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The Binding TieChinese Intergenerational Relations in Modern Singapore$

Kristina Göransson

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780824832599

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824832599.001.0001

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Modernity and the Generation Gap

Modernity and the Generation Gap

The Singapore Experience

(p.49) 3 Modernity and the Generation Gap
The Binding Tie

Kristina Göransson

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the causes and consequences of the generational divide in Singapore, and how it is articulated and managed in everyday life. The country's progression from a “third-world country” to a fully industrialized society within only three decades has resulted in massive upward social mobility. One result is that it becomes common to find in one household university-educated children with professional occupations and parents with no formal education who are employed in informal sector jobs. Other types of generational gaps arise, not directly as a result of socio-economic development, but from political strategies and the subjective aspirations of people living in a modern society. This ethnography exposes serious problems in the interaction between generations. In this regard the sandwich generation is of particular interest. Not only do they struggle to balance responsibilities to elder and younger dependants, this generation also, in many ways, constitutes a link between the old world and the new, since they grew up in the course of Singapore's rapid transformation into an industrial high-tech society. In addition to examining obstacles to intergenerational continuity, the chapter also illuminates some of the strategies people use to manage intergenerational differences in their everyday lives.

Keywords:   Singapore, intergenerational divide, social mobility, economic development, sandwich generation

This study argues the importance of rethinking the structural correlation between modernity and intergenerational relations. The emergence of modernity is usually associated with a set of characteristics, including industrial capitalism, commodification, social differentiation, individualism, democracy, the nation-state, secularization, alienation, and social movements. Above all, modernity is associated with the experience of a break between past and present forms of social life (Friedman 1994). While the experience of the disintegration of old structures is potentially universal, the context in which it occurs, and the ways in which people deal with it, are not. Our contemporary world should be understood as “a story of continual constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural programs,” which give rise to “unique expressions of modernity” (Eisenstadt 2000, 2). Modernity in many ways does pose a challenge to intergenerational ties, but, as we shall see, it may also imply consolidation and the establishing of a new order. In the chapters to come, I shall trace the processes of fragmentation and consolidation, from the macro-level of ideology and political regimes to the intimate sphere of everyday life. The massive modernization of Singapore that has transformed it from a third-world country to a sophisticated financial hub is indeed astounding—or terrifying—depending on how you look at it. But that is merely the shell. What is interesting is how this transformation manifests itself in people’s everyday lives and the impact it has had on cultural continuity across generations.

Modernity was for a long time seen as inseparable from the West, but the rapid and successful modernization of non-Western societies, including Singapore, has come to challenge this assumption. The idea of modernity as a coherent development has given way to theories of “multiple modernities” (Eisenstadt 2000), “global modernities” (Featherstone 1995), “alternative (p.50) modernities” (e.g., Knauft 2002), “other modernities” (Rofel 1999), and “modernity at large” (Appadurai 2000). Such notions have been especially popular in characterizations of the rapidly modernizing societies of East and Southeast Asia. In the 1970s and 1980s, analysts and commentators increasingly attributed the economic miracle to Asian culture, where a Confucian ethos played a role similar to that of the Weberian Protestant Ethic in the origin of capitalism in Western Europe (Evers 1973; Kahn 1979; Tham 1981; Tu 1984, 1997; Lodge and Vogel 1987; Rozman 1993).1 Unlike the individualistic culture associated with Western modernity, Asian societies, supposedly, were guided by “group orientation, acceptance of authority, deference, dependence, conflict avoidance, interest in harmony, seniority consciousness, and dutifulness” (Rozman 1993, 30).2 A predominant role was ascribed to “filial piety, ancestor reverence, patriarchal authority, female subordination, respect for the elderly, intergenerational continuity, long-term planning, and fear of collective dishonor” (ibid.).3

However, far from being simply an Orientalist discourse controlled by the West (Said 1979), this vision of an Asian modernity has been promoted and instrumentally deployed by political leaders in the region itself.4 As pointed out by Eisenstadt (2000, 15) the pursuit of modernity in non-Western societies has been “characterized particularly by a tension between conceptions of themselves as part of the modern world and ambivalent attitudes toward modernity in general and toward the West in particular.” This ambivalence has been especially evident in Singapore. While steadily working to modernize the country, the PAP government, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, became a prominent spokesman for Asian Values.5 The Asian Values ideology was first promoted at a point when Singapore’s rapid development had begun to raise concerns about cultural dilution, fragmentation of families, and increasing crime rates. Singapore’s founding father and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew expressed his fear that Asian societies—including Singapore—would end up “poor imitations of the West, with all the fads and fetishes, the disorders and aberrations of contemporary Western societies” (Lee Kuan Yew, quoted in Chen 1977, 22). The Singaporean state wanted the cultural sphere shaped in accordance with Asian Values to parallel the liberal economy with its investment-friendly and export-oriented profile. In practice, of course, Asian Values hardly conveys the multiplicity of cultural life in the vast region referred to as Asia. The Asian Values ideology had a conspicuously Confucian flavor, not surprising given that the Singapore government saw Confucianism as fully adequate not only for the Chinese community, but for the city-state (p.51) as a whole. This position was backed up by a vast number of academic publications that praised the advantages of selected Confucian traditions for urban-industrial society, especially its emphasis on family, filial piety, seniority, collectivism, respect for authority, and a consensus orientation (e.g., Chen 1977; Tu 1984; Kuo 1987). Although the Asian Values ideology was set out to combat undesirable Western influences, it did not urge resistance to modernity as such. On the contrary, it represented a strategy to build a uniquely Asian modernity, to anchor modernity in tradition, and to secure cultural continuity. In Singapore’s case, the Asian Values project was also an attempt to build a viable base for national consciousness in a postcolonial society with a multiethnic and multireligious immigrant population (Hill and Lian 1995).

Singaporean modernity is remarkable for the contradiction between, on one hand, the need to adjust to an ever-changing world, and on the other hand, the project of establishing cultural continuity and national consciousness. What is most striking, perhaps, is how the notion of an Asian modernity firmly anchored in tradition, stands in sharp contrast to the increasing isolation of the generations that has emerged with the enormous societal transformation over past decades. My informants never spoke of themselves as being part of an Asian modernity, nor did they feel particularly connected to their heritage. Instead they were acutely aware of how rapidly the world is changing, and that they must constantly adjust themselves to that world. Of all the countless definitions of modernity, none is here more pertinent than Marshall Berman’s famous characterization of the experience of modernity as a “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air’. People who find themselves in the midst of this maelstrom are apt to feel that they are the first ones, and maybe the only ones, to be going through it; this feeling has engendered numerous nostalgic myths of pre-modern Paradise Lost” (1983, 15).

During my fieldwork I was struck by the clear consciousness among people of a break between past and present, between tradition and modernity. This consciousness must also be understood in relation to the various but interrelated dimensions of modernity, including socio-economic development, ideology and the political regime, as well as subjective aspirations and the experience of being modern. A major argument herein is that intergenerational fragmentation cannot be understood merely as a result of economic development (as commonly assumed in theories based on modernization), (p.52) but also as the result of agency and “the appreciative search for new meaning in the daily features of a differentiated social world” (Knauft 2002, 5).

In this chapter I focus on the causes and consequences of the generational divide, and how it is articulated and managed in everyday life. Singapore’s progression from a “third-world country” to a fully industrialized society within only three decades has resulted in massive upward social mobility. One result, as pointed out by Chua and Tan (1999, 142), is that “it is common to find in one household university-educated children with professional occupations and parents with no formal education who are employed in informal sector jobs.” This intergenerational leap in education, income, and consumption applies to most Singaporean families. For instance, Bee Choo’s mother is illiterate and Carole’s parents run a hawker’s stall, while their daughters themselves have academic degrees and white-collar jobs. Meanwhile, other types of generational gaps arise, not directly as a result of socio-economic development, but from political strategies and the subjective aspirations of people living in a modern society.

This ethnography exposes serious problems in the interaction between generations. In this regard the sandwich generation is of particular interest. Not only do they struggle to balance responsibilities to elder and younger dependants, this generation also, in many ways, constitutes a link between the old world and the new, since they grew up in the course of Singapore’s rapid transformation into an industrial high-tech society. My informants often described themselves as navigating between “old traditions” and the “modern world,” and explained how they represent a bridge between the generations of their parents and of their own children. Thus, in addition to examining obstacles to intergenerational continuity, this chapter will also illuminate some of the strategies people use to manage intergenerational differences in their everyday lives.

Kampung Life and Social Memory

As Karl Mannheim (1952) once pointed out, each generation is defined through its particular position in the course of history. A generation is thus a social phenomenon, based on shared experiences and shared memories, rather than a biological fact. Although societies are never static, it is reasonable to postulate that the establishment of such historical-social generation units is intensified in periods of rapid social change, where the experiences (p.53) of different cohorts are radically different. For those who have lived through Singapore’s dramatic transformation, the past and the present may represent two different worlds. The world they grew up in is erased and exists only as a social memory.6 In nearly every conversation touching upon the “old” Singapore, the kampung is a key point of reference. Kampung is a Malay term for “village,” which has also come to imply the spirit of solidarity, trust, and neighborliness associated with village life. Even to young people who themselves have never lived in a village, the idea of the kampung symbolizes premodern Singapore.

Most of the early kampungs in Singapore were either fishing villages located along the coast and rivers or inland villages engaged in cultivation. Under the British colonial regime, migrants from around the region came to Singapore and new settlements sprang up across the island. Commonly a kampung would be dominated by a particular ethnic group, and the ethnic character was immediately evident in the architectural style of the houses; Malay houses sat atop stilts or pillars, while Chinese houses were built on earthen platforms. Another typical feature of rural Chinese houses was their southward orientation, because according to Chinese geomancy (feng shui), the south represents good luck. Above the main door one would often find an inscribed board telling which part of China the family’s ancestor came from. Social activities and gatherings took place in the living room, which was usually located immediately by the front door. This was also where the family altar stood. The kitchen was often shared by several families (Kampong Days 1993, 10–11, 22–25).

Mr. Chua, whom I frequently met at the Chinese Arts & Drama Association (his two children attended classes there), was born and raised in a kampung. His father and two uncles ran a farm together. They lived in a long rectangular house divided into three sections. Each brother occupied one section with his respective family. Mr. Chua is the youngest of eleven siblings. Like many other couples in those days, his mother and father had been married through a matchmaker. Although the preference was to marry within the same dialect group, marriages across dialect boundaries were not uncommon, and Mr. Chua’s mother, who was a Teochew, had married into a Hokkien family. Although she adopted the language of her husband, she brought with her customs from her own dialect group, such as the typical Teochew cookery. Mr. Chua recalled how his mother cooked Teochew porridge—a plain watery rice porridge that is usually served with side dishes, such as vegetables, fish or meat—for the family. Teochew porridge was cheap food, depending on the side dishes, of course, and was suitable for (p.54) ordinary days. Meat and other delicacies were limited to Chinese New Year or to offerings made during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts.

In 1984 the Chua’s village area was claimed for urban development and all residents were relocated to public housing estates. The extended family, which had been living in the same house, scattered. At that time, Mr. Chua was still unmarried and so moved into a flat with his parents. Now, twenty years later, he is married with two children, one daughter and one son. His father has passed away, but his old mother still lives with them. Mr. Chua found it difficult to move from the village to a modern high-rise; he missed the open air and verdant surroundings as much as the warm social atmosphere. The adjustment was even harder for his parents. By the time of their relocation, they had already retired. With all the children off working, they spent most days alone in the flat. Although the void decks of the housing estates are meant to be a kind of meeting place, social interaction had been much easier in the kampung, where friends and relatives lived nearby. Mr. Chua reported that many of the elderly fell into depression and some even committed suicide when they were forced to move into high-rise flats, which sounds likely although I was not able to verify it.

One evening when I had been invited to dinner at the Chua’s, Mr. Chua showed me photographs of their old farm and spoke with great fondness about his childhood. There was always something to do in the kampung—fishing in the pond, playing with the cousins, feeding the animals or puttering about in the garden. Mr. Chua compared this lifestyle with the children of today, who grow up in a hyper-urban society. This transformation has resulted in a discontinuity in memories across generations. “My children have never experienced the kampung days, so this is our memory only, not theirs,” he said. Mr. Chua also expressed disappointment with the younger generation’s lack of interest in their history. In fact, he is sending his two children to the Chinese Arts & Drama Association in hopes of inspiring them to cultivate their Chinese heritage. Even so, they show no interest in learning about the past. “They are not interested,” Mr. Chua shook his head, “they want air-con and McDonalds.”

Mr. Chua is far from the only one ambivalent about modern consumer society. Singaporean children of today have to visit the nature reserves or the zoo to get a glimpse of wildlife. Even mosquitoes and other insects have become a rare thing. I do not recall seeing any bugs in Carole and Alan’s home, except for one occasion, when Alan used an electric fly swatter to exterminate some sort of winged insect that had found its way into their flat on the sixteenth floor. Singaporeans who wish to experience a bit of (p.55)

Modernity and the Generation GapThe Singapore Experience

Figure 3.1 Kampung house at Pulau Ubin

kampung life usually take a trip to Pulau Ubin, a small island just off the northeastern coast. Pulau Ubin is said to be Singapore’s last kampung, but while the island has escaped urban development, it has been turned into a national park and is now a popular getaway for locals. A handful of the villagers still depend on farming and fishing, but the tourist trade is an increasingly important source of income. The assertion that Pulau Ubin is Singapore’s last kampung is not wholly true. There are actually remote rural settlements left on the Singapore mainland, but those places were unknown even to my informants. At one point during my fieldwork, local media reported about flooding in Kampung Lorong Buang Kok, a village near Hougang in the northern part of Singapore. When I asked Singaporeans about this village, they were not aware of its existence: “A kampung in Singapore? I find that very hard to believe, the nearest you will get to a kampung is Pulau Ubin.”

From a Room in Chinatown to High-Rise Living

Daniel is only in his late thirties. Like Mr. Chua, he has personally experienced Singapore’s rapid transformation. Daniel’s paternal grandparents had immigrated from Guangdong Province, and although Daniel has (p.56) no recollection of them, he knew that his grandfather had come to Singapore at the age of seventeen to seek greener pastures. He and his wife had settled down in old Chinatown, where many other labor migrants lived. From the very outset until the day he died, Daniel’s grandfather worked as a coolie in Boat Quay and Clarke Quay. Daniel was born in the same area of old Chinatown in the 1960s. He lived there with his parents and his younger sister until the age of ten. The whole family squeezed into a single room and shared bathroom and kitchen with the other tenants on the same floor. Despite the cramped living conditions and absence of modern conveniences, Daniel has fond memories of his childhood in Chinatown.

Oh yes, I think those days were really wonderful because Chinatown is within the heart of Singapore, and you could see a lot Chinese gathering there, especially during the Chinese festivals. Those were the days when you could have firecrackers, you know, fired off into the sky, and you see really traditional lion dance.7 It was really wonderful. You got to see processions going on and on throughout the night. And in those days the marketplace was very vibrant compared to nowadays. You didn’t get things like supermarkets in those days. It was basically open-air, fresh, and all these little stalls that just operated uncontrolled, a lot of illegal hawking around, a lot of illegal touting as well. A very colorful picture I would say.

Most Singaporeans say that the dramatic improvement of the material standard of living has occurred at the expense of the simple but relaxed lifestyle of the past. Thirty years ago, Daniel said, things were more back-to-nature: “There was a warmer community spirit. We lived in a flat with seven other families and we didn’t close our doors. We didn’t close our doors, but there were no thefts, no robberies, nor crimes. Even if there was [a crime], you would know who committed it, because basically we all knew one another very much, very well.” Daniel’s statement contains the implicit comparison to today’s Singapore, where people lock their doors rather than interact with neighbors. The thorough restoration of Chinatown in recent years has not succeeded in evoking the atmosphere of preindustrial society. Rather the opposite. With its polished buildings and souvenir shops, the restored area more resembles a touristy theme park than a true replica of the past.

In the 1970s Daniel’s family relocated to a modern public housing flat, still within the Chinatown area. When Daniel married nine years ago, he (p.57) and his wife decided to apply for a separate flat. The main reason was lack of space—his parents’ flat has only two bedrooms. Daniel and his wife now have five children, so living with his parents is out of the question. Having five children is rare among young middle-class families; most of them limit the number of children to two. Daniel himself has only one sister, so when he got married, he and his wife wanted to have a lot of children. “Our plan was to have four [children], the fifth one just came naturally,” Daniel laughed. Another reason for buying a separate flat was simply that Daniel and his wife wanted the privacy of independent living. The same went for his sister, who likewise moved out of the parental home when she married. Both Daniel and his sister provide their parents, both of whom are retired, regular financial support. So far, their parents manage without much assistance, but if the situation changes Daniel will have to consider employing a maid or a nurse to help them. Despite having separate living arrangements, Daniel sees his parents on a daily basis because his children eat lunch at their grandparents’ after school. He usually collects the children in the afternoon, but if he has an important meeting to attend, his parents look after the children until the evening.

Daniel began his working life in the army, where he served for eight years. At the end of that period he decided to change careers and has for the past ten years been working in the insurance business. In contrast to the situation of most middle-class families, Daniel is the only breadwinner. Instead of employing a maid, his wife stays home to run the household and mind the children. An important incentive for this arrangement is the fact that a foreign maid would do only basic child minding, not supervising homework or preparing the children for major examinations. Daniel is adamant about the importance of guiding the children in their schoolwork.

It’s very difficult for her [my wife] to work full time and to look after five children. If you’re aware that the Singapore government is very concerned about education for children, so whenever there’s exam fever you can see everybody being stressed out. So there’s no way that she can work and look after the children and guide them in their studies [at the same time]. So henceforth, she’s not working at all. She’s looking after the children full time, in their well-being and their studies as well.

Daniel, who is Cantonese, grew up in a dialect-speaking home, and still communicates in Cantonese with his parents and sister. However, because English is the medium of instruction in school, Daniel and his wife (p.58) make it a point to speak English to their children. Occasionally they will speak Mandarin, the compulsory second language for Chinese students, although their children are less comfortable and fluent in that language. Meanwhile, their knowledge of dialect has inevitably suffered. Due to their lack of exposure, Daniel’s children cannot speak any dialect. “Not at all,” Daniel explained, “it’s sad, but not at all.” Most Chinese Singaporeans express sorrow over the decline of dialects, but see it as a necessary trade-off. Although dialects carry more sentimental value than any other language, proper training in English and Mandarin is seen as necessary to secure a good life in Singapore.

The Language Gap and the Paradox of the Asian Values Ideology

While many of the generational differences discussed in this chapter spring from socio-economic change and/or individual aspirations to be modern, the shift in language use is a direct result of state intervention.

I have already mentioned how Singapore’s rapid modernization in the 1970s and 1980s triggered an ideological campaign to assert Asian Values. Promotion of the Asian Values ideology was an attempt to mold a modernity anchored in tradition. At the same time, it remolded that tradition by favoring certain cultural features while excluding others.8 Asian Values is an excellent example of the “gardening ambitions of the state” (Bauman 1993, 15–16); it is symptomatic of the modern project and includes the reordering of tradition.

With its object to reassert the cultural heritage of the Singaporean people, the government proclaimed Mandarin and Confucianism to be the core traditions of the Chinese community. The irony is that neither Mandarin nor Confucian ethics are historically representative of Chinese cultural life in Singapore. The study of Confucianism was typical of the upper classes rather than the peasantry, from which most Singaporean immigrants derived. Likewise, it would be difficult to talk about Confucianism as a singular religious system among Chinese Singaporeans because it is fused with elements from Taoism, Buddhism and folk religion (Elliott 1990, 24ff). With regard to Mandarin, the ancestors of most Chinese Singaporeans originated in China’s Southeast, where the native tongue is not Mandarin but a number of other dialects. The distinction of Mandarin as a “language” as opposed to a “dialect” is largely superficial. In point of (p.59) fact, Mandarin and most other dialects are mutually unintelligible in verbal form, with the written characters being the common denominator.9 The five major Chinese dialect groups in Singapore are Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hakka, and Hainanese. In addition a number of minor dialect groups, such as Hockchia, Henghua, Foochow, and Shanghainese, also settled there. Mandarin was no more native to Chinese Singaporeans than was English, but the government argued the imperative of having a common Chinese language. This paved the way for revision of the national education system in 1979, which prescribes Mandarin as the compulsory second language for Chinese students, while English is the medium of instruction. From this it follows that all Chinese students must study Mandarin as their “mother tongue,” regardless of the actual language they speak at home. In addition to the curricular reforms, dialects are banned from the media and an annual Speak Mandarin Campaign continues.10

Several political reasons may be given for initiating the bilingual curriculum and Speak Mandarin Campaign. First, the decision to initiate the campaign was justified on the grounds that a common language was necessary to effect communication and enhance integration within the Chinese community. Second, having a proficient Mandarin-speaking population would help Singapore benefit from the ascending economy of China. Third, some argued that Mandarin was the superior vehicle for inculcating and preserving Chinese traditions.11 The reason Mandarin, not dialects, should provide this vehicle is its image as a more sophisticated and prestigous language than the various dialects.12 Through the years, the launch speeches of the annual Speak Mandarin Campaign have characterized dialects as crude semi-languages that do not encourage civilized behavior, as in Goh Chok Tong’s (then Minster for Defense) speech in 1986, where he referred to a survey on the use of Mandarin in public places:

It was noted that customers of department stores and restaurants who spoke in Mandarin tended to be more polite than those who spoke in dialects. Why is this so? Is the relationship more than just casual? Can the use of Mandarin also help the Courtesy Campaign? If so, when we promote the Speak Mandarin Campaign, we also receive an additional bonus in the form of courtesy.

(Speak Mandarin Campaign Launching Speeches, 1979–1989 [1989], 58–59)

The distinction between Mandarin and dialects in terms of high-class versus low-class is clearly reflected in the public sphere. Contrary to the (p.60) government’s ideological emphasis on filial piety and seniority, there is a general tendency in Singapore for dialects and other practices associated with the older generations to be perceived as irrelevant to modern society. This perception is certainly heightened by the government’s attempts to stamp out the dialects, which quite literally marginalizes a large number of elderly Singaporeans in the public sphere. The declining status of the elderly, intertwined as it is with socio-economic status, education, religion and language, is not merely symbolic. It has serious practical implications. Not only are elderly dialect-speaking Chinese alienated through the ban on broadcasting in dialect, they are also barred from many workplaces and are usually seen in unskilled occupations, such as cleaning or hawking. Dialect-speaking elderly who are unable to communicate in English or Mandarin are also in a vulnerable situation with regard to access to information. This problem, and its repercussions, was fully on display during my fieldwork when, in 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) hit Singapore.13

During the SARS crisis, it became evident that the information going out to people in the four official languages—English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil—excluded a large portion of the dialect-speaking elderly. Despite a twenty-five-year period of bilingualism and Speak Mandarin Campaigns, approximately 600,000 Chinese Singaporeans still use dialect at home (Straits Times 2003c). The number of dialect-speaking persons is not insignificant considering that Singapore’s Chinese population is only about 2.6 million. There is no difference between Mandarin and dialect in written form but the fact that many elderly Chinese are also illiterate prevents them from accessing any written information or verbal information unless it is in dialect. It should be pointed out that not all elderly Chinese are dialect-speaking and/or illiterate. (Prior to the revision of the national education system in 1979, Chinese and English schools operated side by side in Singapore. Those who were educated in either an English- or Chinese-stream school are, of course, less affected by the ban on Chinese dialects.) According to a national survey of senior citizens released in 1996, over 85 percent of Chinese Singaporeans aged 55 and over were dialect-speaking. In addition, the majority of Singaporeans aged 55 and over lack any educational qualifications while 38.5 percent have at least primary education (National Survey of Senior Citizens in Singapore, 1995 [1996], ix). Even though this information does not provide figures specifically for the Chinese community, the data give an idea of the general level of illiteracy among the elderly in Singapore.

(p.61) The serious risks of not sufficiently getting out information during the SARS crisis led to a temporary relaxation of the ban on dialects. The Singapore government, whose efficiency in tackling the SARS epidemic gained wide recognition, eventually decided to permit broadcasting of SARS-related issues in dialect. MediaCorp Radio broadcasted health announcements in dialect from April 17, followed by a number of forum talks on national TV stations from April 30 onward (Straits Times 2003b). A forum broadcasted by Media Works’ Channel U, “Everyone’s Talking,” had translators available in Teochew, Hokkien, Hainanese, Cantonese, and Hakka. Yet, only about 10 percent of the show was in dialect, the greater part being in Mandarin. Some dialect-speaking elderly later expressed their disappointment with the limited time given to dialect in the show, which means it is uncertain whether the information was successfully conveyed or not (New Paper 2003).

The language shift also causes communication problems between family members of different generations. Jane, an unmarried woman in her forties, described how she had been struggling to explain the SARS epidemic to her mother. Her mother is illiterate and speaks only Cantonese. Although Jane and her mother live in the same household and converse in Cantonese on a daily basis, Jane compared her communication abilities in Cantonese to those of a six-year-old. Because Jane went through an English-stream school and now has a white-collar job where she mainly speaks English, her only exposure to dialect is with her mother and elderly relatives. Although her Cantonese vocabulary is sufficient for daily conversation, communicating becomes complicated when the issue involves medical terms or some other unusual topic. Despite those limitations, Jane at least can understand and make herself understood in Cantonese. A more extreme consequence of the language shift is found in families where young children completely lack knowledge of dialect. Since dialects are banned from the official school curriculum, the only chance children have to learn it is through parents and other adults. But in families where the principal medium of communication is English or Mandarin, parents are unlikely to pass dialect on to their children.

Most of my informants did not bother to teach their children any dialect, or perhaps just a few words and phrases. Some of them even consciously discouraged their children from speaking dialect, usually with the argument that dialects are obsolete or even vulgar (see below). Another common argument is that they want to spare their children the burden of learning yet another language on top of English and Mandarin. One man I (p.62) interviewed subscribed wholly to a pragmatic approach. “Chinese are pragmatic people,” he said, “and to me, since dialect doesn’t have any pragmatic point, I don’t care whether it will fade away.” Consequently, he does not teach his children any dialect. The severe competition at school and pressures on children to excel in academic achievement are reasons enough for putting all their efforts into learning English and Mandarin, rather than dialect. Under these circumstances, the only way young children can verbally communicate with dialect-speaking elders is by means of an interpreter. During fieldwork, I encountered several cases where grandchildren and grandparents were completely unable to understand each other language-wise. In a way, this is a situation typically found in immigrant communities, where the new generation is born and raised in a context different from that of their parents. But in Singapore this situation has arisen as a direct result of the state-propelled modernity project.

“Speak Amah-Kong

The language shift described above implies a shift in identity, where dialect belonging no longer plays a significant role for the younger generation. Let me depict a conversation I had with a Chinese Singaporean man in his early forties. He and his wife had grown up in purely Hokkien-speaking homes with limited exposure to either English or Mandarin. The husband’s only schooling consisted of a few years in an English-stream school, but by his own account, he never cared much about studying, meaning that his English is weak. His wife is in a similar situation, though she went through a Chinese-stream school. Having experienced the disadvantages of insufficient language skills, they decided to speak only English and Mandarin with their own children. However, since the husband’s mother is living with them, the children hear their father and grandmother conversing in Hokkien. “Because of that, my daughter has learned to understand some Hokkien,” he explained. In fact, his daughter even expresses an interest in listening to the dialect, sometimes asking her father to speak amah-kong. Amah-kong is Hokkien and can be translated as “grandmother says.” The young girl’s reference to Hokkien as “amah-kong” reflects her perception of dialect as a language belonging to her grandmother’s world, with no immediate significance for her own.

Children growing up in English-speaking homes not only have difficulties relating to dialect, they even have difficulties relating to Mandarin (p.63) as their mother tongue. Feng, who works as a teacher at the Chinese Arts & Drama Association, is appalled at her students’ poor skills in Mandarin:

They don’t even know Mandarin, not to say their own dialect. I asked them “Which dialect group are you from?” None of them knows! They know nothing about this. They only know they are Chinese, and some of them can even tell me “I’m not Chinese, I’m English.” They will insist that they are English.

The students at the association where Feng works, of course, are not representative of all Chinese children. They are sent to the association by their parents precisely because they need to improve their Mandarin, since most of them are from English-speaking homes. That children growing up in an English-speaking environment perceive themselves as being “English,” not “Chinese,” is actually quite logical since they are most comfortable speaking English. Meanwhile, this is problematic in the Singaporean context where, according to the official multicultural system, identity is a matter of race; being Chinese is not so much a matter of language and cultural practices as of blood ties and physical appearance. This static notion of ethnic identity also plays out on the ground. Chinese parents get really frustrated when their children suggest they are English. “How could you be English? Look, yellow skin,” they say and pinch the child’s arm.

Language usage is not a purely generational issue, and despite the fact that all students now study English as their first-language, the language spoken at home varies. If you go to an old-style hawker center or market, most Chinese, young as well as old, speak dialect even when the younger ones might know English from school. Chinese culture in Singapore is obviously not a homogenous phenomenon but entails variation and contradictions. There are, nevertheless, clear symbolic markers attached to language skills and language preferences. Dialects are generally associated with the underclass and gang culture, while English represents the gateway to career advancement and social status. Auntie Lim, Andy’s mother, purposely speaks only English to her own children, “Because, you see, at that time [when my first son was young] we were staying in a HDB flat, and a neighbor had five children who used vulgar words in dialect. ‘Oh dear’, I said to my husband, ‘I can’t speak dialect to my son. He will learn [those vulgar words] from them.’” Their second son speaks slightly more Hokkien than the first because he was taken care of by Uncle Lim’s mother, who spoke neither English nor Mandarin, when he was a baby. The chances that children will (p.64) be exposed to dialect are naturally higher if there is an elderly dialect-speaking member of the household, but the reverse scenario, where grandparents pick up English or Mandarin to communicate with their grandchildren, is also common.

Religion and the Importance of Being Modern

In addition to upward mobility and shifting language use, religion is yet another area of intergenerational change. In Singapore, many Chinese families have religious differences due to the increasing trend toward conversion to Christianity. This was the case with Daniel, whom I quoted in the beginning of this chapter. Daniel was raised in a Taoist family, but as an adult he felt strongly inclined to Christianity. He is not yet baptized and does not belong to any specific denomination, but calls himself a “Christianity practitioner.” Daniel’s family is unusual in that his father also recently converted to Christianity, while his mother has remained a Taoist. In most other cases I encountered both spouses shared the same religious affiliation. Daniel’s father had embraced Christianity during a crisis of illness that nearly took his life. Six months later he was baptized. Of course, an important reason for his conversion was the support he had received from Daniel and his sister. “My dad was influenced by us,” Daniel explained to me. “He was convinced because everybody prayed for him in the hospital during his dark times. So I think he was convinced. He was healed. That’s what made him accept Christ.” The hospital has become the archetypal conversion setting in Singapore, where many people convert to Christianity in crisis situations. Daniel claims that despite his mother and father having different religions, they do not fight about it. However, when his father got baptized, he decided to discard the idols and the altar table from their home. Daniel’s mother, the only remaining Taoist of the family, is not compelled to convert, but her religious practice is inevitably restricted by her husband’s decision to remove the altar.

Since Chinese religious beliefs and practices in Singapore contain elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and ancestor worship, it is, as suggested by Vivienne Wee (1977, 3), more appropriate to use the term “Chinese religion.” In The Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas Chinese religion is described as “a heterogeneous mixture of ancestor worship with elements of Buddhist, Daoist [Taoist] and Confucian sources as well as from traditional Chinese folklore and religious practices indigenous to the places (p.65) where the Chinese have established communities” (Pan 2000, 80). Even informants who themselves practice Chinese religions are unclear about the differences between Buddhism and Taoism. Although, on inquiry, they might classify themselves as Buddhist, in practice they worship ancestors as well as Taoist gods. This fusion is also reflected in the many temples around Singapore, which usually house both Buddhist and Taoist sections in the same building. Many self-proclaimed Buddhists pray to the Taoist gods too, if only to be on the safe side. Whether we talk about worship in temples or domestic worship (i.e., at home), rituals are characterized by the use of incense for praying. The burning of incense—either in the form of joss sticks or spirals—is a conspicuous feature of Chinese religion. The smoke from the incense is considered a means of communicating with the spirits. It is easy to tell which households practice Chinese religion from the small altars nailed up high next to the front door. Inside their homes they usually keep an altar with ancestral tablets and various idols, and also a pot in which to put the burning joss sticks.

Contrary to my initial assumption, the practice of ancestor worship does not seem to increase people’s genealogical knowledge, at least not in

Modernity and the Generation GapThe Singapore Experience

Figure 3.2 A Chinese altar found outside homes in Singapore

(p.66) Singapore. The forbears they pray to are only the more immediate ones, parents and grandparents.14 Young people in general have very little knowledge of their ancestors back in China. Some of my informants were totally indifferent to their genealogy, while others pointed to the lack of sources. One informant excused himself on the grounds that his parents had not passed down the family history: “You can say that the younger ones, they don’t bother to find out, the other perspective is [that] our parents never bothered to tell us. In both perspectives nobody gets to know the history.”

In recent decades, considerable numbers of Chinese Singaporeans have converted from the Chinese religion to Christianity.15 The evangelical churches are by far the fastest growing and account for the greater part of the converts. According to the census of 2000, approximately 16 percent of the Chinese population is Christian, approximately 64 percent is Buddhist/Taoist, and nearly 19 percent claim to be without religious affiliation. In the statistical report the category “Christianity” is subdivided into “Catholic” and “other Christians.” Catholics account for slightly more than 29 percent while “other Christians” account for slightly more than 70 percent (Census of Population 2000). In everyday parlance, Singaporeans also make a distinction between “Catholicism” and “Christianity.” The latter mainly refers to evangelical Christianity. Although they share the same religious foundation, evangelical congregations consider Catholics to be too eclectic and lax in their religious conduct. For instance, evangelical churches strongly object to any practices related to non-Christian faiths, such as burning joss sticks for the deceased, but many of the Catholics I met would carry joss sticks when honoring deceased followers of Chinese religion.

The most important recruitment base for the rapidly growing evangelical churches are the young and well-educated Chinese who feel little identification with Chinese customs and traditions in general.16 In Jesus they find unconditional love and security. The attraction of the evangelical denominations lies in their practical approach to religion as well as the evangelical image as a vibrant and youthful faith. Housed in new and air-conditioned premises with high-tech equipment, these churches give every indication of being relevant in the modern context. Their fundamental message is that by practicing your faith and doing good deeds, you will be rewarded both spiritually and materially. Asceticism is not at all in the picture. Admittedly, the idea of material reward fits nicely into modern consumer society; just as you can pray for good health, so too can you pray for money to buy that new TV.

The churches, like other religious societies, reach out to the community (p.67) by setting up welfare organizations and donating large amounts of money to charity. The image of Christianity as a hip and “happening” faith is enhanced by the way many churches incorporate show business into their activities. One of the largest churches in Singapore, the City Harvest Church, is famous for its “singing pastor,” Ho Yeow Sun, who along with her career as a pastor has become a successful pop artist. The City Harvest Church and other new churches may be attractive but they have also been criticized for being run like businesses and pouring money into the construction of grand buildings. All of the above activities, including the devotion to mission, now require large sums of money. The answer to this need lies in tithing, whereby members are encouraged to donate 10 percent of their income to the church. At present, the City Harvest Church is building a gigantic church complex in Jurong West, a suburb in the western part of Singapore. The construction of the church, including the land purchase, will amount to a whopping S$47.6 million, money that has been raised entirely from the congregation.17

Alan and Carole’s congregation, an evangelical charismatic church, is located a ten-minute drive from the city center. Alan and Carole usually attended the Sunday service in English, which was led by a very energetic pastor. In addition to its sermon and prayers, the service is dedicated to singing gospel songs, accompanied by a live band, with the lyrics rolling on big screens. During the songs people rise to their feet, sing along, and clap their hands. The atmosphere is relaxed and there is no particular dress code. Most churchgoers wear casual clothing, such as jeans, shirt, and sneakers (they instead manifest their social status by arriving in polished cars). Carole and her friends, when asked the reason for their conversion, assert that Christianity is far more rational than Chinese religion. A recurrent argument among my Christian informants is that Chinese religion is more concerned with ritual than reading, and that the followers do not know why they are performing this or that ritual. That Chinese religion lacks scriptures is a misconception, but it is true that the Chinese religious practice in Singapore is more temple-based than scripture-based.18 Since many elderly Chinese are illiterate, the scriptures cannot constitute a basis for their worship. Christian followers, by contrast, place the reading of scriptures at the center of their devotions, and many church members I came to know were joining Bible study groups to further their spiritual understanding.

The image of Christianity as a rational and modern religion is construed against the image of Chinese religion as outmoded and incoherent. Rodney, a member of Carole and Alan’s church, was raised in a Taoist home. He (p.68) pointed out to me that because most elderly people are uneducated, they are confused about their religion. “If you ask them in Chinese they will only say they pray to the gods, but if you ask them in English they will say that they are Buddhist, although they are not. They are actually Taoist!” These “confused” answers, however, must be seen in relation to the categories established in official statistics, where Buddhism and Taoism/Chinese Traditional Beliefs represent two separate religious categories (see Census of Population 2000). People thus have to describe themselves as either Buddhist or Taoist, regardless of whether they make this distinction in practice. It should also be mentioned that when asked in their native language, Chinese usually refer to their religion as bai shen (worshipping spirits), which in practice includes the worship of any deity, whether of Taoist or Buddhist origin (see Elliott 1955; Wee 1977; Choong 1983).19

Rodney’s wife, Christina, likewise grew up in a Taoist home. She recalls how her family used to pray to the ancestors on the first and fifteenth day of every lunar month. Growing up poor, Christina and her siblings were always looking forward to these days because they got to eat special foods like roast duck or pork, not because they knew much about the religious content. As a child, she never questioned the religious rituals. “That’s how we were brought up, we never questioned,” she laughed. “If we were asked to pray, we pray. If we were asked to help, we help. We Chinese are brought up in the way that [we should] respect parents. So we didn’t go against parents although we were not happy sometimes. We just followed.” Christina was the first among her siblings to become Christian. This greatly upset her mother and she threatened Christina every time she went to church. Sometimes she would even walk behind Christina all the way to church, making noise and threats. But in the end, no matter what she did, she was unable to stop Christina. “It broke her heart [when I became a Christian],” Christina admitted. “Because when you become a Christian you betray their religion. They feel that you don’t respect them as parents and that you don’t love them anymore.” The comparison to a betrayal has to be understood against the entwinement of religion and filial obligations. In the realm of Chinese religion, a filial child has to perform rituals of ancestor worship, or else the deceased parents will become wandering ghosts. By rejecting the practice of ancestor worship, Christian converts also reject part of their filial obligations to their parents. From that perspective, the conversion to Christianity is not just a matter of private faith; it is also a form of emancipation from the elder generation or, indeed, a rejection of certain aspects of filial piety (i.e., ancestor worship).

(p.69) Rodney, and many others like him, remained a “closet” Christian for several years out of fear that his parents would denounce him. As Rodney became an adult and established his own family, his parents became more accepting of his religion. An important factor in this situation is that parents usually become dependent on their children for financial and practical support as they grow old. Jane is a similar case; she joined an evangelical church several years ago. Her mother is a Buddhist, and although she could not stop Jane from converting, she complains that Jane will not pray for her after she dies. Jane usually retorts by saying: “Isn’t it better that I care for you now, when you are still alive?” Jane’s mother used to keep an altar table in the flat, but once Jane converted she removed it and now only worships on special occasions. This should be seen against the fact that Jane’s mother is wholly dependent on Jane. She is long since retired, her savings are already used up and the “sister-organization” she belonged to has dissolved because most of its members have passed away.20 It would be misleading to isolate a single factor, but economic dependence is clearly a key reason why elderly parents sometimes compromise on their own religious conduct. The inversion of the (economic) dependency relation between parent and child undoubtedly affects the balance of power to the advantage of the younger generation, while weakening the authority of seniors. Some families experience terrible conflicts in the wake of religious conversion; these sometimes escalate into full-scale struggles in the course of which children trash their parents’ altars and idols as a demonstration of their repudiation of non-Christian religious practices. Destroying one’s parents’ altar and idols is a drastic act, and none of my close informants, according to what they told me, had gone through such serious conflicts. They did, however, describe other ways in which they manifest their disapproval, such as refusing to eat food that has been prayed over, refusing to carry joss sticks when honoring the deceased during Qing Ming, or refusing to participate in funeral rituals.

I once joined Angela at the wake of her friend’s father-in-law. A Chinese funeral is a far from private event. Friends and relatives, no matter how distant, are expected to come to the wake and pay their last respects to the deceased. Chairs and tables are set out for visitors, as well as refreshments and food. Unless you are closely related to the deceased, you are not expected to express grief; rather you go to pay your respects and show your support to the family. For blood relatives, however, it is common to wail loudly as a sign of respect (and as a demonstration of filial piety, according to many) to the deceased. At night, there must always be a family member (p.70) watching over the coffin to make sure that no black cat jumps over it, since this is believed to cause the dead to arise. During the wake family members and close relatives always wear simple clothes and no jewelry. A square piece of colored cloth is worn on the sleeve of each family member indicating their relationship to the deceased: black for children, blue for grandchildren, and so forth. In this case, the children of the deceased were of different religions—some were Christian and some were Buddhist—but since the deceased was a Buddhist the ceremony was performed accordingly. I do not know whether the funeral had been preceded by quarrels or arguments within the family, but it was obvious that the Christian children did not wish to participate in the Buddhist rituals. While I was there, the Buddhist side of the family gathered at the foot of the coffin to pray together with the monks, as is customary, while the Christian family members observed these prayers from a distance. Nor would they light incense for the deceased by the small altar placed at the foot of the coffin. Funeral service companies in Singapore offer a range of products and services, including flower arrangements, caskets, newspaper obituaries, tents for the wake, buffet catering, joss praying items, transportation to crematorium or cemetery, and even rites conducted according to dialect group. Interestingly, Chinese funerals often reflect the dialect group of the deceased.

It should not be overlooked, however, that many families manage to keep their religious differences at arm’s length, at least not letting religion interfere with other domains of family life. A good example of this is Carole and her family. Carole converted to Christianity in her teens, as did her second brother. Her oldest brother calls himself a freethinker—which means he has no specific religious affiliation—but does not object to performing rituals together with his parents. Carole‘s parents were initially unhappy with her conversion to Christianity, and there have been conflicts over the years, such as when Carole’s parents threatened not to attend Carole and Alan’s wedding ceremony in the church. Still, despite lurking tensions, they interact frequently as a family and share many daily activities.

Modern Society and the Decline of Seniority?

Studies of intergenerational relations have described, as well as projected, the declining status of seniority in modern societies (e.g., Eisenstadt 1956; Mead 1970; Cowgill and Holmes 1972; Caldwell 1976), and without a doubt, the disintegration of traditional intergenerational relations and a (p.71) decline in the status of Singapore’s elderly seem to sustain this projection. The increasing emphasis on education and merit and the charge to adjust to a rapidly changing world put many elderly at a disadvantage. Those elderly who lack both sufficient savings and a solid family network are especially vulnerable because they must depend on holding down a job even after retirement. This is the case with Auntie Wee, who worked as a cleaning lady in the estate where I lived. One late afternoon on my way home, I met Auntie Wee at the bus stop. We exchanged a few words about this and that, and I was just about to walk on again when she suddenly said, “Saturday is my last day here.” Surprised, I turned back around and asked her why. She explained that a couple of weeks before she had received a letter stating that she would be dismissed with one month’s notice because she is over sixty-five years old. (Her dismissal was obviously not an economy measure, because another person had been hired for the same job.) Auntie Wee was sad and upset, “I have been working there for twenty-six years, always being loyal, and now they are doing this to me, breaking my rice bowl.” For Auntie Wee this was nothing less than a catastrophe. Her husband had no work, and their eldest daughter was a housewife and could not provide any financial assistance. Their second daughter, who still lived with them, worked as a secretary but did not earn much, and, to make things worse, had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. “We are poor, we will not be able to survive if I don’t find another work!” Auntie Wee burst out. Her retirement savings had become available when she turned fifty-five and by now those funds were already gone. She invested in another saving scheme that gives her three hundred dollars per month, but this does not even cover food and other necessities. In desperation, Auntie Wee went to the head office and begged them not to dismiss her. “I need very thick skin do that, to go there and beg for help,” she said and pinched her cheek. A few days later, however, her visit to the head office paid off. The general manager did not cancel the retrenchment, but he agreed to extend her contract by six months, so at least she would have time to work out another solution. Even so, she did not have high hopes of finding new employment: “We are old already, they [employers] don’t want us.”

Many of my informants have the same perception; the younger you are, the more attractive you will be in the labor market, because employers prefer to hire someone who has just graduated than someone, say, forty-five years old. Whether this picture is statistically correct or not, it is the general opinion of all the people with whom I spoke. The inversion of age-hierarchies to the advantage of youth becomes even more obvious when seen in (p.72) contrast to the popular representation of Asian societies as family-oriented and age-hierarchical. My informants frequently commented on this contradiction. Bee Choo, for instance, put it the following way:

Now old age is seen as a liability to the family. Not like in the old society, where the older you are, the more valued you are in the family. The patriarch or the matriarch was always given a lot of status in the family because seniority was valued [in the past]. But we sure know that now this is a world that favors the young, not the old. Being old is a liability.

Bee Choo, like many others, blames modern society, where the continuous upgrading of technology and the acquisition of “new” knowledge set the rules. The elderly inevitably get left behind since they tend to lack both education and adequate experience:

I mean Internet and all these things. Even now in government service or leadership positions it’s the younger and younger ones who are holding [the positions]. No longer are you rewarded based on seniority or loyalty to the company or to the country. It’s all about giving young blood and that kind of things. So it is a world belonging to the young, and increasingly the old will become a liability because it’s less valued in the society.

Seniority, however, is not synonymous with physiological ageing. Seniority is a social status defined and legitimized in terms of old age but in fact made possible due to other factors, such as access to economic resources or political power. The connection between social seniority and economic power in nonindustrial societies has been theorized by French anthropologists in terms of precapitalist class relations, whereby powerful elders exploit juniors by controlling the basis of production and reproduction (see Terray 1975; Meillassoux 1978). Meillasoux, for instance, argues that in self-sustaining agricultural societies, the seniors’ authority over juniors ultimately “depends on their capacity to control access to nubile women” (1978, 139). Since the seniors’ control over land is not immediate, they seek to perpetuate their control through other methods, such as knowledge of subsistence skills, ritual knowledge (e.g., customs, genealogies, religious rituals), and access to women (a precondition of reproduction). This Marxist approach, however, can be criticized for neglecting the reverse situation, that is, nonindustrial societies where the elderly are disadvantaged compared with young adults (see Foner 1984, xxii). Likewise, (p.73) even in societies where social seniority is institutionalized, not all elderly achieve equally privileged positions, and even within a category of seniors there are internal hierarchies and inequalities. Terray (1975) notes this discrepancy between ideology and actual practice in kinship-based societies (or the “lineage mode of production”), where, theoretically, all youths would eventually become elders: “In actual fact, not all youths will become elders; some will die before reaching that goal, others will be preceded by elder brothers throughout their lifetime; but all of them may legitimately think that they will one day cross the barrier” (ibid., 111). Hence, it is doubtful that old age has ever been the sole determinant of power and influence. Maurice Freedman (1957, 20), for instance, observed that it was not always the case that the eldest man ruled in traditional Chinese society. In theory, the most senior man would head the lineage, but in practice other factors such as wealth and educational status interfered and thus mitigated the principle of seniority.

While the divergence between physiological ageing and seniority is nothing new, in contemporary Singapore the notion of seniority is obviously upheld and reproduced ideologically, just as many elderly face discrimination and hardship in their daily lives. Seniority is even institutionalized in the political structure through positions such as “senior minister,” that is, former ministers of state who after retirement receive advisory positions. Lee Kuan Yew was appointed senior minister when he stepped down from the prime minister post in favor of Goh Chok Tong in 1990. Lee acted as senior minister until 2004, when his son Lee Hsien Loong took over the prime minister post. Lee Kuan Yew was then appointed to the new position of “minister mentor,” and Goh then became senior minister. Minister Mentor Lee officially has an advisory role, but he is a member of the Cabinet (so is Senior Minister Goh) and his continuing influence in politics should not be underestimated.

Linking the Past and the Present

This chapter illustrates how massive social change has had a fragmenting effect on cultural continuity across generations. It is also obvious that this disruption involves an inversion of traditional age-hierarchies, whereby the elderly are increasingly disadvantaged. Meanwhile, it is important to remember that although intergenerational relations may be fraught with problems, they also provide opportunities for negotiation and reconciliation (p.74) in everyday life. This sort of negotiation is especially conspicuous among the sandwich generation, among those who grew up in the “old” world but have adjusted to the modern. People from the sandwich generation often see themselves as a link and the need for a mediating link is perhaps most obvious with regard to language, where verbal communication between grandchildren and dialect-speaking grandparents sometimes presupposes an interpreter. Language, however, is not the only area in which people from different generations must work out strategies to manage their differences. In my conversations with Bee Choo, she repeatedly referred to the massive changes her generation has experienced, “We are in a generation where we negotiate the differences, the transitions. We are in the generation where at home we were brought up with some of these Chinese traditions, and then in school we were educated another way. So we are in that transition.” For Bee Choo, navigating between old and new ways of life is more or less automatic and responds to the person she is interacting with:

If I’m with the older generation in let’s say a Chinese dinner, a wedding dinner or something like that, I will still apply traditional rules. In that context you know, automatically we will switch to think like “Okay, this is your elder, you serve your elder.” And if you see an older auntie or uncle who cannot walk properly you go forward and help out. That kind of Chinese Chineseness, lah, will still come in, because that was how we have learnt to interact with them, from childhood you see. But if let’s say if the elderly are not around and we are alone with my kids, we get another kind of interaction and different rules apply in that context.

Here Bee Choo refers to the different conceptions of proper behavior between elders and the young. As a child, she was expected to address all elder family members in a respectful manner. If they were having a family dinner, she would address the elders and invite them to eat before helping herself. Even today, this is how she interacts with the older generation. Bee Choo’s relation to her own children, by contrast, is much less hierarchical. When they gather around the dinner table, she does not require her children to invite the adults to eat, nor does she let them wait until the adults have been served. “No, no,” Bee Choo laughed. “Children eat first nowadays!” She continued, “It’s no longer like in the past, lah. Now people don’t take all this so seriously, so if my son refuses to do it [i.e., call his uncle to come eat dinner], my brother would just laugh about it or just joke and say ‘What are you saying! You don’t want me to eat!’” Although Bee Choo (p.75) does not require her children to perform this traditional dinner ritual, she likes them to be aware of the existence of such rituals: “We’re just telling them, as a matter of sharing with them, what we used to do as kids. But not intending that this [practice] must be passed on, lah.”

From childhood Bee Choo learned to address senior relatives according to the proper kinship term. Chinese kinship terminology is very specific and distinguishes matrilateral from patrilateral relationships, sex, generation, and relative age. Proper forms of address include the use of correct titles when speaking with elders, and even between siblings.21 According to etiquette, a junior person must address his/her seniors according to their proper title, whereas a senior person may address his/her juniors by name. If there is more than one elder sister/brother, further distinctions are made according to the age ranking of the siblings, for instance “eldest sister,” “second sister,” “third sister,” and so forth. The practice of address is not only a way of manifesting age hierarchy, it is also seen as good manners. The worst insult imaginable would be addressing one’s mother or father by name. I was told that this may actually happen in the course of a huge quarrel, but all my informants expressed outrage at the very thought of calling their parents by name, maintaining that this was absolutely unthinkable.

Most young parents I met believed it was important to teach their children to address their elders by their proper kinship term. In some cases the use of kinship terms was even revived. Carole’s good friend John, for instance, was never taught to address his elder siblings by title. He simply calls them by name. Nevertheless, John is determined to teach his own children the correct kinship terminology and to address one another accordingly. At the same time as the terms of address confirm a hierarchy based on relative age, John pointed out that it also confirms a “blood-link.” To address one’s brother as “brother,” John said, gives a “closer and more respectful” impression than calling him by name. Some of my informants even think that proper address within the family is more important than with outsiders. Pauline, another teacher at the Chinese Arts & Drama Association, recalls that she used to be confused when reading American novels and books as a child because the characters were always calling each other by name. “I didn’t even know who was the eldest, who was the youngest. How to differentiate?” Like John, Pauline feels that addressing by title confirms that “yeah, we are a family.”

With few exceptions, terms of address are in Chinese, either in Mandarin or in dialect. Even in families where English is the primary language of communication, the Chinese terms of address are usually used because (p.76) English lacks an equally detailed kinship terminology.22 The English terms “uncle” and “auntie” are mostly used when addressing non-kin, such as a friend’s father or the bus driver. I was often told that “anyone can be an uncle or auntie,” and for that reason it is inappropriate to address relatives in English. The Chinese terms of address are thus important markers for distinguishing kin from non-kin. For either kin or non-kin, however, it is extremely disrespectful to neglect to greet a senior person by title. Angela, for instance, was extremely upset with her nephew’s girlfriend for not addressing her properly. “It’s terrible,” she said. “She [the nephew’s girlfriend] enters our house and just says ‘hi.’ She should say ‘hi, auntie,’ otherwise it is as if I were invisible, and I’m not! I’m there!” Whenever I joined Carole on visits to her brother’s family, her two nieces addressed me as “Auntie Kristina.” If they forgot to do so, they got a scolding from their parents or any of the other adult family members. Likewise, it was expected from me to greet Carole’s parents, or any elder person, as “uncle” and “auntie.” In Sweden it is widely accepted to call senior people by name, and I must admit that it took a while for me to remember to greet and to address senior people properly. As I got used to the habit of addressing and being addressed, I even found myself feeling offended when young children called me by name instead of “auntie” or jiejie (“big sister” in Mandarin).

While most of my informants transmit kinship forms of address to their own children, the shift from dialect to Mandarin or English has an impact on the language of address. Bee Choo grew up in a Hokkien-speaking family and thus learned these terms in Hokkien. If the paternal side and the maternal side are from different dialect groups, the terms of address may also differ accordingly. Children of today, however, are taught the Mandarin terms of address in school. Although the written character is the same for Mandarin and dialect, the pronunciation can be completely different. As a matter of respect to her elders, Bee Choo teaches her children to address them in dialect. For younger relatives, however, she teaches her children the Mandarin terms, since Mandarin is the curricular mother tongue. As time goes by and elderly relatives pass away, the dialect terms of address are likely to be used less frequently. Admittedly, it is not easy to learn and memorize the detailed Chinese kinship terminology. There is no regular interaction with more distant relatives, since big family gatherings are usually limited to the high festivals. Given the language gap and their infrequent interaction with elder relatives, children of today find it difficult to keep track of these terms of address. Meanwhile, the shrinking family (p.77) tree means that future generations will have fewer family members, and hence terms of address, to keep in mind.

Celebrating Chinese New Year: Family Reunion and “Home Visiting”

The Chinese New Year is the most important annual occasion; it is when family members, old and young, reunite. Also known as the Spring Festival (Chun Jie), Chinese New Year usually falls in the period of January and February (depending on the lunar calendar) and lasts for fifteen days. Preparations begin several weeks before and are especially vibrant in Chinatown, where brightly colored lanterns light up the sky. Streets are crowded with people browsing among the overwhelming selection of goodies, food, New Year decorations and flowers. Singaporeans are passionate about buying bak kwa, a barbecued sweet meat sold in thin slices. Bak kwa is a must, and people queue for hours to get high-quality slices; in this instance the price is really secondary. With the New Year approaching, everyone hopes for prosperous times. Lion dance troupes are invited to perform at shopping malls and food centers to chase away bad spirits and bring good luck to the businesses. When decorating the house for the New Year, people paste auspicious characters on the doors and the walls, in hopes of attracting prosperity and good luck. These characters are written on red paper, since red symbolizes good fortune and happiness.

At the time of my fieldwork, many Singaporeans were experiencing the consequences of economic recession and increasing unemployment rates, and their wishes for a better year to come were especially fervent. When I attended a New Year gathering at Jennifer’s home, she asked me, on her grandmother’s behalf, to help her draw lucky numbers. Slightly confused, I agreed. Jennifer placed a transparent plastic bowl in front of me, which contained small slips of folded paper numbered from 1 to 9. She shook the bowl and asked me to pick a number. I put my hand into the bowl, grabbed a slip of paper, and handed it over to Jennifer’s grandmother, who unfolded the slip and took notice of the number written on it. I repeated the procedure until I had picked out a four-number sequence: 8-1-4-7. The grandmother then took a lottery ticket and filled it in with the combination of numbers I had drawn.

There are countless ways of creating combinations of numbers for lotteries (p.78) and other purposes. As a first-time visitor I was believed to bring good luck. It is also popular to ask a person to draw lucky numbers on his or her birthday, or to distinguish numbers from the characteristic lines of lou han (flowerhorn) fishes. (Lou han fishes are very popular in Singapore since they are believed to bring prosperity, good fortune, and longevity. The distinctive patterning on their sides may easily be interpreted as meaningful Chinese characters.) Jennifer even told me how, when she had her first menstruation, her grandmother threw slips of numbers between her legs and picked out the four numbers that flew the furthest distance. The obsession with the notion of “luck,” whether it is good or bad, has been observed in numerous accounts of Chinese society. According to Choong Ket Che (1983) the infatuation with luck—although it may seem contradictory—is entwined with the Chinese belief in predestination. Predestination operates on two levels: a general level (fate) and a specific level (luck). While the fate of an individual is fixed, the notion of luck is elastic. A person with a less favorable fate can improve his life and reach success through the manipulation of luck; a bad fate can thus be compensated for by good luck. It is equally important to avoid bad luck. Bad luck is usually the result of malignant spirits or other human beings who are capable of bringing misfortune. A person’s luck can also be changed for the worse if he or she is neglectful of the gods (ibid., 71). This belief in the manipulation of luck is deeply rooted, and, as I have already mentioned, even my Christian informants try to protect themselves from bad luck: They would never get married or sign important contracts during the seventh month. Like everybody else, they strictly avoid stepping in the ashes from roadside offerings to the ghosts. There are always stories circulating of what has happened to people who accidentally did so. For example, a friend of a friend (the typical opening phrase) lost his ability to walk for no apparent reason, and another friend’s friend suddenly started to be haunted by ghosts he saw.

On New Year’s Eve, Chinese families gather for their annual reunion dinner. On my first fieldtrip I was invited to Carole’s family for this reunion dinner, and the subsequent year I joined the reunion dinner at Linda Teo’s home. Traditionally, these dinners were a major event. All sons were expected to return to their ancestral home, while married daughters joined the reunion of their husbands’ families. Nowadays, however, reunion dinners are usually restricted to closest family or even the nuclear unit, and thanks to the limited geographical distances in Singapore, many couples manage to participate in the reunion dinners of both their parents and their in-laws. Unlike the past, when all shops and eateries were closed over New (p.79) Year, more and more families hold their reunion dinners at restaurants to save the trouble of preparing the feast at home. Some Singaporeans even go on holiday overseas to escape the rush and bustle. The reunion dinners I attended were relaxed events. Clothes should be in bright colors, preferably red, but apart from that, attire is casual. Linda, for instance, simply wore a t-shirt and a pair of shorts during the dinner. In comparison, dress for the home visits to relatives and friends in the following days is more formal.

The reunion dinner I attended with Carole consisted of her parents, Auntie and Uncle Lee, and their three children (including Carole). Since Alan was temporarily overseas at the time, Carole joined her own parents instead of her in-laws. Auntie and Uncle Lee had woken up early in the morning to sell chicken and duck meat at the market. After closing shop, Auntie Lee returned home to prepare the dinner. While she managed the cooking on her own, Carole and I helped out by going to town to buy fish for the yu sheng, a raw fish salad. This salad is a unique feature of Chinese culture in Singapore, and is eaten only during the New Year season. It consists of grated carrots, radish, raw fish slices (tuna or salmon), crackers, pomelo and sweetened plum sauce. Auntie Lee made hers from scratch, since buying even a semi-prepared product is unthinkable for her. She placed the salad on the middle of the dinner table and carefully turned over the ingredients into a colorful mix. When everything was set, we all collected around the table, each grabbed a pair of chopsticks, and began to toss the salad up into the air while saying auspicious words. The tossing of the salad—the higher into the air, the better—is believed to whip up good luck for the coming year. The ingredients themselves, like many other New Year features, carry symbolic meaning. The Chinese character for fish, yu, is the homophone of “abundance,” while the traditional New Year cake made of glutinous rice, nian gao, has the same sound as “high year,” meaning that the new year will be better than the outgoing year. Another central feature of New Year celebrations in Singapore is the exchange of mandarin oranges. This is a practice that was transported to Southeast Asia by migrants from China’s southern provinces. In Cantonese “mandarin orange” is a homophone for “gold.” When visiting relatives and friends during New Year, it is therefore customary to offer two mandarin oranges (alternatively four, so long as it is not an odd number). To show reciprocity, the host will return two mandarin oranges to the guest before he or she leaves.

After finishing the reunion meal, Carole and her sister-in-law, Wendy, went into a separate room to prepare their hong bao gifts, red packets containing money. At the New Year, unmarried family members and friends (p.80)

Modernity and the Generation GapThe Singapore Experience

Figure 3.3 The traditional family reunion dinner at the Lee’s. The plate in the middle is the yu sheng, the popular raw fish salad that is eaten only during the Chinese New Year season.

are entitled to receive red packets from married couples. Although red packets are traditionally offered to those who are younger, it is also customary for adult children to give red packets to their parents once they have started working. The young children, of course, are especially eager to collect their hong bao gifts. Giving out red packets can be a costly affair, given the number of potential recipients. Where close family members may receive substantial amounts of money, sometimes several hundreds of dollars, distant friends usually receive a symbolic sum, like ten dollars. I myself received a decent number of red packets at the many parties I attended throughout the New Year season.

During the New Year period followers of Chinese religion pay their respects to the gods and to their deceased. Auntie and Uncle Lee were not particularly religious, but they prayed on New Year’s Eve. The more devout believers might choose to welcome the New Year at the temple. Carole, who converted to Christianity many years ago, did not participate in her (p.81) parents’ worship. It is not uncommon that Christians refuse to eat food that has been prayed over, but Carole reasoned that so long as she did not partake in the ritual herself and considered the food the same as any other food, it did not matter to her.

The Chinese New Year, like Christmas, has become a highly commercialized event, but it is nevertheless an occasion for reaffirming family and friendship bonds. The first days of the New Year are the time to honor elder relatives by visiting them at home, the so-called home visiting. These home visits are usually a hectic business, since families make several visits on the same day.

I attended New Year festivities in Singapore for the second time in 2003. On the first day of the Year of the Goat, I left my home in the morning to pay a visit to Jane and her elderly mother (actually her adoptive mother). Jane’s mother had migrated to Singapore in the 1930s. At that time, China’s economy had been badly hit by the world depression and a slump in silk production, and unmarried women were often encouraged by their families to seek employment overseas so they could send remittances back home; this resulted in a stream of women entering Singapore and other colonies (see Pan 1994).23 Jane’s mother used to work as a domestic servant (amah) for European and wealthy Chinese households. Although her salary was meager, she regularly remitted money to her family in China. She never got married or had any children of her own. Adopting a child, like Jane’s mother did, was a common strategy among unmarried domestic servants for insuring old-age support (Pan 1994, 198). Jane has no recollection of her biological parents and considers her adoptive mother “her own,” and so Jane fulfills her responsibilities by providing material as well as personal care.

Jane and her mother live in Bedok, a suburb east of the city center. On New Year’s Day, Jane met me at the MRT station and brought me to their home, which by Singaporean standards is a somewhat rundown public housing flat with two bedrooms. On a stool outside the main door Jane’s mother had placed a small pot with ashes of burned incense from praying. Inside the house, in the hall (parlor), a table was set with food offerings, consisting of a variety of fruits, sweets, and tea. In the opposite corner they had placed a vase of twigs with decorations in red and gold, and on the wall above hung a poster emblazoned with the character fu (luck). When I got to their home around 10:30 that morning, other visitors had already arrived. I presented my two mandarin oranges to Jane’s mother, since she is the eldest, and wished everybody a prosperous New Year (gong xi fa cai). (p.82) The home visit involves much eating, and all households make sure to stock up with plenty of biscuits, pineapple tarts, dried fruits, nuts, and sweets for the guests. On top of this, Jane’s mother had prepared a delicious meal of fried chicken, spring rolls, noodles, and vegetables. As I said my goodbyes with a full stomach, Jane’s mother returned a pair of mandarin oranges and presented me a hong bao.

On the second day of the New Year I visited Andy Lim’s family, who on the same day were celebrating the “full month” of Andy’s new niece. Celebrating a baby’s “full month” is an old Chinese custom, which takes place when the baby turns one month old. The family usually hosts a gathering of relatives and friends, to whom they distribute red-colored hardboiled eggs. The egg symbolizes fertility and renewal—Chinese also appreciate the shape of the egg, which is associated with harmony; the boiled eggs are dyed red to bring extra good luck. Sometimes the guests receive other gifts too, such as cakes and glutinous rice. The guests, in turn, are expected to reciprocate by bringing red packets or presents for the baby.

The Lim’s terrace house was crowded with friends and relatives. Andy introduced me to everyone, and I had to work to keep all their names straight. That Andy’s family is economically well-off is obvious from their spacious house, which has three stories and is nicely furnished. At the back of the house they have a tiny garden, where Auntie Lim grows guava, lime, and spices. In Singapore, where most people live in high-rise buildings, even a few square meters of garden is a luxury. Auntie Lim, dressed in a red Chinese-style blouse, encouraged me to help myself to the impressive dinner buffet. I filled my plate with pieces of chicken, fish, fried prawns, and marinated mushrooms. There was also beer and wine available for those who wished to drink something stronger than tea or soft drinks. Wine is becoming increasingly popular among middle- and upper-class people, but is rarely consumed by most people. In fact, the number of times I was served wine during the course of my fieldwork can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Since it was a buffet supper, I could easily mingle with the rest of the guests. Most of them were conversing in English, save Andy’s grandmother who only speaks Hokkien. The very young children ran about excitedly, enjoying all the food and goodies, eager to collect their red packets. Andy’s old grandmother, despite being quite frail, also took part in the celebration. Since she can only move around by means of a walker, she spent the whole afternoon seated by a table. Although the children hardly speak any dialect at all, they showed their respect for her by offering mandarin oranges and New Year’s greetings. Andy was in the care (p.83) of his grandmother as a child, so he understands some Hokkien, and when addressing elder relatives, he uses the Hokkien kin terms. In Andy’s eyes it would be extremely disrespectful to address them in English as auntie or uncle. Admittedly though, he has some problems remembering the kinship terminology and the relative order of all his uncles and aunts, especially those he seldom meets. Sometimes he even has to ask his mother for the correct term of address before greeting an elder. This actually happened at the New Year party. When one old aunt arrived, Andy leaned toward his mother, discreetly asking for the correct term of address. Andy told me that he wants to memorize these kinship terms in the years to come. He should at least know the proper terms by the time he gets married, so he can teach them to his children. Despite the fact that he is most comfortable communicating in English, he believes it is crucial to have some knowledge of Chinese language and traditions, or else he will lose his heritage.

The challenges facing intergenerational relations in contemporary Singapore are, as we have seen, numerous and complex. Socio-economic development is a major factor in this process, but we also have seen how the subjective aspiration to be modern as well as political regimes have had a fragmenting effect on cultural continuity across generations. The strong presence of the Singapore government, and its habit of social engineering, has a major impact on intergenerational relations, both in terms of fragmentation and consolidation. One of the most severe interventions has been the language policies, whereby dialects have been banned in favor of Mandarin and English. Not only does this lead to the alienation of the younger generation from the ethnic identity central to the elder generation; in some cases it has even destroyed the possibilities of verbal communication. The irony, of course, is that whereas the political leadership justified the language shift as a way of consolidating the cultural heritage of the Chinese community, in practice it de-legitimized a crucial feature of the lived culture.


(1.) The well-known futurologist Herman Kahn was one of the first to speculate on a connection between Confucian traditions and economic growth: “As opposed to the earlier Protestant ethic, the modern Confucian ethic is superbly designed to create and foster loyalty, dedication, responsibility, and commitment, and to intensify identification with the organization and one’s role in the organization. All this makes the economy and society operate much more smoothly than one whose principles of identification and association tend to lead to egalitarianism, to disunity, to confrontation, and to excessive compensation or repression” (1979, 122).

(2.) It should be pointed out that the individualized culture commonly ascribed to “Western” societies is far from primordial. In nineteenth-century Western Europe, for instance, loyalty to family and nation was idealized to a much higher degree than in contemporary times (see Berger and Berger 1983).

(3.) As Arif Dirlik reminds us, the new faith in the Confucian ethos was “a reversal of a longstanding conviction (in Europe and East Asia) that Confucianism was historically an obstacle to capitalism” (1997, 71). It should also be noted that the intensified interest in Asian Values that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s corresponds to a general trend toward challenges to the dominance of the West, manifested by religious movements, ethnic identification, and indigenous revival movements (see Friedman 1994).

(4.) The Asian Values ideology has been analyzed as a case of “reverse Orientalism” (Hill 2000), on the grounds that Asian Values were to a large extent reasserted by local actors, such as Singapore’s political leadership.

(5.) Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was another prominent advocate of Asian Values.

(6.) However, it should be recognized that the discontinuity of social memory across generations is not unique to the postindustrial generation. Singapore is an immigrant society, and for all those people who left their homelands to seek greener pastures in Singapore, social memory and family history were likewise interrupted, albeit for other reasons.

(7.) Fireworks are now prohibited in Singapore.

(8.) See also Hanna (1973) for an interesting account of modernization and constructions of culture in Singapore.

(9.) In some cases, such as Hong Kong Cantonese, even the written characters differ from Mandarin.

(10.) The Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched in 1979 to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to speak Mandarin instead of dialects. This campaign, which still continues, aims to facilitate the learning of Mandarin by offering Mandarin (p.168) lessons, organizing film festivals and forums, publishing books, and arranging Mandarin storytelling competitions.

(11.) An evaluation of the Speak Mandarin Campaign was published in A Decade of Mandarin: 1979–1989 (1989) and Mandarin: The Chinese Connection (2000).

(12.) The portrayal of Mandarin as a vehicle to civilization and sophistication is by no means a new phenomenon. In China itself, Mandarin was the official language, and even though the majority of Chinese Singaporeans were from dialect-speaking provinces, Mandarin was the common medium of instruction in the local Chinese-stream schools in the early twentieth century.

(13.) SARS emerged in China at the end of 2002 and spread to other parts of the world. Among the worst hit areas were China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and Canada.

(14.) Maurice Freedman (1970a) has pointed out the difference between domestic (household) worship and extradomestic worship (at an ancestral hall or temple). Whereas “domestic ancestor worship is a necessity, ancestor worship in halls is a luxury,” since such halls are markers of economic wealth and status (ibid., 168). Unlike extradomestic worship, which honors the lineage, the domestic ancestor worship is usually restricted to individual kin whom one knew in life.

(15.) Unlike the Malay community, where Islam remains strong, the Chinese community has been prone to conversion to Christianity.

(16.) In recent years there has been a growing trend of elderly conversions, made possible by the fact that the churches increasingly hold services in dialects and in Mandarin. Some churches have been operating in Mandarin and various dialects since before World War II, but mainly for those who were already Christians back in China. The English services I attended with Carole and Alan, however, were dominated by young and middle-aged middle-class Chinese.

(17.) See the City Harvest Church Website (http://www.chc.org.sg).

(18.) Followers of Chinese religion can turn to the vast array of Buddhist scriptures and Taoist philosophy.

(19.) Some scholars therefore choose to refer to Chinese religion as Shenism, a term coined by Alan Elliott (1955) in his work on Chinese spirit-medium cults in Singapore.

(20.) Without the family as a safety net, unmarried female migrants, such as Jane’s mother, often organized themselves in various sisterhoods, vegetarian halls, and mutual-assistance groups to support each other in case of sickness or old age, and to arrange the proper funeral rites upon the deaths of their members (Pan 1994, 193–198).

(21.) Elder sister is jiejie, elder brother is gege, younger sister is meimei and younger brother is didi, according to hanyu pinyin spelling.

(22.) One might assume that the practice of addressing relatives according to Chinese kinship terminology would be more prevalent in Chinese-speaking families (i.e., families who mostly communicate in Mandarin and/or dialect) than in (p.169) English-speaking families. Interestingly, I found that English-speaking families are equally concerned about proper terms of address.

(23.) Female emigration from China was marginal up to the 1930s, but with the economic depression worldwide, large numbers of women began to seek employment in the cities or overseas. This movement coincided with an imposed quota on male immigration by the colonial government in Malaya and Singapore (the Alien Ordinance of 1933). Female immigration remained unrestricted until 1938, when an overall restriction was imposed to stem the escalating unemployment (Pan 1994, 197).