St Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint, was celebrated by Scots around the world. In Asia, early references come from India where dinners were, by the 1850s, a common affair and widely reported in the press. They only achieved a more stable base, however, in the late-nineteenth century. As Stewart, in his exploration of the jute industry in Calcutta, has noted, the dinners were ‘the most important public ceremonial occasion each year for the British community’.
From India Scottish dinners soon extend their geographic reach—a development in unison with the expansion of the British sphere of influence in the Far East. We find references to celebrations of St Andrew’s Day dinners in Canton from the mid-1830s, hence the period by which a larger number of free merchants had commenced trade there. In 1835, for instance, ‘a splendid dinner was given by Mr. Jardine, at which sixty-seven gentlemen sat down.’ This Mr. Jardine is revealed to be William Jardine of Jardine Matheson & Co.
In Singapore too a dinner was the focal point for early Scottish residents in the city, with the first reported for 1837. While not yet hosted by a formalized association, the dinner itself was a formal one, structured and well organized, with a chairman, croupier and stewards. Some guests attended clad ‘in the garb of the Old Gaul—“with bonnet blue and tartan plaid”’, and as usual, many speeches and toasts were delivered. By 1844 the dinner had become a more elaborate affair, attracting a good number of guests. But by then we can also hear of frictions in Singapore’s Scottish community. As was reported in the local press, the dinner only brought together ‘a section of the Scotchmen of Singapore’ rather than everyone. The organisation of the dinner, it seems, had not been straightforward, and those who were unhappy with how the existing group of organizers had handled the affair decided not to attend the dinner that was held. Later reports suggest that problems continued, contributing to the holding of separate events in the city for some time—a fact that may go some way towards explaining the comparatively late formalisation of the Singapore St Andrew’s Society, which was only established in 1908.
A little further south, across the Singapore Strait and Java Sea, early traces of St Andrew’s Day celebrations can be found in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in 1838, when a dinner was hosted for the first time. As was noted by a contemporary observer in a letter to the editor of the Singapore Free Press:
Batavia does not boast of many [Scots] in number—but they are a compact and well-knit phalanx of Scottish hearts, not forgetful of the land of their nativity and the recollections of absent friends and days gone by. They have lately signalized themselves by a magnificent dinner … which was attended by the Members of Council, the principal Civil and Military Authorities and a select number of guests from our mixed community.
In total, 100 guests were present at the dinner which was held at a private home. Guests included many a Dutch resident, and, as the contemporary observer went on to note, it was pleasing to see ‘the apparent hearty enjoyment with which the Dutch guests generally entered into the spirit of the evening’. This was of great significance, because events such as St Andrew’s Day dinners could ‘harmonize mixed communities and infuse a kindly feeling among all classes.’
Out of these early roots of dinners and speechifying on St Andrew’s Day throughout the Far East grew more formalized Scottish organisations. The earliest traceable association that was set up was the St Andrew’s Society of Shanghai, with evidence suggesting that it was established in 1865; it certainly was in full operation by 1866, when an annual report was published in the North China Herald. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the Society reportedly had 780 members, though there is also clear evidence that the Society was inactive for a short time. It was in Shanghai and a number of other Asian centres where the tradition of hosting large-scale St Andrew’s Day balls (instead of dinners) flourished.
Amongst the largest balls were those held by the St Andrew’s Society of Hong Kong. In 1886, the annual St Andrew’s Day ball was, as the China Mail noted, one of great sociability, with an illustrious round of 700 guests gathered at the City Hall. This had been superbly decorated for the occasion. The exterior of the Hall, for instance, had been illuminated by ‘gas jets arranged in the form of the familiar Gaelic welcome’, lighting up the front of the building. On the staircase, ‘[p]rominent above everything stood the word “Caledonia”‘. Inside, in the ante-room, a ‘gigantic St Andrew’s cross’ had been created, while the theatre was set up as a supper room for guests. At half-past nine, H.E. the Acting Governor the Hon W.H. Marsh arrived at the ball with his wife, and was welcomed by the Hon. Mr Ryrie, the St Andrew’s Society’s President. As was common at the time, greetings were wire to Scots celebrating St Andrew’s Day elsewhere, including ‘to the Scots in Singapore, where the day was also celebrated by a Ball, and a reply was received during the supper reciprocating the greetings and expressing the hope that the Hongkong Scots were enjoying their haggis.’
A happy St Andrew’s Day to all Scottish friends around the world!
- St Andrew’s Day and the Scots in British East Africa
- The global saint: St Andrew’s Day in the Scottish Diaspora
* Thanks to Alan Macdonald for providing a copy of the image. The main image is the one of people dancing (see top left); this is also the image on the cover of my new book.
On 7 November 1919, King George V issued a proclamation calling for a two-minute silence on 11 November: ‘All work, all sound and all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of every one may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead’. The Times reported on this ‘simple service of silence and remembrance’, deeming that there could be ‘no service worthier, or so sure to touch the inmost feelings of the British race’. Sure enough, four days later, at 11:00am, throughout Britain and the Commonwealth, people fell silent in remembrance of those who had lost their lives over the course of the conflict.
For those far from home, members of the British diaspora, Poppy Day—as it tended to be designated in the local press—similarly assumed great significance. Across Southeast Asia, communities marked the day through now-traditional methods. In Singapore, groups gathered at the Cenotaph on the Esplanade to lay wreaths, including, in 1923, the ‘officers of the Straits Settlements Police, in memory of their comrades who lost their lives during the European War’ (Singapore Free Press, 6 November 1923). Wreath-laying was, of course, only one way in which people marked the day. The wearing of a poppy in the weeks and days preceding Armistice Day allowed individuals to pay their own tribute.
Singapore Free Press, 12 November 1923.
In many towns and cities the sale of poppies generated funds that were then remitted to charities in Britain. In 1923, ‘Flanders poppies’ were sold in Selangor, the profits from the sale of which were sent to the ‘Benevolent Branch of the British Legion, to relieve distress among ex-service men of all ranks, their widows, orphans and dependents’ (Straits Times, 13 October 1923). Notices printed in the local press reminded, and encouraged, members of the public to purchase ‘these beautiful flowers’, sellers of which could be found ‘in all the principal thoroughfares and at the hotels’ (Singapore Free Press, 9 November 1923). The 1923 collection in Singapore was a great success, reaching the ‘handsome total of $6,376.27’ (Straits Times, 22 November 1923). Indeed, ‘successful efforts were recorded across the Malay Peninsula’: Perak, $5,107.48; Selangor, $2,830.49; Malacca, $1,578.39; and in Negri Sembilan, $869 (Straits Times, 5 January 1924).
The following year, ten years since the outbreak of the First World War, the Straits Times reported that in Singapore, ‘poppies were selling like wild fire’. ‘One looks out of place in Singapore today without a red poppy’, the correspondent began, ‘for practically every person is wearing one’. There were, according to one observer an ‘invasion’ of ladies, ‘about 125’ of them, ‘out selling poppies and they certainly lent a touch of colour to the streets as they stood with their baskets of flaming red flowers at prominent street corners’. Prices for the poppies were set at one dollar, though it was reported that ‘many paid as much as ten for one of them’ (Straits Times, 10 November 1924)—a clear indicator of how important the commemoration of Poppy Day was for members of the British diaspora.
On 1 October 1918, 96 years ago today, a short notice was printed in the Straits Times—a Singapore-based broadsheet—detailing the recent charitable efforts of the Singapore St Andrew’s Society. The Society’s Honorary Secretary and Treasurer, A.M. McNeil, had written to the publication to inform readers that recent donations from Society members to the Scottish Soldiers Comfort Fund had amassed a total of $5,540—a sum which was to be sent directly to the St Andrew’s Society in Edinburgh (Straits Times, 1 October 1918). A subsequent article about the charitable activities of the Scots in Singapore, printed the following year in the Singapore Free Press, indicated that the money raised by Scottish expatriates had been ‘expended in providing “Comforts” for Scottish troops on active service and, also, for Scottish Prisoners of War’ (Singapore Free Press, 21 May 1919). The funds that had been sent back home to Scotland—‘proof of the affectionate regard and vigorous loyalty which characterises Scotsmen in far distant lands’—were gratefully received: acknowledgements were sent to Singapore directly from the front but also from Regimental Societies at home. One particular expression of thanks came from the War Work Party in Callander, a small town in Scotland known as the ‘Gateway to the Highlands’, which had been gifted a sum of £25, money that had been ‘entrusted to the Edinburgh Society by its namesake, the St Andrew Society of Singapore’. For the recipients of this sum, which would be spent on ‘comforts for local men on active service’, the creation of the Scottish Soldiers Comfort Fund was ‘a striking testimony to the close bond of fellowship which unites Scotsmen all the world over, and which finds expression in so practical a form of sympathy with the men “at the front”’ (Callander Advertiser, 8 March 1919).
Naturally, during wartime, it was not only the Scots that were involved in benevolent activities; indeed, many expatriate residents of Singapore actively engaged in charitable endeavours. A report sent from the High Commissioners Office in March 1918 listed the ‘various private subscriptions raised in the Colony and Malay States for purposes connected to the War’ (Singapore Free Press, 13 June 1918). Alongside the $8,143.77 raised for the Scottish Soldiers Comfort Fund were sums of $2,723.02 for the Prisoners of War Royal Muster Fusiliers, $2,147.82 for the Queen’s Work for Women and, collected in Penang, $1,807.81 for Pineapples for Troops (Singapore Free Press, 13 June 1918). Of course, Singapore and its immediate environs were not the only sources of charity. In the early months of the war, nine ‘Welsh ladies of Shanghai’ including the wife of William Hopkyn Rees, President of the Shanghai St David’s Society, sent the men of the South Wales Borderers and ‘any Welsh sailors there may be at Tsingtau and Weihaiwei a present of 4,500 cigarettes, 200 tins of smoking mixture, forty hard plugs of tobacco and sixty-one pipes’ (Singapore Free Press, 13 November 1914). While presents of this nature boosted the morale of those involved in the conflict, the activities of expatriates did more than that. Above providing practical manifestations of support, their activities brought to life a global network of ethnic associations and connected those in distant lands with those at home.