Before he returned to the Lord on 13 July 2017 at the grand old age of 101, Joseph Lee Ah Ngiap recorded his oral history. His recollections of his grandparents’ migration to Singapore gives us a rare look into one immigrant Catholic Teochew family’s story of forging a new life in the fledgling British colony of Singapore.
Catholic Migrants from China
When Joseph Lee’s grandparents migrated from China and settled in Singapore with their brood of seven children (of whom Joseph’s father was the youngest), they were already practising Catholics. When asked if the family’s status as Catholics ever became an issue amongst the other Chinese immigrants who were Buddhists and Taoists, Joseph replied in the negative. His childhood recollections were that “all lived in harmony”, and there was a strong sense of neighbourliness and tolerance in the area of Ponggol where the family settled and where he grew up.
Joseph recalls how his grandparents set up a food stall at the Simon Road Market in the present-day Kovan area. This market had an advantageous location – nestled at the junction of Tampines Road, a majority-Hokkien area, and Upper Serangoon Road, a majority- Teochew area. Thus, the market enjoyed both a wide variety of hawkers selling their wares, as well as an influx of customers from the nascent settlements of two dialect groups. While Joseph’s grandparents ran a stall selling rice, fish and vegetables, other famous stalls included one selling mee rebus (which we learn has Indonesian origins), and another hawking muah chee, a traditional snack made of sticky rice and ground peanuts. The owners of the muah chee stall were famous for providing free Chinese tea to customers. Today, a monument marks the site of the old market, while the Kovan Residences condominium stands in its place.
Perhaps inevitably, a rivalry sprung up between the Hokkiens and Teochews. From Joseph’s recollections, some rather “colourful” events were known to have taken place, including a notorious incident when one party’s livestock was stolen by the other. The conflict finally ended when the Teochews gained the support of the Cantonese community, convincing the Hokkiens to back down.
The story of Joseph’s grandparents who were already Catholic at the time of their migration shows us that Catholicism was not a religion that was brought to Singapore solely by European missionaries. These Catholic immigrants from China, to their credit, did not isolate themselves from immigrants of other races or religions, but instead co-existed and built new neighbourhoods and communities in their adopted homeland. And when rivalries did occur, they seemed to form more along dialect lines rather than religious ones.
For the third instalment of Life & Times of a Catholic Teochew Fisherman, click here