Project Canterbury

Florence Buchanan
The Little Deaconess of the South Seas

By Emlyn Jones

New York: The Macmillan Co., 1921.
London: The Central Board of Missions, 1921.

Chapter VI. With the Chinese of Singapore

IN the year that Queen Victoria was born (1819) Sir Stamford Raffles, one of Britain's greatest Christian empire builders, hoisted the Union Jack over the little fishing village of Singapore, which had at that time 300 Malay and Chinese inhabitants.

In a few years, in spite of great difficulties and discouragements, he had built up a thriving colony, and this wonderful island became the great port of the East, and the first free port in the world.

To-day the population of Singapore is over 300,000, two-thirds of whom are "Babas" or Straits-Chinese. They own the best of the land, the largest town and country houses, and drive the smartest carriages. The stumbling-block, however, to their more rapid intellectual progress, is the position of their women, those of the higher class being ruled by a Zenana-like system, while the lower classes are commonly degraded by the prevalence of systematised immorality. Education of the Baba women has been almost wholly neglected what has been accomplished must be placed to the credit of the missionaries, who have worked without sympathy or help from the wealthy Chinese.

In the very first year of British occupation Sir Stamford Raffles sent to England for missionary help in the work of planting the Cross in a new field. The finest piece of work accomplished by any English mission in the Straits is the Singapore Chinese Girls' School, founded by the pioneer society for women's work to women in 1843. The school is still known to many as "Miss [35/36] Cooke's School," Miss Cooke having served for forty years as Principal. She was succeeded by Miss Gage-Brown, and the school was taken over by the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society. Miss Ryan, an honoured name in Singapore, has completed sixty-five years of work in the school, whilst Miss Tolley is in her twentieth year of service.

To this famous missionary school came Miss Buchanan in 1906 from Thursday Island, itself sometimes called the Australian Singapore, because its population, like that of Singapore, is a mixture of almost every European and Eastern nationality.

Writing of the coming of Miss Buchanan, Miss Tolley says: "She arrived quite unexpectedly one Monday morning and was welcomed by Miss Ryan. Although she came for rest for her foot and to see a doctor here, Miss Buchanan at once began taking regular classes, as we were short-handed. I helped her unpack, and was amazed to find her boxes filled with all sorts of teaching apparatus--picture rolls, magic lantern, and such like, while her own clothes and things occupied hardly any space.

"On Sunday mornings she had a class with our youngest children; on Saturdays she always sent out and bought biscuits or fruit for them. Once when she gave them a lantern lesson, she asked me to explain the pictures; but there was no need for me to say a word the moment the picture appeared on the screen a chorus of little voices proclaimed the story, which she had taught them so well, that there were peals of laughter if any one made a mistake. She made friends wherever she went. She was so merry and bright, so sweet and lovable, always empty of self always thinking of others. The police and the tram drivers were always on the look-out to help her. The children of St. Mary's Home, whom she sometimes taught, would watch for her, and gather round her in the Cathedral compound. Many of the [36/37] Japanese, too, learned to know and love her. She used to carry round to them a missionary paper in Japanese (these papers still come to us and we take them round).

"Once she gave us an Australian picnic; we enjoyed it so much, but she was our chief enjoyment. Another time it was a Book Tea, for which there were prizes. All these things she did though often in acute pain, and never, I believe, quite wholly free from pain."

Writing from Singapore to some friends Miss Buchanan says: "My flight was so hurried in the end, that there was no time to write to anyone here; the Bishop, who had written asking for me, was away in England, as was also his chaplain; but the assistant chaplain at once brought me to this school, where he said workers were welcomed at all hours expected or unexpected; and they opened their doors and their hearts and gave me such a welcome. They said that for months they had been praying, as had also their friends in England, that a new worker might be sent them; while I could only say how for months Singapore seemed laid on my heart. So here I have remained helping in the school. There are some eighty to one hundred girls here, orphans, or from heathen homes, and this is their home till they are married. Their marriage is arranged for them (as is the custom) to Christian Chinese husbands. The school girls wear Straits-Chinese dress, the sarong or skirt, and along coloured baju or jacket; the hair is done in 'teapot-handle' style, the knot being secured by three large nail-like pins. Little girls, however, are often dressed as Chinese boys with pigtail and trousers. The pupils are taught to read and write both in English and Malay. The school trains them as Bible women, which office can only be filled by a married woman, or if not married she must adopt a child. Some of the married girls live here in Singapore, some are the wives of Christian pastors in various parts of the Straits Settlements, some are in Australia, others in China and various other parts of [37/38] the East. The elder girls in the school are pupil-teachers, others monitors or house-girls, having the care of the little ones out of school hours. All the girls learn to sew beautifully. They may be seen sitting about with their embroidery frames making lovely silk shoes with tiny beads, in sweet colours, and of most minute detail in pattern. They also make stuffed animals beautifully, elephants, horses, etc. I intend to send some for Christmas presents to my baby friends."

In October, 1906, Miss Gage-Brown wrote of Miss Buchanan: "She is a genius with little children, as ours have found out; she has pictures, diagrams, and treasures of all sorts, besides magic lanterns and hundreds of beautiful slides, for which she is finding ready use, in different parts of Singapore."

On the resignation of Miss Gage-Brown, Miss Buchanan was asked by the English Committee to be acting head of the school. This she consented to do, but she would not accept a permanent appointment, as she always regarded Australian missions as having first claim upon her; even though she found the conditions of her life and work in Singapore so much easier. The headship of the school entailed much responsibility, and there was the work which she did outside the school, in the hospitals, etc. In a letter Miss Buchanan says: "We are kept busy as bees in school and out, and I seem never able to get through my letters. I went last week with the military chaplain to take a meeting with the soldiers' wives, on an island across the harbour, called Pulu Brani; I am to give them a lantern on some spare evening soon, though this is rather a trying expedition, crossing in a sampan in the dark. . . . Yesterday I took one of our girls as an in-patient to the general hospital, with a skin complaint which has failed to improve under our treatment. Some of our girls have the mumps. I do pray it may not go through the whole school. I have isolated the sick ones as far as possible. A girl came to our school [38/39] three weeks ago; she is sixteen years old, and ran away from home, rather than become the third wife of a man whom her mother wished her to marry. She belongs to a well-to-do heathen family; she had often heard of this school and wants to learn to be a Christian. I am arranging to see the Chinese protector so that if she is discovered we may have power to keep her. She is a dear girl, and learning so eagerly the A B C of the Gospel. She remains within the school compound at present, as on Sunday when the school as usual attended the Malay service in the S.P.G. Church, some Chinese men were seen scanning the girls' faces through the shutters during the service, and others on the road as the girls went home.

"I have very happy work here, without exertion, as we only teach till 1 p.m. when we are free for any outside work. If I want to go beyond the limits of a walk, I can go long distances in a rickshaw for a cent or two. I do indeed pray that the rest from walking may work quicker results to the foot; the casement of plaster of Paris is not to be removed for six months, and the splint is a great comfort to me; and though I still use my crutches out of doors, I manage with a stick indoors.

"Chinese swarm here in Singapore like bees; they are employed in all the banks, the manager alone being English; they serve in all the shops, most of the servants are Chinese; thousands run about with rickshaws; and what Christian work is done among all these seems but a drop in the ocean."

Strange that Deaconess Buchanan should have found in Singapore the joy of Christian work among the Chinese, which in Thursday Island seemed to have been denied her. Mr. Seymour tells how in early days she gave a lantern show of Bible pictures for the Chinese in the vicarage dining-room (there being no parish hall), trying to chat with them afterwards; but when the Chinese had all gone, the little Deaconess sat down and wept over [39/40] herself as a failure; and though as years went by she succeeded in gaining some of the children, she never could get a footing at Thursday Island among the older Chinese, who would cling each to his joss," housed in a kerosene tin in the room behind the shop. A Chinese girl named Tama Misawa of the Singapore school writes as follows: "I am awfully pleased to hear that you would like to have a letter from some one who used to be with dear Miss Buchanan. I was her pupil a long time ago, but I am still remembering what she taught me. There were quite a number of us, and we sat in rows on the floor and tried to attend to her with our two ears. I was only ten years. I am quite a grown-up girl now, and able to do some work for the school. Many of the girls Miss Buchanan taught are now in different countries, won't it be nice for dear Miss Buchanan to see us all growing so big? After each lesson Miss Buchanan gave each of us a card and asked us to learn it. Oh! how we loved doing it for her. I can see her now, as I am writing to you. I feel she is somewhere here, and I can hear her voice. We were very fond of her, and when we saw her, we would call to her, and gather round her. I hope you will understand all that I write, and kindly excuse my English."

The simple words of this young Chinese girl but express a kindred feeling in the hearts of thousands who loved the little Deaconess in many lands--"I feel she is somewhere here, and I can hear her voice".

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