St Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint, was celebrated by Scots around the world. In Asia, early references come from India where dinners were, by the 1850s, a common affair and widely reported in the press. They only achieved a more stable base, however, in the late-nineteenth century. As Stewart, in his exploration of the jute industry in Calcutta, has noted, the dinners were ‘the most important public ceremonial occasion each year for the British community’.
From India Scottish dinners soon extend their geographic reach—a development in unison with the expansion of the British sphere of influence in the Far East. We find references to celebrations of St Andrew’s Day dinners in Canton from the mid-1830s, hence the period by which a larger number of free merchants had commenced trade there. In 1835, for instance, ‘a splendid dinner was given by Mr. Jardine, at which sixty-seven gentlemen sat down.’ This Mr. Jardine is revealed to be William Jardine of Jardine Matheson & Co.
In Singapore too a dinner was the focal point for early Scottish residents in the city, with the first reported for 1837. While not yet hosted by a formalized association, the dinner itself was a formal one, structured and well organized, with a chairman, croupier and stewards. Some guests attended clad ‘in the garb of the Old Gaul—“with bonnet blue and tartan plaid”’, and as usual, many speeches and toasts were delivered. By 1844 the dinner had become a more elaborate affair, attracting a good number of guests. But by then we can also hear of frictions in Singapore’s Scottish community. As was reported in the local press, the dinner only brought together ‘a section of the Scotchmen of Singapore’ rather than everyone. The organisation of the dinner, it seems, had not been straightforward, and those who were unhappy with how the existing group of organizers had handled the affair decided not to attend the dinner that was held. Later reports suggest that problems continued, contributing to the holding of separate events in the city for some time—a fact that may go some way towards explaining the comparatively late formalisation of the Singapore St Andrew’s Society, which was only established in 1908.
A little further south, across the Singapore Strait and Java Sea, early traces of St Andrew’s Day celebrations can be found in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) in 1838, when a dinner was hosted for the first time. As was noted by a contemporary observer in a letter to the editor of the Singapore Free Press:
Batavia does not boast of many [Scots] in number—but they are a compact and well-knit phalanx of Scottish hearts, not forgetful of the land of their nativity and the recollections of absent friends and days gone by. They have lately signalized themselves by a magnificent dinner … which was attended by the Members of Council, the principal Civil and Military Authorities and a select number of guests from our mixed community.
In total, 100 guests were present at the dinner which was held at a private home. Guests included many a Dutch resident, and, as the contemporary observer went on to note, it was pleasing to see ‘the apparent hearty enjoyment with which the Dutch guests generally entered into the spirit of the evening’. This was of great significance, because events such as St Andrew’s Day dinners could ‘harmonize mixed communities and infuse a kindly feeling among all classes.’
Out of these early roots of dinners and speechifying on St Andrew’s Day throughout the Far East grew more formalized Scottish organisations. The earliest traceable association that was set up was the St Andrew’s Society of Shanghai, with evidence suggesting that it was established in 1865; it certainly was in full operation by 1866, when an annual report was published in the North China Herald. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the Society reportedly had 780 members, though there is also clear evidence that the Society was inactive for a short time. It was in Shanghai and a number of other Asian centres where the tradition of hosting large-scale St Andrew’s Day balls (instead of dinners) flourished.
A happy St Andrew’s Day to all Scottish friends around the world!