The 5 Best Movies to Understand Singaporean Chinese

Singapore is truly a melting pot of culture and ethnicity, and its complex history and background make it a fascinating study for those interested to understand Singaporean Chinese culture and the region, and how the two intersect in this City-State.

As A multi-cultural City of entire immigrants, Singapore has four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil.  The unique multiplicity of the language also provides a unique dynamic to the culture of Singapore; it makes Singapore a place of creativity and cultural integration, leading to the unique culture of the Singaporean Chinese.

Chinese are the largest ethnic group in Singapore, making up nearly three-quarters of the country’s population. But where did Singapore’s early Chinese migrants come from? There were two main types of migrants, those from southern China (Fujian and Guangdong) and another group from Southeast Asia. Those from southern China were largely from the Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hakka and Hainanese dialect groups.

They spoke their own dialects and often relied on related clan associations for social support. The other type of migrants who came from Southeast Asia had already been in the region many generations earlier. They were mainly male traders who were part of a well-established trading network between China and Southeast Asia.

They had long acclimatized to local customs and habits by marrying into the population. However, easier travel has affected migration trends today. Immigrants in Singapore are now increasingly diverse, and they are likely to come from major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as other regions such as Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang.

Best Movies to Understand Singaporean Chinese

Unsurprisingly, Chinese culture, from language and food to entertainment and festivals, has an important place in Singapore. Here we introduce 5 excellent Chinese language movies filmed in Singapore to give a better insight into what it means to be Chinese, Singaporean, and Singaporean Chinese.

  1. I Not Stupid (2002 & 2006)《小孩不笨》

The movie dives into the Singapore government’s education system, from good to bad, and in between.  Through three children, the audience get a true insight into how the education system of Singapore shapes its residents, and how it compares to western and eastern counterparts.

While Singapore has four official languages, English has long dominated, far above the other three. A person’s ability to speak fluent English is often the key to his success in Singapore. I Not Stupid 2 depicts the current situation of Chinese education in Singapore: many students are reluctant to learn Chinese. In their minds, Chinese is not important. The children’s indifference to Chinese also intensified the conflicts between the children, teachers and parents.

  1. Ilo Ilo (2013)《爸妈不在家》

One out of every six households in Singapore employs a maid, and it is common for a maid to help with household chores. It can be said that many local children spend a large part of their time growing up in the company of these maids.

Ilo Ilo tells the story of 4 ordinary characters in a Singaporean family: the naughty child, the Filipino maid, and the parents who are under financial pressure. In ordinary life, however, several important themes are explored: childhood growth, immigration, financial crisis, and family relationships. The movie was adapted from director Chen Zheyi’s childhood experience, and shows the complex relationships and feelings the generations of Singaporeans raised by their maids have to their city and their families.

  1. Long Long Time Ago movie series (2016)《我们的故事》系列

In Singapore in the 1960s, preference for sons and daughters was very serious. If a woman gave birth to a boy, her status in the family would increase steadily. If it was a girl, she would be looked down on by families and even neighbors. Zhao Di was one of those “unfortunate women”.

There are four movies in the Long Long Time Ago movie series. The first one Long Long Time Ago follows the trials and tribulations of a family from 1965 to the early 1970s. Their journey through the years from their humble kampong to a modern HDB flat, runs in parallel with Singapore’s early growth. On August 9th, 1965, Zhao Di was chased out by her husband’s family and forced to return to her own family. The same night, she gave birth to twins, Shun Fatt and Su-mei. Unfortunately, Su-mei was born with two moles on her face, which was said to be bad luck. Under her family’s pressure, Zhao Di was forced to give Su-mei away.

This was only the first of many challenges, but with Zhao Di’s indomitable spirit, and with the help of her family, she went through adversities, and persevered to make a better life for her family. Over the years, the family witnessed every step of the nation’s growth. The plot spans decades. The movie also reflects on how Singapore evolved from a society where dialects were the dominant language to Mandarin to today’s English, looking back at the lost dialects.

The third and fourth movie span more than a decade to the golden years of the late 1980s. They tell the story of the second generation of the Lim family and their neighbors after they moved from Kampong to a HDB flat and experienced great changes in Singapore’s environment, policies and people’s livelihood.

  1. Ah Boys to Men (2012)《新兵正传》

The Singapore Conscription System is a National Service (NS) system in Singapore that requires all male Singapore citizens and second-generation male permanent residents over the age of 18 to serve in the military for a period of 22 to 24 months, the service unit includes one of the Republic of Singapore Armed Forces, the Singapore Police Force or the Singapore Civil Defence Force (i.e. the Fire Brigade).

This movie introduces the Singapore military camp training system, military rank design, military service system, etc. It recounts how today’s teens step out of their comfort zone and learn the importance of defending their country. You can also see the characteristics of Singapore’s multi-language mixing: Hokkien, Singlish, Malay, Taiwanese Mandarin, Teochew, etc. are mixed together. The story was divided into two movies, the first one was Ah Boys to Men, which was released in Singapore on November 8, 2012. And the second one Ah Boys to Men II was released on February 7, 2013. These movies give a great insight into public service in Singapore, and how it impacts the society.

  1. Sandcastle (2010)《沙城》

Singapore is “small”, with limited geography and few resources; Singapore is “young”, it was only independent from Malaya in 1965 and established as the Republic of Singapore. A small and young country has its advantages. It does not have many burdens. It can only develop better through continuous reform and innovation. Therefore, the burden is small, and the development is rapid. But also because of youth and lack of history, the country’s centripetal force is not strong enough. Singapore is also slowly working to shape its identity and record traces of history.

Just like the name of the movie, Singapore is like a sandcastle. In the movie, 18-year-old En, before being drafted into the army, faced the sudden death of his grandfather, his grandmother’s dementia, and his mother’s secret love for an officer. En discovered his father’s past after his death. But the stories behind these were unfamiliar to En. Without the common memory bond, the family, like a sandcastle, may be washed away by the sea.

After his exploration, En gradually understood the feelings of his parents and the history of the family. The unforgettable history endowed the present with its weight. The historical memory of a small country and a small country also had its roots in the soil. Like a sandcastle, it is close to the sea, but it will not collapse.

Have you watched these movies before? What do you think of them? Do you have your own recommendations? Please share with us!

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