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Requiem for a Community

Updated: Apr 25

Reflections on the Historical Memory of a Teochew-Catholic Community in Singapore and the Carnage of the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Bryan Goh*

What happens when a community dies? When does a community die? Communities pass on, not with a bang, but with a whimper. There is no elaborate funeral or mourning, only a gradual descending into the pages of history books. Unlike Victor Turner’s (1969) “Life Crisis Rites” or Harvey Whitehouse’s (2005) rituals of intensity meant to produce “lasting memory” through high levels of memetic arousal, there is no impactful ending for a community precisely because communities are perpetuated through shared memories. It is because of the lack of memetic arousal – through rites, through traditions – to connect one to ones forbearers that a community dies: when it is forgotten. In this vein, some might not even be aware that a community has ceased to exist.

In the metaphysics of identity, it is usually unclear when an absolute change occurs from one state to another. Take the example of the ship of Theseus. The planks of the ship of this Greek hero are replaced, one at a time, until it comprises of none of the wooden planks from the original ship that had set off from the harbor: when does the ship stop being the original ship of Theseus? The argument for change and/or continuity is one that is familiar to historians, and the answer, typically, is a mixture of both. It is this combination of change amidst continuity that ensures complete forgetting – the complete loss of historical memory – does not take place. However, there is occasionally a watershed event that wrings destruction on a scale that undeniably disrupts, and perhaps obstructs, the perpetuation of the community. In this essay, I argue that the Coronavirus pandemic serves as such an event for a Teochew-Catholic Community in Hougang, Singapore.

Old Photograph of the Shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Church Archives

In 2017, I wrote about a “Teochew-Catholic rhythm” surrounding this parish in Hougang in North-East Singapore (Goh, 2017). The parish was established in 1857 by French missionaries administering to handful Catholics who had put down roots at the ‘back harbour’ (literal translation of ‘Hougang’ from Mandarin to English) of Singapore. These Catholics came from the Chaozhou region of China and identified as belonging to the Teochew dialect group. Interestingly, these Teochews arrived after decades of long-term migration from China through the Riau islands, antedating the arrival of the Church. The French Mission purchased land from the British East India Company and built the small chapel which would later become the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (hereafter Nativity Church). With the opening of Shantou as a treaty port in 1860, and the arrival of steamships, even more Teochews migrated to Singapore through missionary, kinship, and business networks, forming a dialect enclave in Hougang. The latest census conducted in 2020 indicates that there are 583,963 Teochews in Singapore, about a fifth of the total Chinese resident population above the age of 15. While the exact number of Teochew-Catholics is unknown, the census also indicates that 184,158 of 2,606,881 (roughly 7%) the Chinese surveyed identified as Catholics. As of 2023, the parish claims a congregation of about 6,000. Academic exercises of Clare Tan (1994) and Sally Low (1973) have indicated that places like Hougang formerly comprised of 70% Teochew-Catholics in the 1970s. At the time, the Church permeated every aspect of life: from cheap rental on mission land for living and farming, to the prevalence of mission schools, to running the fishery at the harbour.

A Teochew interpretation of Catholicism, in terms of shared experiences and traditions, was fostered by the French missionaries and the local clergy, coalescing into a rhythm of life that I contended was hallmark of the communal identity for the community. In its heyday, the parish earned the moniker: the Holy Land of Singapore, for producing a record number of priests and religious from its community. The two local archbishops of the diocese – Nicholas Chia and William Goh – are also Teochew-Catholics. The parish’s 150th Anniversary Magazine was even titled “Holy Ground”. At the end of my research, I had argued that the rhythm that was produced in the late 20th century existed, albeit abated, into a modernized and urbanized Singapore. Analytically, the term ‘rhythm' encapsulates a choreography of life experiences centered around the parish, perpetuating a mutual identification across Teochew-Catholics based on shared memories of such experiences. To be a member of the community is to relate, or have some recollection of, experiences like playing in the cemetery next to the Church, attending a mission school and Catechism classes, joining Church groups that adapted to various phases of life, and attending Church events. The parish undertook roles that ostensibly transcended religious administration and instruction. In 2005, the parish was gazetted as a National Monument, described as a site that was “closely associated with the social life and activities of people, organisations and institutions that have an impact on the community and nation” (Sua, 2005).

Cover of 150 Years Anniversary Magazine

Nativity Church, 1940s, Church Archives

These everyday histories of a rhythm of life surrounding the church were explored through a series of oral history interviews with members of the community and their non-Catholic counterparts. However, in the mere half a decade since concluding my research interviews, 9 of my 44 interviewees have been claimed by a mixture of the pandemic and natural causes, while a significant remainder (15 of them) have been adversely affected to the point that any present oral history interview would be circumspect since their memories were failing. For example, a non-Catholic Teochew who lived in Hougang has now succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Others, another 13 of them, are also suffering the effects of old age and pandemic isolation and have either not returned to join parish activities, or play a significantly diminished role. With this generation, a large slice of everyday history, pivotal to community formation, has been forgotten.  

Nevertheless, oral history has long been reckoned as a tricky historical source because of the failings of human memory. Especially in an age of instant gratification, immediacy, and the constant bombardment of the senses, many interviewees can barely remember what happened to them last month, let alone during their childhood. Oral history’s association with hazy recollection undermines its credibility for ascertaining historical facts, and its modality further problematizes its authenticity. Still, shared memories and corroboration serve as antidotes to the poison of forgetting. Furthermore, historians are trained to consider the limitations of written sources – their intentionality, audience, and potential bias. The same limitations are exacerbated in oral history interviews since they are primarily a conversation between a researcher and their interlocutor. This differs greatly from the ethnographer-observer in the field. I distinctly recall a conversation with a priest completely shifting gears the moment he found out that I was married – I had wanted to learn more about the history of his parish, and he wanted to encourage me to join the priesthood. Moreover, unlike ethnographic data, these oral history interviews are often conducted in an artificial setting. Not every researcher has the good fortune of Rudolf Mrazek (2010) to sit in their interlocutor’s house, soaking in the ambiance and atmosphere and writing about it. This artificiality is especially heightened in a post-pandemic era of teleconferencing and online interactions. Such oral history interviews, unlike ethnographic fieldwork, makes the interviewee hyperaware of their role in documenting history, unconsciously narrativizing their accounts. From problems with memory to problems with purpose and portrayal, there is a plenitude of limitations for oral history.

However, oral history serves as an important remedy to the heavily ecclesiastical perspective of Church archives in Singapore that favour the worldviews of missionaries and institutions, oftentimes omitting the everyday histories of communities. The “Teochew-Catholic Rhythm” and its spontaneous arising would have appeared choreographed and orchestrated by the missionaries and priests, acquiesced to by a passive congregation, had I only used ecclesiastical archives. The daily affairs of the community were hardly documented in archival texts and could also be explored through in-depth conversations and interviews with Teochew-Catholics recalling their younger days. Based only on textual, archival, sources, the community would appear to be concocted through no merit of their own. Through interactions with the parishioners active during the ‘golden era' of Teochew-Catholicism (around the 1960s and 1970s), and through their memories, I observed the importance of local agency. Parishioners had the agency to contest, negotiate, and perpetuate their own interpretation of Catholicism that, at times, diverged from the intentions of their priests. It was through shared partaking in this innovation of a Teochew interpretation of Catholicism that communal ties and identities were forged. One of the highlights, and rallying points, for this community was the conduct of the Teochew Mass in response to Vatican II’s allowance for Masses in the vernacular. During my research between 2015-2020, there were still about 300-400 attendees of the weekly Teochew Mass. When it was first instituted, the church’s estimated maximum capacity of 600 was reached despite the Mass being conducted at six in the morning. All this was to change, with the advent of the Coronavirus in 2020.

South Transept of Church, 1950s, Church Archive

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus a global pandemic. Indeed, it was a pandemic at the global level, but at the local level for the Teochew-Catholic community in Hougang, it was more of a plague. In Singapore, the first case of the pandemic was confirmed on January 23, 2020. By April 3, 2020, the coronavirus situation had worsened to the extent that the Singapore government called for a “Circuit Breaker Lockdown” that was extended, eventually ending on June 1, 2020. Even so, the Singapore government followed a gradual reopening of communal events in the months to come, entering a “transition phase” on Nov 22, 2021, finally followed by an “Endemic Phase” on February 13, 2023. The Archdiocese of Singapore worked in tandem with the government, in consultation with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) and the Multi-Ministry Task Force (MMTF). Eventually, the archdiocese formed its own taskforce: a combination of priests, the members of the Catholic Nurses Guild, the Catholic Medical Guild, and the Archdiocesan Emergency Response Operations.

As the first cases of Catholic parishioners contracting the Coronavirus caused waves of concern, the Archdiocese began its coronavirus response with a chancery notice on January 24, 2020 exempting any person who is unwell or has flu-like symptoms from attending Mass. On February 14, 2020, Archbishop William Goh issued a pastoral letter suspending Masses and large gatherings, urging Catholics to keep their Sunday obligations by following online broadcasts of Masses or on CatholicSG Radio. It appears that some Catholics attempted to circumnavigate these decrees by having Masses at their residences of clergy members, as the Chancery issued a notice on March 17, 2020, discontinuing “small group Masses” with “immediate effect”. With the Singapore government’s gradual resumption of religious activities in Phase 1 of the easing of Coronavirus-related restrictions, the Archdiocese took a more cautious approach, with the Archbishop’s pastoral letter announcing on May 27, 2020 that churches would remain closed for private worship but able to conduct wedding and funeral services. By 1 July, 2020, the Archdiocese had pioneered pilot projects in compliance with the limits to the number of participants set by MCCY, and established the Mass Attendance Registration System (MARS) that allowed Catholics to register online to attend Mass at one parish. This system, with all its teething issues and ever-changing MCCY requirements, was the only means for Catholics to attend Masses in-person for all of 2021. It was only on February 10, 2023, that the Archbishop’s Office for Communications (ArchComms) announced that covid restrictions would be removed with effect from February 13, 2023. Finally, on March 10, 2023, now William Cardinal Goh’s pastoral letter revoked the decree to dispense with obligatory Mass attendance, reinstating the Sunday Obligation from Easter Sunday 9th April 2023.

Timeline of Coronavirus & Church Responses in Singapore

What are the ramifications of these series of events for the Teochew-Catholics? As a reference point, let us consider those who were in their teenage years attending the first Teochew Mass in 1971. These Teochew-Catholics would be in their sixties during the pandemic, and a vast majority were uneasy with technology. Moreover, with the concern for elderly parishioners’ increased vulnerability, these Catholics were constantly dissuaded from attending Masses in-person. While they could have relied on the younger generations (children and grandchildren) to assist them in following the online broadcasts of Masses, the restriction to the number of visitors during the circuit breaker phases proved to be a further obstacle. The cumbersome use of the MARS and the Singapore Government’s TraceTogether mobile phone applications further deterred elderly parishioners from attending physical masses, even when allowed to. Furthermore, Nativity Church did not broadcast its Masses, and the Teochew Mass came to an untimely end, with the consideration that most of the attendees were elderly. To this day, the weekly Teochew Mass has not been reinstituted despite the Archbishop’s call to “return to normalcy”.


Pandemic isolation, death of peers, and the effects of aging correlate with the trend of increasing historical amnesia regarding the Teochew-Catholic rhythm. For example, one of my interlocutors who provided me with the most vivid impressions of everyday history in the 1980s had now forgotten that I spoke the dialect.

Amidst the changes brought about by Singapore’s rapid modernization and urbanization, the constant for Teochew-Catholics was the Mass conducted in dialect. Yet, at present only three priests (the current and previous two parish priests) are fluent enough to celebrate Mass in Teochew. This is ironic, since the parish produced a record number of religious clergy in Singapore. Two historical reasons explain this phenomenon. First, the Teochew dialect contains a vernacular form (baidu 白读) and a literary form (wendu 文读) in its pronunciation for several characters (Tan, 2018). When the Teochew Mass was instituted, the literary form was chosen for the Mass and was less accessible to the local community who had grown up with vernacular Teochew that adopted and adapted certain words through the migration process. An example would be the word ‘bread’. Singaporean Teochews, influenced by their encounter with the Malay world in Southeast Asia, adapted the Malay word roti into Teochew, calling it lo-ti in everyday parlance. However, within the Catholic prayers and Church liturgy used, the traditional Teochew word of mi-pia (mianbing面饼) is used (Wu, 2017). This meant that even the most fluent dialect-speaking priests might not find themselves capable of celebrating the Mass, since the literary form had homographs that are not intuitive to native speakers of the vernacular form. For example, the word for human (ren人) could be read in two ways – Saints (圣人) were “sia-nang” whereas Sinners (罪人) were “zui-jing”. It was not uncommon for priests to confer with elderly parishioners in the Teochew-Catholic community to correct their pronunciation, both before and after the Mass. Other Teochew-Catholics have even cheekily admitted that they did not understand what was said during the Teochew Mass. The second reason for this linguistic barrier is the success of the Singapore government’s Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979, which emphasized the use of mandarin rather than dialect. A hallmark example of this phenomenon is the changing of the place name of the locale – from Aukang (Teochew) to Hougang (Mandarin Pinyin) by the Housing and Development Board. Consequently, the fluency the Teochew dialect decreased gradually but significantly between the 1980s to 2020, with the younger generations of priests and parishioners increasingly unable to comprehend the Teochew Mass. During the pre-pandemic era, the Teochew Mass was attended by middle-aged to elderly parishioners in a decreasing trend in number.

It is not surprising, with these considerations in mind, that the weekly Teochew Mass was not reinstituted after the pandemic. All that remain are the obligatory recitation of the Teochew Novena devotion during the parish’s feast day in September and sporadic Masses during days of obligation. After a hiatus of more than two years, even if the weekly Teochew Mass were to be reinstated, the damage to historical memory has been irrevocably wrought. One interviewee noted how it “simply would not be the same”, since many of those who sat near her during Teochew Masses had “gone to heaven or waiting to go there” and unable to come to Mass anymore. She takes respite, however, that many of the prayers and songs have been uploaded to Youtube, and that she is able to access them with the help of her family. Nevertheless, Mass attendance for these Teochew-Catholics was undoubtedly a communal affair. At present, it is uncertain how many priests and parishioners are willing and able to commit to the continuity of the Teochew Mass which was emblematic, and ostensibly the last surviving routine ritual, of the Teochew-Catholics of Hougang.

The cessation of the Teochew Mass was a decisive blow to the Teochew-Catholic community, as even with the return to normalcy, many aged parishioners had lapsed into the habitual non-attendance of the Mass and others developed mobility issues. Other Teochew-Catholic traditions persist, such as the individual recitation of the Rosary in Teochew but fail to produce the same ‘collective effervescence’ that Durkheim (1912) discusses. Other communal prayers, such as the Teochew Stations of the Cross, are only conducted during Lent. For many of these Teochew-Catholics, the shared experience of attending Teochew services together became a tradition within families whilst also reinforcing the communal identity during their younger days. Considering rituals as markers of calendrical time, the Teochew Mass was the highlight of the week for many of these elderly parishioners. Apart from serving as a platform for them to meet old neighbours and friends displaced by the redevelopment of villages into apartment buildings, the liturgical seasons also signified the passage of time. It is unsurprising, then, that the Coronavirus pandemic had such a detrimental effect to their mental well-being. Paralleling the actual forgetting of memories is the forgetting of historical memory, since many younger generation parishioners are unaware of the heritage and history that they evoke when they recite, without understanding and even mockingly at times, the Teochew Novena prayers.


In hindsight, I am grateful that I was encouraged to write the everyday history of this community before the pandemic. I was told by a former advisor, “If you don’t write it, the history will soon be lost forever.” Indeed, the carnage of the Coronavirus plague in Hougang means that the exploration of such a history would be close to impossible in a post-pandemic era due to a disjuncture in historical memory. Those who remember the heyday of the Teochew-Catholic community in the 1970s and 1980s, and are still active in the parish, are now few and far between. In 2005 The Catholic News published an article remembering Nativity Church as “The Teochew Parish”. Yet, with the dissolution of dialect enclaves and the emphasis on multiculturalism in Singapore, it remains to be seen if the parish can still be called “Teochew”. The parish now administers to an increasingly diverse congregation, including the Korean Catholic Community which has called the parish, ‘home’ since 2012. While a portion of Catholic parishioners at Hougang still belong to the Teochew dialect group, a substantial mass with the same shared experiences and traditions based at this parish have been lost to the pandemic, dementia, and the forces of modernity. We are, therefore, in the ambiguous position of Thesus’ ship in determining whether the community that once proudly identified as ‘Teochew-Catholic’ still exists. With the coronavirus plague catalyzing the decline of shared Teochew-Catholic traditions, and within the context of declining dialect identity and increasing multiculturalism, perhaps it is time for a requiem for a community that once inhabited the “Holy Land of Singapore”.


*Bryan Goh is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of History at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. His research interests include the History of Christianity in Southeast Asia, History of Communities and Memory, World History, Anthropology and History, and the History of Magic and Witchcraft.  


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