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The Binding Tie

Chinese Intergenerational Relations in Modern Singapore

Kristina Göransson

Publication Year: 2009

Since gaining independence in 1965, Singapore has become the most trade-intensive economy in the world and the richest country in Southeast Asia. This transformation has been accompanied by the emergence of a deep generational divide. More complex than simple disparities of education or changes in income and consumption patterns, this growing gulf encompasses language, religion, and social memory. The Binding Tie explores how expectations and obligations between generations are being challenged, reworked, and reaffirmed in the face of far-reaching societal change. The family remains a pivotal feature of Singaporean society and the primary unit of support. The author focuses on the middle generation, caught between elderly parents who grew up speaking dialect and their own children who speak English and Mandarin. In analyzing the forces that bind these generations together, she deploys the idea of an intergenerational "contract," which serves as a metaphor for customary obligations and expectations. She convincingly examines the many different levels at which the contract operates within Singaporean families and offers striking examples of the meaningful ways in which intergenerational support and transactions are performed, resisted, and renegotiated. Her rich material, drawn from ethnographic fieldwork among middle-class Chinese, provides insights into the complex interplay of fragmenting and integrating forces. The Binding Tie makes a critical contribution to the study of intergenerational relations in modern, rapidly changing societies and conveys a vivid and nuanced picture of the challenges Singaporean families face in today’s hypermodern world. It will be of interest to researchers and students in a range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, Asian studies, demography, development studies, and family studies.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Writing a book is a long journey and I would never have accomplished this work without the support and help of a great many people. I would first like to express my gratitude to all my colleagues at the Department of Social Anthropology, Lund University. In particular I would like to thank Professor Kajsa Ekholm Friedman for opening my eyes to the art of ethnography ...


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pp. xi

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pp. 1-4

Bee Choo’s paternal grandfather and granduncle left China in the early twentieth century to set up a fishing business in Singapore, where they hoped conditions would be better. The two brothers settled down in a small kampung (village) there and built a house for both their families to live in. Their new home was soon crowded, with eight children on Bee Choo’s ...

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Introduction: Challenges to Family Ties in an Asian Global City

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pp. 5-18

The point of departure for this study is the seeming contradiction between, on one hand, rapid societal change and the erosion of cultural continuity across generations (or an emerging generation gap) and, on the other hand, prevailing notions of traditional family values. Bee Choo’s narrative is representative of middle-class Singaporeans of her age group, as it illustrates the dramatic societal and personal transformations that have ...

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1. From Temasek to the Republic of Singapore: A Historical Overview

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pp. 19-31

It is difficult to make sense of present-day Singapore without some knowledge of its history. Singapore was under British colonial rule between 1819 and 1963. Historical and archeological records of precolonial Singapore are scarce, but they do suggest that settlements in the area date back at least six hundred years prior to 1819. The earliest reliable references to the small island come from the fourteenth-century Javanese work ...

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2. Fieldwork in the Metropolis

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pp. 32-48

The tiny island-state of Singapore is located at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, immediately north of the equator. Currently, the total land area amounts to approximately 700 square kilometers, less than half the size of Hong Kong. It would be misleading to give an exact figure, since Singapore’s land area is growing constantly due to reclamation, the creation of new land where there was previously water. Anyone who ...

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3. Modernity and the Generation Gap: The Singapore Experience

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pp. 49-83

This study argues the importance of rethinking the structural correlation between modernity and intergenerational relations. The emergence of modernity is usually associated with a set of characteristics, including industrial capitalism, commodification, social differentiation, individualism, democracy, the nation-state, secularization, alienation, and ...

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4. Binding Ties

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pp. 84-114

In the previous chapter, I discussed how the massive transformation of Singapore has disrupted cultural continuity across generations. Rapid economic development and upward social mobility, as well as state policies and individual Singaporeans’ aspirations to be modern have caused a deep generational divide and an inversion of the relationship between ...

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5. Renegotiating the Intergenerational Contract

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pp. 115-155

The previous chapter discussed the ways in which the Chinese intergenerational contract is regenerated in contemporary Singapore. But the terms and realization of the intergenerational contract are far from uncontested. I have already touched upon challenges facing intergenerational relations in Singapore—massive upward social mobility, the widen ing generation gap, and an emerging ageism. The erosion of extended family units ...

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Conclusion: Living in Transition

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pp. 156-162

When I began my fieldwork I was intrigued by the seeming contradiction between traditional family values and the huge generational divide caused by Singapore’s dramatic modernization. The Singaporean experience of modernity is peculiar in several respects, but most striking are the parallel processes of intergenerational integration and disintegration. While the family remains a pivotal feature of society and the primary ...


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pp. 163-172


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pp. 173-174


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pp. 175-186


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pp. 187-191

E-ISBN-13: 9780824864620
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832599

Publication Year: 2009