Chinese Heritage Centre at Nanyang Technological University: Nantah and what lies beneath

Chinese Heritage Centre at NTU

Historic former Administrative Building of Nantah, now home to the CHC

The Chinese Heritage Centre (CHC), an autonomous research unit of Nanyang Technological University (NTU), aims to be a leading research and resource centre on overseas Chinese. Its mission is to “advance knowledge and understanding of the ethnic Chinese communities in different parts of the world”.

There are 2 permanent exhibitions at the centre. “Chinese More Or Less: An exhibition on Overseas Chinese Identity” is a 6000 sq ft large exhibition with 7 galleries exploring what it means to be Chinese, particularly in relation to the Chinese diaspora.

Nantah Pictorial Exhibition

Nantah Pictorial Exhibition

The 2nd feature is titled the “Nantah Pictorial Exhibition”, a gallery of photographs and memorabilia archiving the history of the old Nanyang University, Singapore’s short lived Chinese tertiary institution that once made history as the only Chinese language institution of higher learning outside of China and Taiwan. “Nantah” is a portmanteau word formed from the Chinese characters for “Nanyang” and “University” (forming portmanteau words is a common practice in the Chinese language).

The CHC is sited in the historic Administrative Building of the former Nanyang University, which has ostensibly been rebirthed as today’s NTU.

The pictorial exhibition is interesting, aiming to capture the “founding spirit” of the original Nantah, a reference to the much-vaunted “Nantah Spirit” (南大精神) which is an esprit de corps that evokes many memories for its alumni even till today. Ironically but not surprisingly however the exhibition glosses over much of the rich but difficult history of Nantah. What is more interesting perhaps is what has been omitted.


Nantah Memorial

Nantah Memorial – gazetted as a national monument

The historic Nanyang University, more often affectionately referred to as Nantah, existed from 1956 to 1980. In its 25 short years the university produced almost 12,000 graduates, most of whom are still alive today and retain vivid and fond memories of their time at Nantah. The Nantah Alumni Association in Singapore remains active, and there are 17 overseas alumni groups who still gather regularly.

Nantah was founded by a prominent but somewhat controversial Chinese community leader, as a university to provide higher education opportunities for the common Chinese. Funding was generously contributed by the community leader himself, as well as by people from all walks of life including food hawkers, trishaw riders and cabaret singers, and from all over the region. Nantah became a beacon of Chinese language education and culture in Southeast Asia, and the university and the values it inculcated in its students became embodied in “The Nantah Spirit”.

In the 1950s and 1960s however the university became a hotbed of political student activism. As the pre-eminent Chinese university in the region, the school’s young impressionable students became embroiled in the cultural idealism and political ambitions of the Chinese community. China, the motherland, was undergoing drastic transformation during the Mao era at the time, and overseas Chinese in Singapore became drawn to the communist politics on the mainland. The nationalist movement saw the views and ideals of the Chinese-educated in Singapore gradually grow apart from that of the English educated faction in Singapore.

Nantah student activism

Nantah student activism – Photo from “Nantah Pictorial Exhibition”

In 1965 Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew led his government in taking Singapore independent, and established an authoritarian style of rule to stamp out any dissent, particularly communistic, during a tumultuous period in Singapore’s history. The pragmatic government set about the task of rapidly developing Singapore’s infrastructure and economy, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1980 the government finally shut down Nantah, merging it with (or subsuming it under?) the English-medium University of Singapore (SU) to form today’s National University of Singapore (NUS). English was the lingua Franca of Singapore and the world, and from the 1970s the government had already started having Chinese medium schools switch to using English as the language of instruction. Lee Kuan Yew and his government did not see any practical value in continuing with a Chinese medium university either, never mind that Nantah was highly acclaimed in the region.

With the closure of Nantah the government also effectively quashed any political uprisings from the Chinese faction.


More Nantah student protests – Photo from “Nantah Pictorial Exhibition”

A brand new English medium university focused on engineering, the Nanyang Technological Institute (NTI) opened on the old Nantah campus a year on in 1981. The NTI later expanded to become today’s NTU in 1991. In 1995, the Nantah alumni rolls were transferred from NUS to NTU.

The government has taken pains to tie the new NTU’s roots to the original Nanyang University, perhaps in an effort to smooth over the blemishes in Nantah’s history. There have even been efforts in recent years to resurrect the Nanyang University name by dropping the “Technology” in NTU’s name, after all in Chinese the short name for NTU is also “Nan Da” phonetically, although no one refers to the NTU as “Nantah” in English. These efforts to bring the Nanyang University name back in use have not been successful however, in some parts due to the general public’s resistance particularly from the Nantah alumni.

So could it be that NTU isn’t really the reincarnation of Nantah after all? The only thing that the both have in common is the “Nanyang” in their names, and the fact that NTU now occupies Nantah’s old campus.


Chinese Heritage Centre at NTU

Foyer of the CHC, with stairs leading to the exhibitions

The CHC building is built in a traditional Chinese style and was constructed in 1953. Opposite the CHC building is the Yunnan Garden which was built in 1954. Of interest in the garden is a Nanyang University Memorial first unveiled in 1958, and a replica Nanyang University Gateway Arch.

Interestingly the original arch stands forlornly across the Pan-Island Expressway (PIE) in Jurong West Street 93, behind the MRT track and an empty patch of land next to a small park called Yunnan Park. This area I suppose used to be part of the old Nantah campus grounds.

The CHC building, memorial and original gateway arch were all gazetted as national monuments by the National Heritage Board in 1998.

Within the CHC building, apart from the 2 exhibitions there is also the Wang Gungwu library and resource centre which has a collection of over 50,000 volumes dedicated to the history and culture of the Chinese, including overseas Chinese.

There is also a small museum shop with a collection of English and Chinese titles on Chinese heritage, including the seminal The Encyclopaedia of the Chinese Overseas.


12 Nanyang Drive, Nanyang Technological University

There are 2 entrances to the university – via Nanyang Avenue off of Jalan Bahar, or via Nanyang Crescent from Pioneer Road North over the PIE.

Mon – Fri: 9.30am-5.00pm
Sat – Sun: 10.00am-5.00pm
Public holidays: Closed

Admission is free. Guided and group tours are available for a small charge.

Nantah Arches

The original arch in Jurong West St 93 on the left; the replica arch in NTU’s campus on the right


You’ll likely spend no more than 15-20 minutes in the garden. The exhibitions are quite extensive however and depending on your level of interest you could spend an hour or far more here.


Yunnan Garden, NTU

Yunnan Garden

  • Tan Lark Sye was the Chinese community leader who founded Nantah. Originally from China’s Fujian province, he was an activist ultimately accused of supporting communistic activities and had his citizenship revoked in 1963. It was only later that his contributions to Singapore were honoured. He died in Singapore in 1972 at the age 76.
  • “What is the Nantah Spirit? To put it simply, it is: What others do not want to do, we do; what others cannot do, we can; while others do not have the patience to bear, we have. Furthermore, we have set the standard of excellence as our avowed goal in whatever we do.” – Nantah Yearbook 1976
  • “Nanyang (Chinese: 南洋; pinyinnányáng) is the Chinese name for the geographical region south of China, particularly Southeast Asia. Literally meaning “Southern Ocean”, it came into common usage in self-reference to the large ethnic Chinese migrant population in Southeast Asia, particularly Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Nanyang is contrasted with Xiyang (Western Ocean), which refers to the Western world, and Dongyang (Eastern Ocean), which refers to Japan.” – Wikipedia