Commerce and Kinship
Seah Eu Chin 佘有进 3See box below was born on the 7th day of the 7th month of the yi-chou 乙丑 year, the 10th year of the reign of the Jiaqing 嘉庆 emperor 4Lin W.C. [Lim Boon Keng], “Some Local Chinese Worthies: I. Seah Eu Chin,” Straits Chinese Magazine 3 (1899): 80. Lim Boon Keng’s account appears to be the basis (with some additional details from Buckley’s Anecdotal History) for Song Ong Siang’s account in his History (19-22), which in turn served as the basis for almost all future secondary accounts, both in English and Chinese. in the Qing empire, equivalent to 30th August 1805 in the Common Era. The famous Qianlong 乾隆 emperor, whose long reign of 60 years saw an unprecedented expansion of China’s borders, had died only 6 years ago. These few years were the calm before the storm in China’s tumultuous 19th century; the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, and more political turmoil still lay in the future.
Eu Chin’s home village was Guek-po 5Chinese terms will be introduced in both Teochew and Mandarin (pinyin) transliteration, but the system for Teochew will not follow any one system – usually I use whatever most commonly appears in print. 玉浦 in the subprefecture Theng Hai 澄海 of Teochew 潮州 prefecture in Guangdong 广东 (Canton) province, Southern China. His father, named Seah Keng Liat 佘庆烈 6潘醒农 [Pan Xingnong],《马来亚潮侨通鉴》Malaiya chaoqiao tongjian (Singapore: 南岛出版社, 1950), 78. Pan probably back-transliterated his name from the anglicized “Keng Liat”. , was secretary to the yamen of P’o Leng 普宁 subprefecture. This was a subofficial position in the civil service bureaucracy, so his family was of some social standing but hardly rich. His home village, having been swallowed up by the explosive urbanisation of modern times, now lies within the boundaries of Swatow 汕头 City.
Seah Eu Chin’s Name
Seah Eu Chin 佘有进 is the name that he used in public life, and how he is generally known. However he also had a genealogical name, Seah Pang Chong 佘邦从 Walter Lim., where the character 邦 identifies the generation that he belonged to. All members of that generation in the clan would have the same character as part of their genealogical name. The generational character is traditionally taken in sequence from the characters in a poem specific to a particular clan. His name shows that he belongs to the 21st generation from the founder of the lineage. His genealogical name is attested on his grave inscription, and also in a Chinese imperial patent conferring an official title on Seah Eu Chin, his wives, and his son Seah Liang Seah (whose own genealogical name was Seah Miang Riang 佘勉然 ). The original of this patent is long gone, but the text of the patent was copied and published in the book 《马来亚潮侨通鉴》 by Phua Chay Long 潘醒农. A detailed explanation, including information on Seah family members buried in Bukit Brown cemetery, is given by
In English language materials, his name has been transliterated in many different ways in many different places. For example, in the Singapore and Straits Directory of different years (and frequently within the pages of the same year’s volume) his name has been spelt as: Seah Euchin, Seah Uchin, Seah Uh Chin, Sea Eu Chin, Seah U Chin, Seah Uching, Seah Eu Chin, or Sea Eu Chin.
Little is recorded about Eu Chin’s youth except that he had a classical Chinese education. This was expected of families that wanted to prepare their sons for the civil service examinations in the hope that they might become officials. Such an education required some wealth: it might take several generations for a poor family to accumulate the resources to support a son in his studies. The high ratio of candidates to available official positions was also very high, so success was never assured.
If examinations and officialdom were the path that he was being prepared for, then his emigration to Southeast Asia was an unusual event. 7Ivy Maria Lim Mui Ling, “In Between Worlds: Teochew Chinese Leadership in Colonial Singapore” (M.A. diss., National Institute of Education, Singapore, 1998). Lim speculates that he emigrated because he had failed his examinations and wanted to seek his fortunes elsewhere. However, being from the coastal Teochew prefecture, and in a village close to the port town of Swatow, predisposed Eu Chin to the possibility of migration. The attitude of successive Chinese imperial governments towards emigration underwent cycles of permissiveness and restriction, depending on which had the stronger pull: the economic benefits of maritime trade, or the fear of external threats and internal rebellion. By Eu Chin’s time, emigration happened regardless of central policy, especially in the coastal provinces of China, because maritime trade was an integral part of the coastal economy. Both appointed officials and local elites (comprising the literati and the merchant classes) had a vested interest in the maritime economy and thus would not restrict it. 8Philip A. Kuhn, Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 22. These coastal provinces would later see the largest outflow of Chinese labour in the nation’s history, after the European colonial enterprises around the world generated massive demand for cheap labour in the latter half of the 19th century. This dispersal established much of the present Chinese diaspora around the world. The long history of foreign trade along the South Chinese coast is the context in which Eu Chin’s story began.
The internal dynamics of local elites were also complicated. In theory, the literati officials who led the bureaucracy were of high social standing, whereas merchants were on the lowest rungs of the Confucian hierarchy, beneath farmers and craftsmen. In practice, merchants, through their wealth and combination into trade guilds, were participating members of the local elites, and held considerable authority and power in conjunction with the literati and bureaucracy. This was a synergistic interaction: the literati had officially recognized social prestige, while the merchants had wealth and the opportunities that wealth presents. “Literati were demeaned if they traded on their own account, but they could and did use merchant front men or kinsmen to handle their investments, another way for merchants to partake of the status and power of the literati. Officials served as silent partners in commerce, taking their share of profits in return for protection.” 9Kuhn, Chinese Among Others, 23. Therefore, if his father had hoped that Eu Chin would rise to become a member of the literati elite, his venture into the vulgar world of commerce might have been deemed a shameful event and could explain why Eu Chin was not known to have returned to China after settling in Singapore, even for a visit, unlike what most of his contemporaries aspired to do.