.

And that’s partly how Singapore went from Third World to First [2]. Or so we are told. But in truth, we’ve had our own name changes, though perhaps our motivation wasn’t to kick white asses.

Neat theories, messy localities

A few months ago, Zhujiao Centre (a market) was renamed Tekka Centre, a change that made big headlines in the press. Frankly, I didn’t expect to see the day. I was surprised they’ve made it official. I am happy for my father’s friend, Lee Kip Lee, who had been grousing about the name “Zhujiao” for decades.

In the tale of that humble, dirty, market, one sees our own version of renaming fever. We may have kept Stamford Raffles’ statue, but we have obliterated a lot else too, and for recogniseably similar political reasons.

First, a bit of history and context about Tekka. The area was originally called Kandang Kerbau, which was a Malay name, meaning “buffalo pens”. This was the area where cattle were held pending slaughter. There were slaughter houses in the district up till the 1920s. My father, as a young boy, lived briefly in the vicinity, but the family moved out quickly because his mother (my grandmother) couldn’t get any sleep with all the squawks and squeals of frightened animals through the night. They needed to slaughter at night so that fresh meat would be on sale in the morning. This was before every household had a refrigerator, in case you’ve forgotten.

The Chinese had their own name for the area, which translated to “At the foot of the bamboo grove”. I don’t know the source of this name. Since the Chinese migrants to Singapore were dialect-speaking with Hokkien as the most common dialect, this Chinese name was pronounced in Hokkien, thus “Tekka”.

Fast forward to the 1970’s.

In the 1970s, a number of different trends came together to produce a strong push to Mandarinise all things Chinese in Singapore.

The one with the longest gestation was the gradual rise in Chinese nationalism โ€“ in China. For two or three generations after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese, trying to recapture their pride in being Chinese, wanted to modernise Chinese culture and society. One of their articles of faith was that the Chinese needed a standardised form of their language, to better unify the nation. The mutually incomprehensible dialects had to make way for Putonghua, or Mandarin as it is called here [3].

Dialect schools in Singapore, infected by this new Chinese nationalism, converted to teaching in Mandarin, and educated Chinese learnt to see dialects as shamefully backward. But up to this point, this was a trend common to Greater China (and the Chinese diaspora).

However, starting from the 1960s, a Singaporean political ingredient was added to the mix. Badly seared by our 2 years within Malaysia, bullied by what Lee Kuan Yew calls the “Malay ultras” in the Kuala Lumpur government, the Singapore political establishment, consciously or not, set out to ensure that the Chinese would form a bulwark in Singapore against Malay fundamentalism. To do this however, first required the Chinese to think as a single and strong community, not as separate, contesting and weak Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka communities.

In other words, it was seen as essential for our political survival to obliterate dialect loyalties and to promote a sense of pan-Chineseness among all Singapore Chinese. Mandarinisation was, conveniently, a tool for this too. And thus our cartographic revisionism began.

The mandarinisation of our place-names

Nee Soon Village was Mandarinised to Yishun as it was developed into a surburban new town; the Peck San Teng hills became Bishan (another suburb). That district in the Eastern side of Singapore we now call Simei came out of a reference to the Four Beauties (“si mei”) of Chinese myth, a fancy of Teh Cheang Wan, the Chinese culturalist who was then National Development Minister. He later committed suicide after he was fingered for corruption. So much for glorious Chinese virtues.

Tekka was considered an embarrassingly dialect (read: uncouth) way of pronouncing a Chinese name. Zhujiao it had to be — the same Chinese words (meaning “At the foot of the bamboo grove”) rendered in Hanyu Pinyin Mandarin.

Lee Kip Lee was outraged. He felt that the history of the place had been raped. It’s noteworthy that Lee Kip Lee is English-speaking and Peranakan Chinese. That is, he is descended from Chinese migrants who came to South East Asia before the European empires, well before Chinese republicanism and modern nationalism. Lee Kip Lee sees himself as Singaporean and Southeast Asian. He feels no special affinity for modern Chinese society, including its 20th century nationalism. In his view, Mandarin is alien to Singapore’s history, since almost all Singapore Chinese are descended from dialect-speaking Southern Chinese, not Mandarin-speaking Northerners. “Tekka” or “Kandang Kerbau” are authentic names. “Zhujiao” โ€“ an ideologically driven imposter — is even more false than calling Rangoon Yangon, or Bombay Mumbai.

And that’s my point. We may chuckle at how impractical, or how ridiculously ideological, other countries were when they went gunning for historical names of European invention or transcription, but my dears, we have doing the same! Or perhaps we’ve been outdoing our neighbours. While they wanted to rid themselves of colonial names, we went about obliterating our authentic local names, names with historical resonance, in favour of more “modern”, Chinese, ones.

The receding tide

History ebbs and flows. The great Mandarinisation tide is receding. Even though most Singaporeans speak Mandarin (after all, it’s taught in schools) and fewer and fewer are truly at home with dialects, the greater trend is for increasing numbers of Singaporeans to identify English as their primary language. With that, their cultural identification is shifting from being part of Greater China, to being, dare I say Singaporean?

Renaming places in Mandarin ceased about 10 years ago. But Mandarin names are now part of the landscape, one more layer of folly in the many sediments that add to our continuing maturation as a society. I don’t expect Bishan to revert to its dialect name. Nobody remembers how Hougang was spelt before it took on its Mandarinised name today.

Tekka will probably remain the rare case of reversal, but it had one unusual factor: its location. Tekka has been engulfed by the growing district of Little India. As Singapore imported more and more workers from India, this district has grown, serving as the community’s hub.

Absorbed into Little India, Tekka market has come to serve primarily Indian and Bangladeshi customers. Which is very interesting in its own way, because, to suit the Third World buying habits of these customers, whole carcasses of goats and maybe even the odd buffalo are hung up in the stalls there, like nowhere else in Singapore. It looks like the market has been frozen in time since the 1920s when the animals were slaughtered nearby.

In my view, it is because it is now an Indian market that the “Zhujiao” name became untenable. Indian tongues could never pronounce “Zhujiao”. They all found “Tekka” a lot easier, and in fact that’s what they’ve always called the place despite official edicts. At last, we have had to bow to reality and officially rename it Tekka Centre.

Indian foreign workers 1, Chinese civil service mandarins 0.

But wait a minute. Couldn’t we have called it by the other original name, “Kandang Kerbau”? Ah, but that’s a Malay name, and the political reality in Singapore may well be that, in any contest between a Chinese (albeit dialect) name and a Malay name, the Chinese name prevails.

Geography must serve politics, though demography may swamp them both.


Sir Stamford Raffles founded modern Singapore for the East India Company in 1819.
Back to where you left off
From Third World to First is the name of the 2nd volume of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs
Back to where you left off
See also the article Mandarin and the Southern Chinese which gives an overview of China’s language history
Back to where you left off


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