Chinese Names of Singapore

Did you know that Singapore’s Chinese name wasn’t always Xinjiapo 新加坡? Xinjiapo 新嘉坡 was the version that first appeared in 1840 in Guo Shila’s 郭实腊 Maoyi Tongzhi 贸易通志, in which Guo wrote: “The top trading [ports] in the southeast sea were none other than Siam (Thailand’s old name) and Singapore 新嘉坡.”Xinjiapo 新嘉坡 continued to be used till the early days of Singapore’s independence, along with variations with the same pronunciation like Xingjiapo 星架坡, Xingjiapo 星加坡 or Xingjiapo 星嘉坡.

Another of Singapore’s Chinese names was Shile (Mandarin)/ Sitlat (Hokkien) 石叻, a transliteration of the Malay word selat meaning “strait”. Homophonic variations like Shilebu (Mandarin)/ Sitlatpo (Hokkien) 石叻埠,Shilebu (Mandarin)/ Sitlatpo (Hokkien)实叻埠, and Lebu (Mandarin)/ Latpo (Hokkien) 叻埠 were also used in early Chinese literature.

Then, there were also nicknames like Xingzhou (Mandarin)/ Sin Chew (Hokkien) 星洲, a poetic term where xing 星, literally “star”, is used as a homophone for the first syllable of “Singapore” and zhou 洲 is a term for “island”. Sin Chew Jit Poh 星洲日报 has used the name since 1929. Along similar lines, Xingguo 星国 was another poetic variation where guo 国 means “country” or “state”.

In terms of nicknames, Shicheng 狮城, literally “Lion City” is by far the most commonly used one. The name appeared in the late 14th century and is a literal translation of the Sanskrit name Singapura.

Most of these names can be found in early issues of Nanyang Siang Pau and it was only until 1967 that the government established a committee to unify place and street name translations. Finally, on 25th April 1972, Singapore had its official Chinese translation Xinjiapo 新加坡.

Names of Singapore in Early Chinese Records

(From Jao Tsung-I’s The Chinese Sources for the History of Singapore Before 1912)

The name “Singapore” comes from the Sanskrit term “Singapura”, which means Lion City. The names Xinpu 新埔 and Xinzhoufu 新州府 appeared during the reign of the Qing dynasty emperors Jiaqing 嘉庆 and Daoguang 道光. Bao Shichen 包世臣 wrote in Four Ways to Govern the People, Letter to Guangdong Official Yao 齐民四术,致广东姚中丞书: “Beyond the waters east of Guangdong province, lies the forbidden land called Xinpu. It is many thousand miles away and had just been opened up, thus the name Xinpu.” Wang Zhi annotated in The Voyages of a Traveller 海客日谭: “Xingjiapo 星加坡 is also known as Xingjiapo 星架坡, Xinjiapo 新嘉坡, Xingepoer 新格坡耳, Xingeboer 新格伯儿, Xinjipo 新寄坡, Xili 息力, Roufo 柔佛 or Xinzhoufu 新州府.” As you can see in the books, there are many different translations.

In 1842, the 22nd year of the Daoguang’s reign, it is recorded in volume 371 of the Veritable Records of the Xuanzong Emperor 宣宗成皇帝实录: “According to the report from Military Commander Yijing and co., all of the white people claim that it only takes three months to reach Guangdong if the journey is smooth-sailing. The longest it took was six months. Along the way there are places such as… Singapore and other places, (these places) all belong to them.”

In 1842, Wei Yuan 魏源 recorded in The Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms 海国图志 that: “On the southwest ocean, India and the maritime ports along the southern sea, and the islands in the South China Sea, they all belong to countries of the West, the Western barbarians fight for them to gain profits. At the end of Emperor Qianlong’s reign, [we already] hold power overseas, [this power] became stronger during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing, of all the lands we conquered… namely Old Johor, Old Malacca, these two places are known as Xinjiapo 新嘉坡 today, these are all maritime ports along the southern sea. Countries on the southeast of Siam, are extensions of Xinjiapo which have been colonised by the West. Xinjiapo新嘉坡,Xinzhoufu 新州府 or Xingjilibo 星忌利波, all sound similar.

In 1847, British Morrison wrote in A Concise History of Foreign Countries 外国史略: “Xinjiapo 新嘉坡 is also known as Xinshilipo 新实力坡 or Xinbutou 新埠头.”

In 1847,  Portuguese Jose Martins-Morquez wrote in Geography of Foreign Nations 外国地理备考 that: “Xiladao 息辣岛 also named Xinjiapo 新嘉坡, is positioned at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca. Its land is rich, its fruits are plentiful, it has a vibrant trading scene.”

In 1883, Yuan Zuzhi 袁祖志 wrote in Overseas Talk 海外吟注: “Singapore was originally known as Shile 石叻, and was inhabited by people of Johor. The British saw the potential of the place and took it for themselves. Of the Chinese people who have migrated there, Hokkien make up 70%, Cantonese make up 30%, all of them could make a decent living, and they were happy living there.”

A List of Names of Singapore by Jao Tsung-I

Year Name Source
1796 Xinjiapu

新甲埔

“Chinese Monthly Magazine” 察世俗每月统记传 quoted in The Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms 海国图志.
1820 Shengjiapo

生架坡

Shi E Cao 使俄草 by Wang Zhichun 王之春.
Around 1830 Xinji Lipo

新忌利坡

My Observations of Nanyang 南洋蠡测 by Yan Sizong 颜斯综. The records begin after the island was occupied by the British in 1918.
1836 Xinjiabu; Xinxiapo

新加步、新峡步

Dun Mo 盾墨before the 16th year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign.
1839 Xinqipo

新奇坡

In the 19th year of Emperor Daoguang’s reign, Lin Zexu 林则徐 and Deng Yanzhen 邓延祯 urged the Emperor to consider Xinqipo 新奇坡 and Xinbu新埠 as two different places. Also seen in Records of Lands and Peoples Overseas 瀛环考略.
1842 Xinjipo

新寄坡

Submitted by the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi Qi Gong 祈珙 on the 22nd year of Daoguang’s reign.
1842 Xinqibo

新祈波

Submitted by Yao Ying 姚莹 from the Taiwan administrative office in the 22nd year of Daoguang’s reign. In Chouyi 筹夷 59, Xinqibo and Shile are two different places.
1842 Xindibo

新地波

In the same year, submitted by Yao Ying, collected in Chouyi 62.
1859 Xinqipo

新歧坡

Submitted by Bi Chengzhao 毕承昭 in the 9th year of Xianfeng’s reign. Chouyi 41.
1866 Xinjiapo

新嘉坡

Submitted by Jiang Yili 蒋益澧 in the 5th year of Tongzhi’s reign. Chouyi 43.
1866 Xingjiapo

星驾坡

Zhang Yinheng’s 张荫恒Daily records of Sanzhou三洲日记.
1866 Xingjiapo

星架坡

Wang Zhi’s 王芝 The Voyages of a Traveller 海客日谭.
1866 Xingge Poer

星格坡耳

Wang Zhi’s The Voyages of a Traveller.
1866 Xingge Boer

星格柏儿

Wang Zhi’s The Voyages of a Traveller.
1866 Xingqipo

星奇坡

Wang Zhi’s The Voyages of a Traveller.
1883 Xinjiapo

新加坡

Zheng Guanying’s 郑观应Daily Records of My Southern Travels 南游日记.
1883 Shengjiapo

生嘉坡

Xu Jishe’s 徐继畲 Records of Lands and Peoples Overseas.
Xingjiapo

星加坡

Veritable Records of Emperor Xuanzong (1842), The Voyages of a Traveller (1866), Huang Mucai’s 黄沐材 Xiyou Riji 西輏日记.
Xinjiapo

新嘉坡

Britishman Morrison wrote in A Concise History of Foreign Countries 外国史略 (1847), as quoted in The Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms.