Image at notice for subscription - Singapore Chinese Magazine, 1879, March, 1(1), p. 33. All rights reserved, Koh Yew Yean Press, Singapore, 1897.
Motivitation and Impetus
By the late 19 th century, there was a small but significant number of Straits Chinese, or community in the Malay Peninsula and Singapore was riding on a wave of economic success and experiencing a renaissance in knowledge and culture.
Thought it was through the administration and education systems of the British that they had risen in society, these newly empowered Straits Chinese also sought to have a voice of their own, as the local press was them dominated by white colonialists.
“The exigencies of conducting a newspaper for the amusement and information of the European sometimes compel even sensible editors to indulge in practical jokes at the expense of the Asiatic peoples who do not possess a newspaper wherein to retaliate. (Editorial — The need for an Asiatic daily, (1905, June), SCM, 9(2), p. 41). V.”
It was in this context that these educated anglophile Straits Chinese began The Straits Chinese Magazine: A quarterly journal of oriental and occidental culture in 1897. The quarterly was the first English serial edited and published by Malayans.
Singapore Chinese Magazine title page for the first volume, Koh Yew Hean Press, Singapore, 1897.
The magazine lasted eleven years and was “a medium for the discussion of political/ social, and other matters affecting the Straits people generally” (Editorial, 1897, SCM, March, 1(1), p. 1). It became a rich collection of literary works and social commentaries including short stories by the Straits Chinese or about them; political analysis and insights into Straits Chinese perspectives on Chinese reformation and opinions on the tumultuous events in the motherland (China): and biographical and social commentaries of the people and events in the Straits at a time when the Straits Chinese were politically and financially on the rise. The readers targeted were not just the Straits Chinese but all who were Straits-born as the articles addressed the concerns and interests of Malays, Eurasians, Indians and other races in the Straits.
Editors, Straits Chinese Magazine from One hundred years of the Chinese in Singapore, 1903, after p. 236. All rights reserved, Murray, London, 1923.
Lim Boon Keng, co-founder of The Straits Chinese Magazine, stated that “[t]he main object of this Magazine is to promote intellectual activity amongst the Straits-born people, and to guide the present chaotic state of public opinion among them to some definite end” (Editorial, 1897, SCM, March, 1(1), p. 2). This “chaotic state of public opinion’ was the “counter-pull of three different cultural loyalties [which] threatened a ‘crisis of identity’ among the rising younger generation of Singapore Chinese” (Turnbull, p. 103). This elite group of Straits Chinese remained proud of their British heritage and continued to respect their colonial masters, but a rising and tumultuous China, as well as identification with the people of Malaya, goaded them to articulate a new definition of being Chinese in British Malaya.
In the Straits Settlements, the Straits Chinese who had resided there for several generations had adopted local ways and spoke Baba Malay at home and in business. Yet, because of their education in British institutions and employment in British agencies, the Straits Chinese idealised British culture and sought to be be part of the culture which surrounded them. Almost two decades previously, in 1879, Vaughan noted that there was “nothing they rejoice[d] in more than being British subjects” (Vaughan, 1879, p. 4) or “orang putih” (white man — Caucasian).
The Magazine retained much of this anglophile, royalist perspective with articles on Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, her death in 1901 and the coronation of Albert Edwards in 1902. After all, its editors were all Queen’s scholars who had been educated in the hallowed halls of the best British universities. They participated in the Singapore contingent to witness the King’s coronation, and reported extensively on it, revealing interesting snippets of Straits Chinese insights as can be found in this Baba Malay rhyme about the coronation:
“Kita pergi London Town,
Tengok Raja pakei crown,
Inggris missi missi suka S. V. A.
[We left for London Town,
To witness the King’s coronation.
The English ladies appreciate the S.V.A
(Straits Volunteer Artillery)]”
— From Song, O. S. Life in Alexandra Palace. (1902, December), SCM, 6(24). p. 123.
Vaughan also noted that: “The Baba as a rule has no desire to visit China; he does not regard it as his home- (Vaughan, 1879, p. 5). However, the recent establishment of the Chinese consulate in Singapore, the relaxation of emigration laws in China and protection over British citizens returning to China, were all factors that encouraged the Straits Chinese to rediscover their heritage and rebuild ties with their motherland. With a revived interest in China, many of the articles in the magazine were thus written for readers “who desire to have restored to them the knowledge of their forefathers in English dress.” (SCM, 1897, June, 1(2), p. 64).
Although the magazine was styled after similar journals of literary societies in London, its contents were influenced by this growing interest in the Chinese culture. The Chinese consuls were instrumental in restoring Chinese culture and literary interest amongst the Straits Chinese, particularly through newly formed literary societies. Tso Ping-Lung, the first Chinese consul from China in Singapore, established the Celestial Reasoning Association — the first literary society amongst the Straits Chinese — in 1882. At their society meetings, Chinese classics were read and discussed and poetry or essay competitions held on subjects peculiar to the Chinese. These winning essays and poetry were published in local newspapers. Literary societies such as this thus supported and maintained representation in much of the Chinese press in Singapore. In the same vein, many Straits Chinese societies were soon established, and their speeches and debates reproduced and reported in the Straits Chinese Magazine. These included the Chinese Christian Association, established in 1889; the Chinese Philomathic Society, formed by Lim Boon Keng; the Straits Chinese British Association, formed In 1900; and the Selangor Chinese Literary and Debating Society, formed In 1903 and headed by Gnoh Lean Tuck (Wu Lien-Teh) who would also become an editor to the Straits Chinese Magazine.
During the span of the magazine’s life (1897—1907), China was in the throes of change with conflicts within and invasions from without. The defeats suffered by China during the Opium Wars In the mid-19th century and the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 had humiliated China and revealed the weaknesses of the declining Qing Dynasty. The disaffected populace threatened the ancient royal throne with outbreaks of riots and rebellion. During this time, the young emperor, Guangxu, sought to retain his throne whilst implementing institutional reforms. With his advisors, Kang Youwel and Liang Qichao, Guangxu began a reform movement known as the Hundred Days’ Reform in 1898 which lasted 103 days before it was quashed by his adopted mother, the Empress Dowager Cixi.
The reform martyrs (Singapore Chinese Magazine, (1900, May), 4 (13), pp. 9—10). Koh Yew Hean Press, Singapore, 1900.</i>
Kang, the driving intellectual force behind the reform movement, influenced not only his countrymen at home but also those who were overseas. Kang’s radical interpretation of Confucianism in the light of Western concepts was soon adopted by those in Singapore. Kang initiated the Confucian Revival Movement in Singapore, in partnership with the Chinese Consul-General In Singapore and with Lim Boon Keng’s articulate and widely published support.
In the Straits Chinese Magazine, Lim propagated Kang’s philosophy through various articles on Confucianism Including an extensive translation of Tso Chuan’s (Zuo Zhuan’s) Confucian classic. The translations were presented with Chinese text printed interlineally alongside the English translations, as well as the full text laid out in both Chinese and English. However, the process was not easy: “The typographical dlfflculties were immense and were skilfully and rapidly overcome by the late Mr Arozoo.” ((1901, December), SCM, 5(20), p. 168).
A key aspect of the Confucian movement was the setting-up of Chinese schools to promote loyalty to the motherland. Thus, education became a key focus of the magazine, especially as the editors were also instrumental in establishing several new Chinese schools, notably the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School. Articles addressed not only the need to educate Straits Chinese boys (known as the Babas”) but more importantly the “Nyonyas”, or the womenfolk of the Straits Chinese. In fact, although most articles were penned primarily by men, the eighth edition of 1904’s Magazine featured the writings of various Chinese women. Wong Ting Nguk wrote on “Fragments of Chinese folk-lore” ((1904, March), SCM, 8(1), pp. 92—94) while “A Chinese Lady” wrote on the influence of women in Chinese history ((1904, March), SCM, 8(1), pp. 126—128) and Lin Meng Chin gave “Select anecdotes from ltle records of famous women” ((1904, March), SCM, 8, pp. 38, 94, 142, 188) over several issues of the Magazine.
Lim also started a six-part series of articles which encouraged social reform amongst the Chinese of Malaya in a wide range of fields like marriage, education, and dress. The most controversial article was the one that advocated doing away with the “towchang”, or the Chinese pigtail, Lim’s arguments led to strong divisions within the local Chinese community. These strong divisions would present themselves again when reformists and revolutionaries swept the motherland in 1911.
Managing the Magazine
800 copies of the first issue of the magazine, published by the Koh Yew Hean press in April of 1897, were completely sold out Subscriptions were at $1.50 per annum and by the turn of the 20th century, the Magazine had a wide circulation both in Malaya (Singapore, Malacca, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Seremban, Taipeng, Labuan and Sarawak) as well as in “distant comers of the globe” (London, Edinburgh, Saigon, Yokohama, Bangkok and Batavia). Later editions of the magazine had regular columns in the form of letters from London, Java, Malacca and Penang. They were written by a representative of the Straits Chinese community in these cities and provided updates on persons, events, and thoughts on their local community. By its seventh year, the Magazine was read in “quiet homes In England and America”, and was in the collections of the Library of Congress and /’Ecole Francals de I’Extreme Orlent.
Advertisement for Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co. found in the preliminary of The Straits Chinese Magazine, Vol. 8. All rights reserved. Koh Yew Hean Press, Singapore, 1904.</i>
The Magazine’s editors were Lim Boon Keng, Song Ong Siang, and Gnoh Lean Tuck (Wu Lien-Teh) - men who were part of the fraternity of Straits Chinese Queen’s scholars and who had gained recognition in their professions as lawyer and doctors. However, the men were bonded by more than just education and profession. Gnoh and Lim were brothers-in-law and both were swept up by China’s call for support. They spent their twilight years there, with Gnoh gaining fame as Medical Adviser In Beijing, an appointment under which he fought the plague, while Lim served as President of Xiamen University, which was established by a fellow Singaporean Chinese, Tan Kah Kee.
New editions of the Magazine were regularly highlighted in The Straits Times as well as The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser though the relationship with the former was often mutually critical. For example, In an article dated 7 April 1903 in the straits Times, the columnist notes:
“Unfortunately the Straits Chinese Magazine is not ‘run’ by professional journalists but by a few Chinese gentlemen and others affected with cacoethes scribendi [Latin for the irresistible urge to write]. They mean well and occasionally write well, but in common with the rest of us are sometimes prone to make mistakes. The said faults are not particularly bad ones … (and] as a collection of essays … mainly written by Straits-born Chinese, the Straits Chinese Magazine is a success … There are certainly enough English-speaking and intelligent Chinese in Singapore to warrant its more frequent publication and it has it in its power to accomplish a great deal of good.”
Some of these tensions arose because these local Straits Chinese writers articulately commented on the vices they observed of their British colonial masters. A counter-reply to a review of the magazine in the Penang Gazette shows up some of this:
“I am sure that no harm was intended beyond convincing some of the Europeans that they are not the immaculate and faultless beings they have hitherto thought themselves to be, or at least tried to represent in the eyes of Asiatics. Self-conceit and egotism are no doubt the common fault of the Europeans who have come to the East (SCM, (1903, September), 7(3), p. 101).”
These strongly worded commentaries were reserved not only for the Europeans, but were often critical of their own compatriots as well. In addressing the need to educate the Nyonyas, “A Baba” states:
“We do not believe in cramming little Chinese girls with a smattering of bad English and a good deal of rubbish which passes currency as elementary knowledge . . . But our wealthy Straits Chinese will not come forward to do for their community what the rich Parsees of Bombay have done and are doing for their women … We consider it a perfect disgrace that the rich and apparently intelligent men of our community should have done so little for the education of women.
In the seventh year of its publication, the editors stated:
“We have constantly kept in view our aims for the advancement of our people and have met adverse criticism, abuse and even monetary discouragement with an unflinching heart, knowing well that our cause and our purpose are right. That these aims have to a great extent been fulfilled may be judged by the distinct change in public opinion amongst the Straits-born of the present day. When we first launched our journal before the world in 1897, the Straits Chinese were still moving quietly along the lines of their ancestors, content alike to live in their old paradise and to retain for themselves the policy of laissez faire … But time has fortunately changed … [and] there has taken place a desire, nay an anxiety, to partake in the intellectual moral advancement of the present century. We have seen a better knowledge of the outer world with its many sciences and inventions more and more exhibited, and have noted with pleasure, on the one hand, the increasing pride amongst the Straits Chinese in fulfilling their due requirements as British citizens, and on the other, a closer sympathy between themselves and their countrymen from the Chinese Empire. (Editorial, (1904, March), SCM, 8(1), p. 1).”
Unfortunately, “[t]through lack of support and interest from the community it had been intended to benefit, [it] came to an untimely end in 1907” (Song, 1923, p. 235).
The Straits Chinese Magazine is from the collection of rare and historical imprints at the National Library Singapore. Bound copies of all the editions of the Straits Chinese Magazine can be found in the Heritage Collection and on microfi lm at the National Library in Singapore. Each volume of the Straits Chinese Magazine is prefaced by a useful table of contents with a subject index, listing all the articles published that year according to topics such as Business, Current Events, Biography, Literature, and even Science.
The author would like to acknowledge Assistant Professor Chua Ai Lin of the Department of History, National University of Singapore for reviewing this article.
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