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Heroic Images of Ming Loyalists: A Study of the Spirit Tablets of the Ghee Hun Kongsi Leaders in Singapore.

Heroic Images of Ming Loyalists: A Study of the Spirit Tablets of the Ghee Hun Kongsi Leaders in Singapore. By DAVID K.Y. CHNG. Singapore: Singapore Society of Asian Studies, 1999. Pp. vii, 157. Illustrations, Tables, Appendices, Bibliography, Index.

This slim volume documents, for the first time in English, historical evidence for a group of secret society leaders in nineteenth-century Singapore, who were memorialized in a group of 73 spirit tablets located in the Five Tiger Shrine on Lavender Street. David Chng investigates the identities of the men so honoured: their positions in the Ghee Hin Kongsi specifically and Singapore society in general. The spirit tablets themselves provide much of this information, including such features as honorary titles, official Ghee Hin ranks, ancestral origins in China, and in some instances birth and death dates. Additional data culled from relevant colonial documents as well as other Chinese records and inscriptions further enrich Chng's interpretations.

The book is divided into two parts; the first half systematically examines the significance of the various types of information found on the spirit tablets; the second consists of a reproduction of the inscriptions themselves in both Chinese and English with further annotations. Four appendices follow with reprints of colonial records relating specifically to the Ghee Hin and its position in Singapore. Readers familiar with David Chng's previous work, published mostly in Chinese, will recognize here the close attention to historical evidence that has been Chng's hallmark. This volume is clearly meant to introduce English readers to both the sources themselves and the interpretations that can be gleaned from them.

So what do these tablets reveal about these men and their roles in Singapore affairs? David Chng argues that the very survival of these tablets, given that all tablets were supposed to have been burned at the time when the secret societies were suppressed in 1890, suggests that they belonged to particularly important leaders and members. Information on their ancestral origins clearly reveals their affiliation with all five major dialect groups. The significance of the various honorary titles bestowed on these men, such as Patriotic Guardsman Restoring the Ming or Patriotic Guardsman of Excellence in terms of individual ranking is, however, less obvious. The anti-Manchu sentiments carried by these titles, and the use of anti-Manchu dating conventions on several inscriptions raises the issue of how committed these Singaporean secret societies were to the overthrow of the Qing government. Here Chug argues that there is no supporting evidence to link these societies with actual ongoing political rebellions in Ch ina. In terms of Singapore society, the men identified as Ghee Hin leaders on these tablets, while powerful within their own groups, did not belong to the wealthiest strata of the Singapore Chinese community, for when their names appear elsewhere on lists of contributors to temples, associations, and burial grounds, their level of contribution is consistently modest. This and a number of other findings have previously appeared in three prior Chinese publications by Chng dealing with this same topic. The one new avenue of research concerns the relief ornamentation found on the tablets. Chng divides these designs of dragons, cranes and clouds into six basic types and attempts to link particular motifs with individuals in positions of leadership. As with the question of honorary titles, the results do not yield clear correlations.

The strength of this book lies in its attention to historical detail and the introduction of Chinese sources to an English audience. Although the interpretation itself may not always go as far as a reader might wish, the data that has been so carefully gathered and published here remains a valuable resource for ongoing scholarly explication.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Carstens, Sharon A.
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Words:609
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