Learn about the many different Chinese names for Singapore, past and present

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 had 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 nickname 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.

Scholar Jao Tsung-I 饶宗颐 wrote in The Chinese Sources for the History of Singapore Before 1912 新加坡古事记: “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.”

Year Name Source
1796 Xinjiapu
Chinese Monthly Magazine quoted in The Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms
1820 Shengjiapo
Shi E cao by Wang Zhichun
Around 1830 XinjiLipo
Nanyang Lice(My observations of Nanyang)by Yan Sizong. The records begin after the island was occupied by the British in 1918.
1836 Xinjiabu
Dun Mo before the 16th year of Daoguang’s reign.
1839 Xinqipo
In the 19th year of Daoguang’s reign, Lin Zexu and Deng Yanzhen urged the Emperor to consider Xinqipo新奇坡 and 新埠Xinbu as two different places. Also seen in YinghuanKaolüe. (Records of Lands and Peoples Overseas).
1842 Xinjipo
Submitted by the Governor of Guangdong and Guangxi Qigong on the 22nd year of Daoguang’s reign.
Submitted by Yaoying from the Taiwan administrative office in the 22nd year of Daoguang’s reign. In Chouyi 59, Xinqibo and Shile are two different places.
In the same year, submitted by Yaoying. Chouyi 62.
1859 Xinqipo
Submitted by Bi Chengzhao in the 9th year of Xianfeng’s reign. Chouyi 41.
1866 Xinjiapo
Submitted by Jiang Yili in the 5th year of Tongzhi’s reign. Chouyi 43.
Zhang Yinheng’s SanzhouRiji (Daily records of Sanzhou).
Wang Zhi’s HaikeRitan (The Voyages of a Traveller).
Wang Zhi’s HaikeRitan (Suggested English name: The Voyages of a traveller).
Xinge Boer
Wang Zhi’s HaikeRitan (The Voyages of a Traveller).
Wang Zhi’s HaikeRitan (Suggested English name: The Voyages of a Traveller).
1883 Xinjiapo
Zheng Guanying’s NanyouRiji (Daily records of my southern travels)
Xu Jiyu’sYinghuanKaolüe. (Records of Lands and Peoples Overseas).
Veritable records of Emperor Xuanzong (1842), HaikeRitan (The Voyages of a Traveller) (1866), Huang Mucai’sXiyouRiji (西輏日记)
British/Englishman Morrison wrote in WaiguoShilüè (A Concise History of Foreign Countries) (1847), as quoted in HaiguoTuzhi(The Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms). Also seen in Xiao FanghuZaiBubian (Collected Geographical Works of Xiao FanghuZhai)

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