Brutal Truths About Having PRCs in Singapore

PRCs: they have a reputation for being obscenely loud, unbearably pushy, kiasu to the max, shit in public, cheat Singaporeans, display uncouth behaviour (that I must point out, some Singaporeans also show), unbafflingly self-entitled and amazingly unaware of social norms (or just have a damn thick skin).

Tell an average Singaporean Chinese that our forefathers also came from China, he may rebut that his ancestors were from a different generation in a different sort of times. 

Singapore China PRC
Source: Hutong School blog

And our forefathers still managed to assimilate into Singapore’s culture and blend in, didn’t they? If not we wouldn’t be Singaporeans.

With so much anti-PRC rhetoric and stereotyping (that it is almost a collective disappointment of alternative sites in Singapore when a public offender isn’t a PRC), I felt compelled to share the many other facets of PRCs that some Singaporeans may not have encountered if you haven’t schooled, worked, trained or regularly interacted with them.

1. PRCs can be a pain in the ass, but it can be for your own good

Like how is this even possible???

In school, I had the fortune of being trained by a China coach and his wife for 5-6 years. At that time, we didn’t have such a strong anti-PRC sentiment in Singapore.

If you came here and you contributed something meaningful, that’s what matters right?

They weren’t as soft as the Russian coach we previously had (although all made us swim in the rain), but even if you weren’t at the top of your game, you still had to follow through the entire training regimen like everyone else.

They worked in a team with their fellow coaches, and made us students work in a team too. 

This meant that some students had to swim the most unpopular races during National Swimming championships in order to get points for the school. 

Points are given for your place in the finals (first place gets the most points, and so on), and when added up, would determine your school ranking for each age group in the whole of Singapore.

If you weren’t specifically good at any of the 4 competitive strokes and obviously wouldn’t fare well in a 50m sprint race, the PRC coaches would assign you to less popular races that had fewer contenders (because it was really a bitch to swim in those).

That’s how I got posted to 200m Individual Medley and 200m butterfly, because I wasn’t good at any specific stroke but yet, I could possibly complete these races without drowning.

You can’t imagine how tough it is competing in those races unless you’re a competitive fellow swimmer. Indulge me while I explain.

In 200m Individual Medley, your first stroke is the *horror* butterfly. If you don’t pace yourself, this energy-guzzling stroke will leave you weak during the next backstroke lap.

While swimming backstroke, you’re just trying not to swim head first into the lane ropes. There are no lines in the sky to direct your path straight.

This is followed by breastroke where it is so tempting to chill but you can’t because you only have 1 lap of freestyle left to catch up with the person in front.

On the last lap, you try hard to skip breaths so you can freestyle your arms with multiple strokes in a single breath, before almost dying of suffocation before you hit the wall.

In 200m butterfly, you’re just trying not to look like a flopping wimp after the first 50m, because you skipped breaths to get a headstart and not look like the last loser in the race.

By the last lap, you don’t give a rat’s ass if you look like a flopping wimp and just want to get to the end without drowning.

My China coaches forced me to swim more butterfly and IM than other swimmates who had the “good fortune” to be posted in easier races like 100m breastroke, but hey I still managed to get into the finals and grab a few points for my school, pushing its rankings up!

So yeah, PRCs can be a pain in the ass, but sometimes it’s for the good of the team and yourself.

2. PRC in your project group? Huat ah!

When I studied in business school, project group was a must in almost every module. 

And if you had a PRC on your team, fantastic!

The PRC classmates I had in the various team groupings were good at math, research (they are very good at finding stuff), logical thinking and generally team players. 

They weren’t particular about who got to present to the class and look good to the profs (conversely, the Indians and Caucasians were very keen on presenting).

To the PRCs, as long as their work was acknowledged fairly (we had post-project peer reviews) they sometimes chipped in more than their fair share.

3. We are painfully negligent about understanding our ancestry and history

Although our forefathers came from China, I doubt the average Singaporean is deeply familiar with China, Chinese culture, Chinese way of thinking and doing things etc. 

I did a short exchange programme where  I met a couple of PRCs (who have become naturalised US citizens) who were fun to hang out with and talk to. It was a strange exchange though. 

One shared about her visits back to the homeland where her relatives still reside in Beijing, even though Singapore is closer geographically to China than US.

I couldn’t relate to much of the geography in China, although I was familiar with some of the names of the bigger cities. 

My cultural understanding of China mainly came from mandarin dramas I watched as a kid on Channel 8, which were more of Sun Wukong folklore and early Chinese immigrants in Singapore sending money back to the homeland to support the communist cause etc.

Yet, my PRC friend was highly intrigued at the variety of Chinese songs on my iPod by Singaporean, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysian singers/bands she had never heard of, including Jay Chou and May Day. She monopolised my iPod for a few hours after the discovery.

On another occasion, while the group of us exchange students was killing time waiting for the next programme to start, a US-born Caucasian classmate asked me to describe myself. Since the group already knew I was from Singapore, I said I was Chinese. 

There was a collective “No-no-no, you’re Singaporean, not Chinese!” even though I tried to explain we have different racial and cultural groups in Singapore (and then I had to figure out how explain what Malay, Eurasian, Peranakan and the various Chinese dialect groups were because most of those terms were so unfamiliar to them).

4. Working with PRCs, a lesson in gratefulness

In one of my ex-companies, I used to work closely with 3 female PRC merchandisers, 2 of whom had “left-behind kids” in China with grandparents or relatives. 

For two years, these PRC mummies would slog it out in Singapore like the rest of us, then take a 2 week holiday to see their loved ones. They would regularly video call their daughters to speak to them, but after the call ended, you could sometimes sense the digital conversation just wasn’t fulfilling enough.

One mummy told me how she would look forward to going back to her hometown to see her daughter, but it would take a few days for her daughter to warm up to her. 

Then when the relationship was finally back on track, they had to say sad goodbyes as it would be time to leave China to come back to Singapore for work.

We both cried.

Another mummy divorced because her marriage just drifted apart. Herself, her husband and daughter, all lived separately due to work, and it eventually evolved into living separate lives. 

Every Chinese New Year, to give a sense of home and belonging to the PRCs who didn’t get to go home that year, the company would sponsor a CNY dinner just for them to celebrate together, just like family.

When it came to deliveries, the PRC deliverymen were amazingly inhuman, but not because they behaved like animals like what some accusations online say.

They aren’t beefed up those who go to gym, and some are skinny! 

But they could work 6 days a week making multiple deliveries of 2 x 25kg sacks of rice of one shoulder and 1 x 17kg tin of cooking oil in each hand per delivery.

As part of new hire training, I followed them one day on their delivery run.

Trying uselessly to be helpful, I struggled to even carry a single 25kg bag of rice a few meters. I then tried to carry a 17kg tin using its teeny plastic handle, and my hands were sore with red welts after that. So weak!

The deliverymen had to be quick in delivering because it was hard to find an unloading bay with a big lorry. They could even brisk walk while carrying the freaking insane loads. 

The PRC deliverymen could speak basic English and Malay, and had good relationships with some of the makciks they delivered to, even cracking insider jokes I couldn’t understand.

These PRCs gave up their lives back home to work in jobs that Singaporeans don’t want. In the company, through interacting with Singaporeans and Malaysians, my ex PRC colleagues learned how to fit in and display acceptable etiquette (most of the time).

And one or two lucky ones even found love in Singapore!

5. Enjoying a get-together with PRCs, no spitting or shitting observed

One Saturday, I attended a BBQ party with my son and mother in law, as her PRC colleague had invited us. 

We were the only Singaporeans (the other Singaporean invitees couldn’t make it), and we didn’t even realise it until we left the party!

The other PRC ladies (whom we met at the party for the first time) took care of us, taking note of our food preferences and watching out for my son if he wandered off while we were busy.

I chatted with one young lady full of zest who came to Singapore at 21 years old to study, work and get overseas experience.

She missed her parents back home who are also working hard, but she’s optimistic about making everything work out eventually and reuniting with them more often.

If I were to note the differences between Singaporean and PRC behaviour that day, I can only think of:

  • the BBQ cuisine – lamb satay sticks, skewered eggplants and long beans etc
  • fashion – the PRC ladies liked to wear really short, fitting shorts
  • Mandarin accents – but we understood each other

6. Absorbing PRC food and cooks into our foodie culture, like it or not

If Singapore is a melting pot, does it make sense to bemoan the increasing number of PRCs cooking and serving our food here, while getting really excited over the latest European, Japanese, Korean, fusion or Mediterranean cuisine? 

The loss of Singapore food culture isn’t due to more PRCs coming into Singapore, but not enough talents continuing food legacies, some of which will eventually be lost in the future, as we today have already lost some food legacies of the past. This is the destiny of a melting pot, to happily gain some and to sadly lose some.

Would you avoid a stall just because it’s manned by a PRC? 

There is a well-known $2 noodle stall chain which has a particular branch manned by a grumpy Singapore uncle who scolded me before when I told him he got my order wrong. 

I refused to patronise his stall for months.

Then one day, since I had to help someone else order noodles from that stall, I braced myself for another potential awkward moment. 

But there with him, was a middle-aged PRC lady who was helping out at his stall. While working, she was actually reminding him how to talk to customers, smile etc, and she was very nice to me. 

The uncle now isn’t as grumpy and doesn’t talk to customers like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld anymore.

Now I go back to that stall on a regular basis, and her noodles taste normal, Singapore normal, not China-influenced.

That being said, I also enjoy the spicy sesame chicken handmade noodles from a nearby stall which sells PRC cuisine. 

It is hard to find a stall which makes its own noodles from flour, knead it into a bouncy dough, and use a knife to slice each noodle sliver one by one into a pot. 

It is technically an unproductive process, but the chewiness of this hand-sliced noodles just can’t be replicated with machine-made noodles!

Why am I sharing all these relatively trivial experiences with PRCs?

PRCs, like any other nationality, has people who can be an embarrassment (and with a bigger population, more embarrassing people).

But should we lump all PRCs into the same basket as Yang Yin and others who have offended Singaporeans?

There are PRCs who are people like you and me, just trying to find their way in the world, in life, who contribute more to Singapore than some of us are comfortable to acknowledge. 

Fencing up our minds to believe that all PRCs = bad invaders who dirty our land and steal our assets, makes us comfortable in our shared xenophobia of anyone different.

But lack of understanding and willingness to see beyond our noses are liabilities that can lead to ill-informed decisions and perceptions.

The challenge is how to see the perspective from the other party’s point of view to understand his motivations and reasons for thinking, behaving, choosing, feeling, than categorising him as the default enemy to be eliminated once and for all.

We aren’t living in a closed self-sustaining environment, but an open one where other people’s choices can cause ripples all too easily. 

Being open-minded and curious doesn’t make us weaker.

I would like to believe we can strengthen our position at the bargaining table on the world stage by knowing the priorities of others, instead of insisting that others must! must! must! listen to our priorities first.


Also published on Medium.