100 Years of History:
Happy Centennial, AAS!
By Glenn van Zutphen
(written in 2017 for our 100th Anniversary)
Imagine Singapore in 1917.
Clipper ships unloading their holds onto small bumboats (in the area that’s now Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands); jostling for space up and down the bustling Singapore River at Collyer, Boat, Clark and Roberson Quays. Just look at the image above! Think of all the sights, sounds and smells (!) of a working port and all the excitement that comes with it.
Picture sultry Singapore with no air conditioning; no ice (or refrigeration in the early days); frequent tropical downpours and flooded streets; kids playing among workers hauling loads of tin, rubber, gambier, pepper, tapioca or copra on their backs; trash being thrown and sewage draining into the river. It was a chaotic, booming, exciting era in our local history.
Think about getting off your sailing ship or steamer at Johnstons Pier (1856-1933) or Clifford Pier (1933-2006) after more than a month at sea, traveling from the US East Coast, through Havana, around the tip of South America and through the Pacific Ocean, stopping in Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai and other exotic ports to finally get to here. Who would be there to greet you? Who would give you “a piece of home” far away from your loved ones and the life that you knew?
FH Levenhagen, AAS President in 1962, wrote, “The American Association of Singapore had its inauspicious beginning in 1917 when a handful of American businessmen met in the office of the Consul General with the vague idea that something ought to be done to organize the American community for mutual benefit.” It was felt that an American society among brotherhood lines was needed.
On August 25, that same year, AAS was officially founded by a small group of Americans then stationed in Singapore, under the name “American Association of Malaya.” The constitution stipulated that only “male American citizens of full age who are a resident of Malaya and other such countries … shall be eligible to membership.” At inauguration, the association had 30 members.
The objectives of the Association were simply stated in the Preamble of the Association’s Constitution: “… to promote good feeling between Americans and persons living in Singapore, to promote friendship among ourselves, to provide educational facilities for children and for other purposes…”
Out of this mission grew a multi-faceted organization that served the community in a variety of ways. Over the decades, AAS has founded most of the American groups in Singapore:
American Women’s Association (then American Women’s Auxiliary) (1935)
The American Club (1948)
Singapore American School (1956)
American Chamber of Commerce (then American Business Committee) (1969)
Singapore American Community Action Council (SACAC) (1973)
Boy Scouts of America Troop 07 (1986)
American Dragons dragon boat team (2005)
As the American population in Singapore grew, the different AAS organizations separated into their own associations, while keeping a close relationship with AAS. Additionally, we’ve always enjoyed a close and meaningful relationship with the US Embassy and the US Navy personnel based in Singapore.
Interestingly, while other countries have American Chambers of Commerce and American women’s associations, Singapore is one of the only places where you’ll find the American Association in our form and with our function. Ours is an ongoing journey of trying to bring value to our members and serve the community. We are the oldest American Association in the world outside of the US.
Special events have always been an important way to bring the expat community together here. Living thousands of miles from home, our drive to gather and share holidays and special events has been a key part of the American fabric in Singapore. A mainstay of the annual social calendar is the George Washington Ball. The first one was held at the Sea View Hotel in 1933. This year marks the 84th year and we’ve aptly renamed it the George Washington Centennial Ball.
The Fourth of July Picnic (now called the Independence Day Celebration) has been a family affair since the late 1940s. In those days, AAS members came together with their wives and children to celebrate with a game of baseball at the Thompson Road polo ground. By 1967, Independence Day was celebrated with the traditional picnic at Singapore American School. The usual games, train ride, carnival booths, hot dogs and fireworks were on offer. Today, 3,000-5,000 people attend each year, with many of the same carnival games as yesteryear along with professional entertainers, the US Navy Color Guard, food stalls, our sister organizations and, of course, fireworks.
The Welcome Back Celebration is about reconnecting after a long summer break. From 1995 to 2007, this event took the form of a jazz night in Fort Canning Park and then became a music in the park night from 2008-2009. Of late, the family-focused event has been held at the Terror Club, The American Club, the Singapore Flyer, BOUNCE trampoline park and other family-friendly venues.
In the past in celebration of Thanksgiving, AAS sponsored a church service and dinner. Traditionally, it was the AAS women (and eventually the AWA) who made the event a success. We still celebrate the holiday with the annual Turkey Trot 10k, 5k and 2k fun run through the beautiful, tree-lined streets of Sembawang. It’s followed by the only community pancake breakfast in Singapore, hosted at the US Navy Terror Club.
Toys for Tots is a relatively new addition to AAS’s special events calendar. Working with the US Embassy Marine Detachment, this Christmas fundraising event collects news toys as Christmas gifts for underprivileged children in Singapore and Asia.
In addition, the association runs 40-50 smaller social events each year, ranging from history talks, to food explorations, pub crawls and independent movie screenings, workshops, networking and quiz nights.
Sports have always played a significant role in AAS activities. Baseball and softball competitions have been recorded since 1924. Since 1947, AAS has hosted a golf tournament every year, now known as the Ambassador’s Cup, one of our most popular annual events. The American Dragons began in 2005 and are now a serious presence at all major Singapore and regional dragon boat competitions.
Beyond social, cultural and sporting events, AAS gives value to our members through the CareerSource (formerly Career Resource Center for Excellence), providing them with the opportunity to search for jobs advertised by potential employers, as well as attend workshops to develop themselves personally and professionally.
Our excellent publications, the Singapore American newspaper and Living in Singapore reference guide (now in its 14th edition), are both valuable resources for newly arrived and long-term residents of Singapore. AAS continues to support community programs, including Home Hospitality for men and women of the US Navy, while here on shore leave.
AAS members have always given back to the Singapore community, one of the things that Americans do, wherever they are based. Over the decades, AAS has participated in the Red Cross International Bazaar, along with our “Team USA” sister organizations. We’ve given many hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless volunteer-hours over the century to local non-profits and charities. Some of the more recent beneficiaries: Singapore International Foundation, Food from the Heart, Children’s Cancer Foundation, Ronald McDonald House Charities Singapore, Singapore Children’s Society and many others.
From humble beginnings in a growing port town, to a sophisticated organization with a full-time staff of ten serving 1300 members in a world-class city, AAS has grown to meet the needs of its members over the decades. No longer a society of male-only American citizens, we embrace singles, couples and families of all nationalities, who are looking to be part of a dynamic, friendly community.
As our newest mission statement says is best:
“The American Association of Singapore serves as the leading non-profit organization that enhances, promotes and celebrates American culture among expats from all countries and the Singaporean community - through social events, charitable activities and career support. We also help expats achieve a sense of belonging and connection throughout all stages of their lives in Singapore.”