I wrote a guest post for Hutong School‘s blog. Here’s an excerpt:
Do all Singaporeans speak Chinese?
I was once in a police station to update my residential address. As the young Singaporean Indian officer was helping me to get that done, an older Chinese man entered the police station and addressed the police officer in Mandarin. The officer’s response was: “I don’t speak Mandarin. Malay can?”. And they proceeded in Malay.
To read on, continue on the Hutong School Blog!
If you don’t happen to live in the Northeast, you may not have been there, but Hougang MRT is a pretty busy station in the heartlands (main residential areas) of Singapore. Its name, written as 后港 (Hòu găng) in Mandarin, stems from the Hokkien/Teochew “Aū-káng” which means “river end”. There used to be a well at what is now Hougang Street 21; which explains the name “river end”.
Not that long ago, the area that now has some 40,000 housing units used to be an area of forested land, where pig farming was one of the main activities. Many of the inhabitants of present day Hougang are Teochew Chinese, since most of the inhabitants used to live in the village Kampong Punggol, which was mainly a Teochew community.
The district and MRT station name Ang Mo Kio stems from Hokkien. It’s written as 宏茂桥 (hóngmàoqiáo in Mandarin). As most Westerners in Singapore will know, a common way to refer to Caucasians is “Ang Mo”, a Hokkien term that is written as 红毛 (hóngmáo in Mandarin), hóng/Ang meaning ‘red’ and máo/mo meaning ‘hair’ – for some reason Caucasians have the reputation of having red hair. 桥 (qiáo / kio) means ‘bridge’.
Some Caucasians don’t like to be called ‘Ang Mo’. Personally I don’t mind and I don’t think it is always derogatory, but it can be. Hence the writing was changed to 宏茂桥 (hóngmàoqiáo – bridge of expansiveness and prosperity).
In actual fact, the name ‘Ang Mo’ in this case does not refer to a Westerner but to rambutans which is written exactly the same way (红毛）. The rambutan is a local fruit that has a red surface and is covered by hair. It looks like the picture next to this text.
So the name of Ang Mo Kio litterally means “bridge where there are rambutans”, as it was indicated on old maps in the time that there were only kampungs (villages) in the area.
Toa Payoh was the first MRT station that was completed in Singapore, and at its time of completion, it was the world’s first metro station with screen doors. What does the name “Toa Payoh” stand for?
It’s a Hokkien Chinese reference to “big swamp” (Toa = big, Payoh = swamp). Written in Chinese characters as 大巴窑 and pronounced in Mandarin as “Dàbāyáo”, it refers to the area’s history. While it’s the first large scale housing estate in Singapore, it used to be a swampy area outside of the town centre.