The Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, as well as Phuket in Thailand, became home to a peculiar hybrid of Chinese commercial culture and tropical laissez-faire. The first wave of Chinese immigrants began arriving in the early 18th century. By 1824, 11,000 immigrants had arrived and there was a lively trade in opium and spices, ivory and ebony and Chinese tea and silk. Most of the first Chinese to arrive in Singapore, Penang and Malacca were poor farmers and fishermen, mostly from Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Many were Hakka, Chinese tribesmen who migrated from northern China to Fujian. Many of the early Chinese married local Malay women and this union gave rise to a community of “Straits Chinese.” [Source: Library of Congress *]

By 1827, the Chinese had become the most numerous of Singapore's various ethnic groups. Many of the Chinese came from Malacca, Penang, Riau, and other parts of the Malay Archipelago to which their forebears had migrated decades or even generations before. More recent Chinese immigrants were mainly from the southeastern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian and spoke either the Hokkien, Teochiu, Cantonese, or Hakka dialects. In an extension of the common Chinese practice of sojourning, in which men temporarily left their home communities to seek work in nearby or distant cities, most migrants to Singapore saw themselves as temporary residents intending to return to home and family after making a fortune or at least amassing enough capital to buy land in their home district. Many did return; more did not. Even those who never returned usually sent remittances to families back home. *

Just as the European merchant community used Chinese middlemen in conducting their business, the Straits government relied on prominent Chinese businessmen to act as go-betweens with the Chinese community. In the early years, the Baba Chinese, who usually spoke English, served in this capacity. By mid-century, however, immigrant Chinese from the various dialect groups had begun to act as intermediaries. Some, such as Seah Eu Chin, who was the go-between with the Teochiu community, were well educated and from respected families. Seah, who made his fortune in gambier and pepper plantations, was an early member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, established in 1837, and a justice of the peace. Probably the wealthiest and most prominent Chinese immigrant in the nineteenth century was Hoo Ah Kay, nicknamed "Whampoa" after his birthplace, who served as a go-between with the Cantonese-speaking community. Hoo came as a penniless youth and made his fortune in provisioning ships, merchandising, and speculating in land. He later became the first Asian member of Singapore's Legislative Council and a member of the Executive Council. Despite their close connections to the European ruling class, Seah, Hoo, and other prominent Chinese carefully retained their Chinese culture and values, as did the less prominent immigrants. *

Life of the Chinese in Singapore

To help them face the dangers, hardships, and loneliness of the sojourner life, most men joined or were forced to join secret societies organized by earlier immigrants from their home districts. The secret societies had their origin in southern China, where, in the late seventeenth century, the Heaven, Earth, and Man (or Triad) Society was formed to oppose the Qing (1644-1911) dynasty. By the nineteenth century, secret societies in China acted as groups that organized urban unskilled labor and used coercion to win control of economic niches, such as unloading ships, transporting cotton, or gambling and prostitution. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The same pattern extended all over Southeast Asia, where immigrants joined secret societies whose membership was restricted to those coming from the same area and speaking the same dialect. Membership gave the immigrants some security, in the form of guaranteed employment and assistance in case of illness, but required loyalty to the leaders and payment of a portion of an already meager wage. Although the societies performed many useful social functions, they were also a major source of crime and violence. *

By 1860 there were at least twelve secret societies in Singapore, representing the various dialect and subdialect groups. Invariably friction arose as each society sought to control a certain area or the right to a certain tax farm. Civil war in China in the 1850s brought a flood of new migrants from China, including many rebels and other violent elements. Serious fighting between the various secret societies broke out in 1854, but it remained a domestic dispute within the Chinese community. Although not directed at the government or the non-Chinese communities, such outbreaks disrupted commerce and created a tense atmosphere, which led to the banning of secret societies in 1889. *

Most Chinese had a hard go of it in Singapore. If they survived the rigors of the voyage, they were forced to work at hard labor for a year or more to pay off their passage. Some were sent directly to the gambier plantations or even to the tin mines of the Malay Peninsula. Others were sent to toil on the docks or become construction workers. After paying off their passage, they began earning a meager wage, which, unless diverted for opium or gambling debts, was sent as a remittance to families back in China. Wives were in short supply, since very few Chinese women came to Singapore in the first few decades of the settlement. Even by the mid-1860s, the ratio of Chinese men to women was fifteen to one. *

Malays, Indians and Other Ethnic Groups in Early Singapore

Until about 1860, Malays were the second largest group. The followers of the temenggong mostly moved to Johore, where many of them died of smallpox. The orang laut by mid-century merged with other groups of Malay, who were drawn from Riau, Sumatra, and Malacca. Generally peaceful and industrious, the Malays usually worked as fishermen, boatmen, woodcutters, or carpenters. *

Most of the Bugis sea traders migrated to Macassar after the Dutch made it a free port in 1847, and by 1860 the Bugis population of Singapore had declined to less than 1,000. Small numbers of Arabs, Jews, and Armenians, many of them already well-to-do, were drawn to Singapore, where they amassed even greater wealth. Another small group numbered among Singapore's upper class were the Parsis, Indians of Iranian descent who were adherents of Zoroastrianism. *

Indians had become Singapore's second largest community by 1860, numbering more than 11,000. Some of these people were laborers or traders, who, like the Chinese, came with the hope of making their fortune and returning to their homeland. Some were troops garrisoned at Singapore by the government in Calcutta. Another group were convicts who were first brought to Singapore from the detention center in Bencoolen in 1825, after Bencoolen was handed over to the Dutch. Singapore then became a major detention center for Indian prisoners. Rehabilitation rather than punishment was emphasized, and prisoners were trained in such skills as brick making, carpentry, rope making, printing, weaving, and tailoring, which later would enable them to find employment. Singapore's penal system was considered so enlightened that Dutch, Siamese, and Japanese prison administrators came to observe it. Convict labor was used to build roads, clear the jungle, hunt tigers, and construct public buildings, some of which were still in use in 1989. After completing their sentences, most convicts settled down to a useful life in Singapore. As with Chinese and Europeans, Indian men far outnumbered women because few Indian women came to Singapore before the 1860s. Some Indian Muslims married Malay women, however, and their descendants were known as Jawi-Peranakan. *

Growth of the Chinese Community in Singapore

Although most Chinese immigrants merely passed through Singapore, the Chinese population of the island grew rapidly, from 34,000 in 1878 to 103,000 in 1888. The colonial government established the Chinese Protectorate in 1877 to deal with the serious abuses of the labor trade. William Pickering, the first appointed Protector of Chinese, was the first British official in Singapore who could speak and read Chinese. Pickering was given power to board incoming ships and did much to protect the newly arrived immigrants. In the early 1880s, he also extended his protection to Chinese women entering the colony by working to end forced prostitution. Because of his sympathetic approach and administrative ability, the protector soon spread his influence and protection over the whole Chinese community, providing arbitration of labor, financial, and domestic disagreements, thereby undermining some of the powers of the secret societies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although no longer able to engage in illegal immigration practices, the societies continued to cause problems by running illegal gambling houses and supporting large-scale riots that often paralyzed the city. In 1889, Governor Sir Cecil Clementi-Smith sponsored a law to ban secret societies, which took effect the following year. The result was to drive the societies underground, where many of them degenerated into general lawlessness, engaging in extortion, gambling operations, gang fights, and robbery. The power of the secret societies, however, was broken. *

The largest Chinese dialect group in the late nineteenth century were the Hokkien, who were traditionally involved in trade, shipping, banking, and industry. The next largest group, the Teochiu, engaged in agricultural production and processing, including gambier, pepper, and rubber production, rice and lumber milling, pineapple canning, and fish processing. Cantonese served as artisans and laborers and a few made their fortunes in tin. The two smallest groups, the Hakka and Hainanese, were mostly servants, sailors, or unskilled laborers. Because wealth was the key to leadership and social standing within the Chinese community at that time, the Hokkien dominated organizations such as the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and supplied most of the Chinese members of the Legislative Council and the Chinese Advisory Board. The latter, established in 1889 to provide a formal link between the British government of the colony and the Chinese community, served as a place to air grievances but had no power. *

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, China's ruling Qing dynasty began to take an interest in the Nanyang Chinese and sought to attract their loyalty and wealth to the service of the homeland. Chinese consulates were established in Singapore, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and other parts of the Nanyang. Whampoa was appointed Singapore's first consul in 1877. He and his successors worked diligently to strengthen the cultural ties of the Singapore Chinese to China by establishing a cultural club, a debating society, Singapore's first Chinese--language newspaper (Lat Pau), and various Chinese-language schools, in which the medium of instruction was Chinese. One of the most important functions of the consul, however, was to raise money for flood and famine relief in China and for the general support of the Qing government. With the upheaval in China following the Hundred Days' Reform Movement in 1898, and its suppression by the Qing conservatives, the Singapore Chinese and their pocketbooks were wooed by reformists, royalists, and revolutionaries alike. Sun Yat-sen founded a Singapore branch of the Tongmeng Hui, the forerunner of the Guomindang (Kuomintang--Chinese Nationalist Party), in 1906. Not until the successful Wuchang Uprising of 1911, however, did Sun receive the enthusiastic support of Singapore Chinese. *

Westernization of the Chinese Community in Singapore

The affluent among Singapore's Chinese community increasingly saw their prosperity and fortunes tied to those of the crown colony and the British Empire. Western education, customs, and pastimes were adopted, and the sons of Chinese businessmen were often sent to Britain for university training. The Straits Chinese British Association was formed in 1900 by Baba Chinese leaders to promote loyalty to the British Empire as well as to advance the education and welfare of Singapore's Chinese. Visiting British royalty were warmly received and British causes and victories enthusiastically supported. The Straits Chinese contributed generously to the British war effort in World War I. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although the Chinese upper class, particularly the Straits-born Chinese, grew increasingly Westernized, the homeland exerted a continuing pull on its loyalties that increased during this period. Visits to China by Singapore Chinese became more common with the advent of steamship travel. The relaxation by the 1870s of China's law forbidding emigration (repealed in 1893) and the protection afforded Singaporeans by British citizenship made it relatively safe for prosperous businessmen to visit their homeland and return again to Singapore. Upper-class Singapore Chinese frequently sent their sons to school in China and encouraged them to find brides there, although they themselves had often married local women. *

Growth of the Indian and Malay Communities in Singapore

Much smaller than the Chinese community and less organized in the late nineteenth century was the Singapore Indian community. By 1880 there were only 12,000 Indians, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, each group with its own temple, mosque, or church. South Indians tended to be shopkeepers or laborers, particularly dockworkers, riverboatmen, and drivers of the ox carts that were the major transport for goods to and from the port area. North Indians were usually clerks, traders, and merchants. Both groups came to Singapore expecting to return to their homeland and were even more transient than the Chinese. The British brought in Tamil convicts to work in the brick kilns in the 1920s. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Malays continued to be drawn to Singapore from all over the archipelago, reaching a population of 36,000 by 1901. Malay traders and merchants lost out in the commercial competition with Chinese and Europeans, and most Malay immigrants became small shopkeepers, religious teachers, policemen, servants, or laborers. The leadership positions in the Malay-Muslim community went to the Jawi-Peranakan, because of their facility in English, and to wealthy Arabs. In 1876 the first Malay-language newspaper of the region, Jawi Peranakan, was published in Singapore. Several other Malay-language journals supporting religious reform were begun in the early twentieth century, and Singapore became a regional focal point for the Islamic revival movement that swept the Muslim world at that time. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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