Last Sunday was a special day for me and my countrymen: it marked Singapore’s 50th year as an independent republic. Despite having lived in Hong Kong for the past 16 years, “home” for me is still that equatorial island with its multicultural mosaic of people.
A travelogue written by a Chinese official in Southeast Asia in AD243 mentioned a place called “Puluozhong”, probably a corruption of Pulau Ujong, an ancient Malay name for Singapore, whose inhabitants, according to the writer, were cannibals with tails. The island was sporadically mentioned in Chinese texts under various names over the next millennium, but it was during the Yuan dynasty that the Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan wrote a detailed description. Temasek, as Singapore was known then, was a thriving port and a bone of contention for its powerful neighbours. When Wang visited what he referred to as “Danmaxi”, in 1330, he recorded that the kingdom of Sukothai (presentday central Thailand) had sent 70 warships to Temasek but the island managed to hold off the invasion for a month. He also wrote that Danmaxi was home to Chinese traders, who lived among the native population.
In 1430, Danmaxi appeared on a Chinese map depicting the places visited by famous Ming dynasty eunuch Zheng He. In the subsequent few centuries, Singapore dropped off the radar until the arrival of the British, in the early 19th century.