Celebrating St David in Asia
In the early-twentieth century, across a number of sites in Asia, Welsh communities began to come together in celebration of their patron saint. On 29 February 1908 ‘the Welsh community in Hong Kong celebrated St David’s Day’. The Straits Times reported on the celebration, noting that ‘besides the football match between teams representing the Principality and England’, a grand dinner was held in the Hongkong hotel at night presided over by William Rees Morgan Davies, then Attorney General of Hong Kong. The following year, Hong Kong’s King Edward Hotel (see picture below) provided the backdrop for another St David’s Day dinner, again presided over by Rees Davies. Catering to a relatively small Welsh population, the Hong Kong celebrations were largely modest affairs. Yet, they were an important tool for those wishing to express a sense of national pride.
In 1911, ‘a number of patriotic Welshmen in Singapore’ inaugurated a movement to hold a dinner in one of the city’s ‘principal hotels’ on St David’s Day ‘in honour of the patron saint of their native land’ (The Straits Times, 20 February 1911). Little over one week later, at the Grand Hotel de l’Europe, one of Singapore’s ‘finest hotels’ located along the Esplanade, a ‘score of Welshmen dined under the genial presidency of Dr Davies’. During the toasts, attendees were told of the value of a celebration such as that which they attended. ‘National dinners’, Dr Davies declared, ‘did a great deal towards the fostering of brotherhood, goodwill and mutual kindness’ (The Straits Times, 2 March 1911). One year on, in 1912, these fraternal bonds were strengthened once more. At this, the second annual celebration of St David’s Day in Singapore, a ‘little band of Welshmen and their guests’ came together. Among those present were prominent members of the growing Welsh community including D.Y Perkins, ‘the well-known senior partner of Messrs. Drew and Napier’ and one of Singapore’s ‘most estimable citizens’ (The Straits Times, 9 March 1922).
The following year, a celebration of greater proportion was held, at the now-familiar venue of the Hotel de l’Europe. The hotel’s strategic location, with its panoramic view of the harbour, made it a popular place for the European community while its size – the palatial hotel had one hundred bedrooms and a large roof garden – ensured that functions need not be limited by lack of space. On the occasion of the 1913 dinner ‘pleasant intercourse, with songs Welsh and of other languages, the harmony of the former being given with the taste and skills one expects from Welshmen’, brought a pleasant evening to a close. Patrons of the dinner ‘mostly wore the leek, or its tropical equivalent’ – though reports remain silent on just what the tropical equivalent to a leek was. In common with the celebrations of many associations in the diaspora, the evening was rounded off with the exchange of greetings and a ‘fervent address wholly in Welsh’. For some of the evening’s guests this presented a challenge, their unfamiliarity with the Welsh tongue rendering the language ‘truly mystic’ (Singapore Free Press, 3 March 1913).
Over one hundred years on and St David’s Day continues to be commemorated in sites across Asia, including Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where the Welsh communities came together to celebrate their patron saint.