SINGAPORE - "All are welcome."
For the first time, nine clan associations in Chinatown are rolling out the red carpet for the public to explore their buildings and share their culture and history as part of the Singapore HeritageFest (SHF).
"We've had a lot of curious visitors walking past who never dared to come in. Now we've put up a sign to say that we are open and all are welcome," said Mr Lawrence Sew, secretary-general of Kong Chow Wui Koon, a Cantonese clan.
Its 89-year-old, four-storey building has been transformed into a living museum for more than $600,000.
Other clans have also been shaking off the dust for a fresh look. Three clan buildings along Bukit Pasoh Road have been refurbished over the past few years.
Centuries-old artefacts and photos are now displayed with labels, and lifts have been installed, along with interactive kiosks.
"For many years, artefacts with more than 100 years of history were just lying around with no write-ups and explanations. We are glad that we finally got around to fixing up the place," said Mr Sew, 55.
It all points to the role of clans being "slowly redefined", said Ms Lim Boon Tan, executive director of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations.
"What started out as associations formed to feed the basic needs of the Chinese immigrant community is transcending into a higher purpose - the preservation of our rich Chinese heritage."
In the past, clan associations focused on helping members of the community in their daily lives, setting up schools and hospitals, and driving charity efforts.
Their numbers grew from about 32 in the 1800s to more than 120 by 1941. Today, there are around 300 clan associations registered with the Registrar of Societies.
But the lack of young people joining these clans has become a worry. Hence the new look, open-door policy and outreach efforts to engage youth. Siong Leng Musical Association has, for instance, fused elements of contemporary dance with traditional Nanyin and Liyuan opera. And instead of playing mostly at wakes, the association has performed at the Esplanade, the Singapore Arts Festival and various international venues over the past few years.
"Our audience make-up is getting younger and we've also seen a 50 per cent increase in bookings over the past 11 years," said artistic director Lin Shao Ling, 48.
At its clubhouse in Bukit Pasoh Road, old handwritten score sheets and a gold-plated crown won in a 1953 floating parade festival celebrating the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II are on display.
There is much to preserve.
The Hok San Association, a Cantonese clan, has the oldest lion dance troupe in Singapore which specialises in the southern school of lion dance.
The Poon Yue Association is home to six rare stone inscriptions, the earliest of which is dated 1879.
At the Ee Hoe Hean Club, a manuscript of the memoirs of prominent businessman Tan Kah Kee is among the artefacts on display. Opera costumes, lion dance heads and Qing Dynasty guard of honour weapons are featured at Kong Chow Wui Koon.
The chance to visit these sites and traditional buildings, most of which have been gazetted as conservation buildings by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, has been embraced by the public.
Two SHF tours of some of these associations which ran last weekend were fully booked.
Some of the associations will hold their own programmes this weekend.
Ms Angela Ling, a managing director for a brand consultancy, who joined a tour last Sunday, believes it is important for clans to open up. "We tend to be more dismissive of the roles and functions of these historic establishments in our younger days. But I'm glad they continue to exist today so I can play catch-up with a crucial part of our heritage," said the 31-year-old.
The clans told The Straits Times their premises will stay open even after the SHF is over on Sunday.
The four clan associations along Bukit Pasoh Road have also expressed interest in working together to organise a consolidated tour for the public.
"We are looking forward to possiblyv establishing regular monthly tours of the clans and clubs in the area," said Mr Lim Chin Joo, 76, vice-president of Ee Hoe Hean Club.
"It's important that we share with young Singaporeans the success stories of our pioneers."
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