Catch what makes Singaporean Chinese arts and culture unique

Published on 16 February 2024
By Team Catch

It doesn’t have to take a congressional hearing to understand that Singaporean Chinese culture is unique. It is a mish-mash of heritage that our early Chinese migrants imported, heavily influenced by the other migrant ethnic groups and regional native cultures that also formed the multicultural fabric of Singapore. The popular SINGAPO人 permanent exhibition at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC) captures the essence of this rich heritage.


Or, you could simply hang out at your favourite kopitiam where you’d see the coffee shop auntie carrying a tray full of drinks and yelling, “来烧 (lai shao)!” That translates directly as “come, HOT”. Of course, what she really means is, “Please excuse me and let me pass, because I’m carrying a tray of hot beverages and I might spill some on you”, even though she might also be carrying cold drinks.

Wide shot of a group of dancers performing onstage with fans at the Spring Reception 2024

When it comes to Singapore Chinese culture, we get ancient Chinese traditions with local flair. Image credit: Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

Singaporean Chinese culture is a unique blend of traditional Chinese heritage and local adaptations, influenced by the multicultural fabric of Singapore. Sure, some of us would have our forebears originate from Mainland China, but what has happened since their arrival has been the kind of blended culture that is as rich as the kaya you spread on your breakfast toast.


And by the way, that kaya is also a by-product of being Singaporean-Chinese, as is the yusheng we toss and make a mess of at every Chinese New Year celebratory meal. Or the big deal we make out of Hungry Ghost Month. There are slight similarities with what is practised in the land of our ancestors, but by and large, what we do here to identify the Chinese-origin among us is truly quite uniquely Singaporean, and in the case of trying to order a drink at the kopitiam, certainly quite rojak.

Take kopi gao siu dai for instance. This go-to phrase to order a strong coffee with less sugar is quite literally a linguistic salad comprising Malay (kopi), Hokkien (gao), Cantonese (siu), and Hainanese (dai) words. You would be hard pressed to find this extent of diversity in the Chinese communities of say, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Black and white mid shot of Kuo Pao Kun

The late Kuo Pao Kun masterfully penned, directed, and mentored, crafting plays that resonate globally with their poignant social commentary and vibrant multicultural themes. Image credit: National Library Board

The late theatre director, arts activist and 1989 Cultural Medallion recipient Kuo Pao Kun likened the diverse nature of Singaporean-Chinese culture as being a tree in a forest, nourished by the same soil, but separated at the trunk, and where “cross-pollination takes place in the sky where their branches and leaves touch”. This ability to take in the influence of other cultures is what makes the identity of the Singaporean-Chinese and of other Singaporean communities stronger.

Wide shot of fireworks at the Chingay Parade with all performers onstage

The Chingay Parade unites diverse communities in a vibrant celebration of cultural dynamism. Image credit: Chingay

This is particularly evident in the arts and heritage events during major Chinese festivals. Our Chingay Parade for instance was first staged 51 years ago to compensate for the complete ban on fireworks, which were traditionally lit during the Chinese New Year in the belief that they would ward off evil spirits. Other arts practices borne of necessity, such as that of Chinese street opera, were staged to entertain the working class in and around where merchants and coolies lived. It is also testament to our multicultural foundations that the Malay word wayang is generally used to refer to Singaporean Chinese street opera.

Life by the River (1975) by Liu Kang

National Gallery Singapore’s Nanyang Reverie inspired a movement that captured the essence of Southeast Asia through diverse mediums and techniques until the 1970s. Image credit: National Gallery Singapore

There’s always some Singaporean-Chinese arts and heritage event to Catch, whether it’s the treasure trove of Nanyang style paintings at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS), or the Esplanade’s popular Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts happening in February this month.

Wide shot of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra performing onstage

The Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre brings a slew of activities and events revolving around traditional art forms, exhibitions, and performances, creating a vibrant tapestry of cultural expression. Image credit: Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

For a deeper dive into what makes SINGAPO人 truly unique, then you need look no further than the SCCC. This non-profit organisation is supported by the many different Chinese clan associations, and plays a pivotal role in preserving and promoting this distinctive culture. The SCCC also serves as a hub for the Singaporean Chinese community to engage in various cultural activities, including traditional Chinese art forms, exhibitions, and performances. Almost all of their events and activities are family-friendly as well, like the recent CNY Family Fun, which saw families of all sizes pack the venue to take part in the many activities available.


There’ll be many more festivals and events to look forward to as our Singporean-Chinese culture continues to evolve and adapt over time, and you can Catch them right here, on Catch!


Top image credit: Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre

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