Influence and Leadership

Cultivating Relations with the Colonial Government

Acting as a “Native Informant”



Uniquely among the first generation of Chinese immigrants to Singapore, Seah Eu Chin was the author of an article published in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia (JIA), 56 Siah U-Chin [Seah Eu Chin], “General Sketch of the Numbers, Tribes, and Avocations of the Chinese in Singapore,” Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia 2 (1848): 283-289. also known as “Logan’s Journal” after its proprietor and editor, J.R. Logan. His article has been cited in most works on the history of Chinese (and Chinese agriculture) in 19th century Singapore because of the valuable data it presents on the composition of the Chinese population at the time by dialect group and profession, 57 For example, Yen, Social History; Lee Poh Ping, Chinese Society; and J.C. Jackson, Planters and Speculators: Chinese and European Agricultural Enterprise in Malaya, 1786-1921, (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1956). though his numbers have been criticized on the basis of the results of the Dec 1849 Census. 58 E.g. see T. Braddell, “Notes on the Chinese in the Straits,” Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 9 (1855): 115-116. The 1849 Census lists 24 790 Chinese (Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 74) whereas Eu Chin’s list adds up to 39 700. According to the editor’s footnote (p.283), “this paper [was] composed of answers written by Siah U Chin to queries by Dr. Oxley, to whom we are indebted for it. The original Chinese has been literally translated. The estimate of the numbers of each tribe engaged in different occupations we have procured from Siah U Chin.”

早期新加坡华侨撰写的著作不多,佘有进的〈新加坡华人的人口、邦群、职业〉是其中一篇。此文章出版于 JR Logan 的《东印度杂志》(也称为 《Logan’s 杂志》)。它对本地历史是重要的参考材料,尤其关于当时华人各个邦群和职业的数量。佘有进是被 Oxley 医生访问的;访问之后,他的答案被翻译至英语。

Read the full text of the article by Seah Eu Chin

The article first lists the various dialect groups of Chinese in Singapore, then the different trades and occupations that they are engaged in. Next he describes the social conditions of their life here: marriage, the length of time that migrant workers stay here, the ill-effects of opium-smoking, the labour system on gambier plantations, sufferings of the labourers, clothing, housing, and finally wages. What interests historians more is the appendix wherein are the numbers of the different dialect groups – Hokkien, Teochew, Malacca Chinese (i.e. Straits-born Hokkiens), Macao Chinese (i.e. Cantonese), Khek (Hakka), and Hylam (Hainanese) – broken down by profession. Some trends are clear: Gambier and pepper planting and dealing were dominated by Teochews, whereas Hylams mostly worked as servants. The Malacca Chinese were mostly merchants and traders. Various trades and crafts like tailoring, boating, barbering, were also distributed unevenly among the groups. Eu Chin’s figures are off-the-cuff estimates, rounded to the nearest hundred and showing discrepancies with the Census figures, and should be treated as only giving a picture of relative abundances, instead of being exact statistics.


While his article has been used by historians to support their discussions on trade specialization by different pangs or the relative growth in numbers of the Chinese community over time, it also tells us something of the personality of the author: some oblique glimpses into his mode of thinking. After enumerating the jobs that Chinese here do, he then asserts that they can be “classed under four divisions”, 59 Siah, “General Sketch,” 284. using the traditional four-fold Chinese hierarchy of literati (shi, 士), farmers (nong, 农), craftsmen (gong, 工), and merchants (shang, 商), with the literati (in China, these were the scholar-officials but in this immigrant community he identified them as “those whose profession is to teach”) on the top and the merchants the least well regarded. This traditional hierarchy is usually considered to be inapplicable to the immigrant community in early Singapore, 60 See Yen, Social History, ix (Foreword by Wang Gungwu). Yen hypothesizes that there were shang, shi, and gong in that order of dominance, with the shi represented by clerical workers and account-keepers, but Wang contends that this is not a real shi class in the sense of the scholar-official elite of China. so Eu Chin may have been trying to shoehorn the structure of Chinese society here with the ideal that he had learned as a schoolboy. In fact, when he enumerates the various professions, he puts “School-masters” and “Writers” first, representing the shi class, but follows them with “Cashiers” and “Shop-keepers”, who are clearly members of the shang, and then various trades like “Apothecaries”, “Gold-smiths”, “Fishermen”, etc. to represent the gong, and only mentions “Cultivators of plantations” (i.e. the nong) towards the last third of his listing. Among those lower in his list than them are “Play actors”, “Carriers of burdens”, “idle vagabonds who have no work and of whom there are not a few”, and his contempt is saved for the last-mentioned, “those villains the thieves.” The order in this list probably gives a more realistic reflection of his (and the wider community’s) relative regard for the various occupations.

He goes on to lament the problem of opium among Chinese labourers: “Incalculably great is the bane of opium. It urges the robber to death. It hurries the labourer to destruction by the jaws of tigers. Grievous to the last degree is this fact. Philanthropists of this age does not this rend your hearts, and affect your eyes? Does it not lead you to lament their stupidity, and to contrive means by which you may rescue them?” This is ironic, because his brother-in-law, Tan Seng Poh, would later make his fortune from controlling the Opium Farm and integrating its operations with the pepper and gambier agricultural economy in Singapore and Johore; most of Eu Chin’s sons also eventually became partners in the Farm in later years. However, Tan Seng Poh’s involvement in opium and revenue farming only started in the early 1860s, 61 Carl A. Trocki, “Tan Seng Poh,” in The Rise and Fall of Revenue Farming, ed. John Butcher and Howard Dick (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 249. long after this article was written (1848). We do not know what Eu Chin would have said, had he known that his own family would become intimately involved in the trafficking of the “bane of opium”. In his rhetoric, which pins the blame for the opium problem on the “stupidity” of the addicts, Eu Chin resembles the European imperialists who ultimately profited from the opium trade. They saw opium as an Oriental vice, because it had long been used in Asia as medicine, despite the fact that the massive spread of opium from the late 17th century onwards as a recreational drug was due mostly to European colonial enterprise, and not any especially Oriental weakness for opium. 62 Carl A. Trocki, Opium, Empire, and the Global Political Economy: a Study of the Asian Opium Trade 1750-1950 (London: Routledge, 1999), 6 et seq.

Did Seah Eu Chin write one article or two?


Most books follow Song Ong Siang (1923, p.73) in also attributing an earlier article on remittances published in 1847 63 “Annual Remittances by Chinese Immigrants in Singapore to their Families in China,” Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia 1 (1847): 35-37, with an accompanying picture to Seah Eu Chin. The article has no byline, but I do not believe that it could have been written by Eu Chin or any Chinese for that matter because of its content and style. Most likely it was written by J.R. Logan himself, who also composed other unattributed pieces in his Journal. Some phrases in the text would not have been used by a Chinese describing his own community:

根据宋旺相著的《新加坡华人百年史》,1847年在《东印度杂志》出版的〈新加坡华人至中国的汇款〉也是佘有进的著作。此文章的作者不详,但我认为它不可能是佘有进的著作,想必是 JR Logan (东印度杂志的出版者)自己所写的,因为文章内比较接近一位欧洲人的用语:

“These persons frequently for years exclusively pursue this business [viz. delivering remittances]: not the least remarkable of the thousand-and-one modes by which the ingenuity of the Chinese in making money develops itself…”

“…to one of the public letter-writers whose stalls, like those of similar professors in many cities of Continental Europe, are to be found in the streets….”

It has been so often attributed to Seah Eu Chin because Eu Chin’s own article is labeled as the second in a series on “The Chinese in Singapore”, with a footnote reference by the editor to the Remittances article (as the first in the series), leading readers to think that Eu Chin was responsible for the earlier article as well.


A Chinese was responsible, however, for the drawing that accompanies the article, purportedly of a letter writer’s stall, captioned by an editor’s footnote expressing the opinion of the “rude sketch” that it was “abounding in the usual defects of the Chinese pencil.” It is, however, curious that the drawing should set the letter-writer’s stall, with table and full-backed chair, in an idyllic garden pavilion, although the text states that “the Chinese letter-writer’s stall is a very simple affair” and that “these stalls are usually placed at the side of the street… in the public verandahs… under trees, or in the shadow of walls.” 64 “Annual Remittances,” 36.

This is the one authentic piece of writing by Seah Eu Chin that has survived to the present day. Lim Boon Keng claims that “he was an indefatigable student even in his old days, and those who knew him well affirm that his compositions and verses were excellent.” 65 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 84. However, no traces of these other compositions remain. This article shows how he acted as an informant for Europeans curious about the peoples they were encountering in the course of the colonial project. In fact, it was an European, Dr. Oxley, who took the initiative in seeking this information by posing the questions to which Eu Chin composed replies. Eu Chin became much more active in performing services for the government from the early 1850s onwards; given that this article was published in 1848, it may mark the beginning of his involvement with the colonial authorities as an informant and recognized community leader.


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