Ethnic Associations: A Historical Perspective

Club Germania, Hong Kong, early 20th century

There has been a long tradition of ethnic associationalism among migrants. The Scots were at the helm of developments, establishing the first ethnic association abroad when setting up the Scots' Charitable Society in Boston in the late 17th century. Other migrant groups followed suit quickly, and ethnic associations began to proliferate all over the world.

In the mercantile empire in Asia the story of ethnic associations is a little different from that in the principal settler destinations such as the United States or Australia. While ethnic associations in Asia also only emerged once a larger number of Europeans made their way there, there was no large-scale immigration to Asia that supported these associations. When these clubs and societies first emerged in Asia in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Asia was a world of sojourners - a group of migrants for whom the eventual return home was always part of the plan; these sojourners were not looking to settle in Asia permanently. Partly as a result of this, ethnic associations of the English, Scots and Germans in Asia were the preserve of an elite comprised of businessmen, administrators and military personnel rather than a popular movement.

'Bierabend', Bangkok German Club, 1910

This difference in terms of membership does not mean, however, that the clubs and societies established by British and German residents in Asia were less important or active. Even prior to the formalisation of ethnic associations, different migrant groups came together to celebrate key annual events. St Andrew, Scotland's patron saint, was celebrated in Shanghai as early as the 1860s, and the city's German residents were happy to gather in celebration of the Kaiser's birthday. Such activities proliferated once ethnic clubs and societies had been organised to give them a formal home. One early example of such formalisation is Hong Kong's German Club founded in 1859. The image above shows the club's third home; built for the Club on Kennedy Road, the building was opened in 1902 and became known as Club Germania. A little further west, in Bangkok, the formation of the city's German Club (Deutscher Klub) documents how ethnic associations were often set up. It was established in the spring of 1891 when a number of German residents gathered in Bangkok's Oriental Hotel to discuss the formation of a club. Among the founders of the Club was Karl Bethge, a German engineer. Bethge had first made his way to Asia working as an expert for Krupp in China in the late 1880s to explore the feasibility of the firm's involvement in the development of the railway in China. It was then that he received an invitation from Rama V, the King of Siam, to come to Bangkok and act as advisor to the Royal Railway Department; Bethge became its Director a year later, holding that role until his death in Bangkok in 1900. Bangkok's German Club flourished in the early 20th century, holding bowling events and so-called 'Bierabende' (beer evenings - see picture). The English too developed a thriving club scene. In the early 1900s, for example, numerous branches of the London-based Royal Society of St George can be traced in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Negri Sembilan, Malacca, and Shanghai. Local papers reported instances of St George’s societies and published news on meetings and activities, thus ensuring that branch societies in the region were connected to the global community. To learn more about the spread of English ethnic associations, have a look at this article.

Shanghai St Andrew’s Society Ball, 1879

But the English and Germans were, of course, not alone in celebrating their ethnic heritage in formalised clubs. When Shanghai’s St Andrew’s Society and its guests gathered at the Shanghai Club to celebrate St Andrew’s Day in 1879, it was not the customary ball that was held, but a ‘Waverley Ball’, organised ‘in honour of the Patron Saint and the Poet Novelist of Scotland.’ As had already been reported in a local paper in the summer of 1879, guests were meant to be dressed as characters from Scott’s Waverley novels: ‘We hear with pleasure that the members of St. Andrew’s Society have decided to give a fancy dress ball, about the 30th November next. It can most appropriately be styled a “Waverley Ball,” as the dresses are to be copies of those of the characters in the Waverley-Novels. It is desired that the tout ensemble shall be as complete as possible, hence the notification so long in advance.’ While the press levied some criticism after the event, noting that ‘there was a tendency to substitute the payment of dollars at a store for the intelligent effort to represent a particular character; and secondly, there was too much reliance placed on picture books issued in the time of Sir Walter Scott’, the ball was a great success. This was the case not least because of the great decorations. In the ballroom ‘evergreens and flowers were entwined round the doors, windows, pictures, mirrors and pillars, while in a prominent position on the south wall was the venerated, veritable, and much revered portrait of St. Andrew’. Dinner was provided, including potted pheasant, venison, haggis and a selection of patisseries. This remarkable event displaying Scottishness in Asia came to an end only in the wee hours of the morning.