Commerce and Kinship
Revenue Farming and Later Years
Property and the Risks of Enterprise
As Eu Chin’s businesses matured, he moved his base of operations from South Boat Quay, where goods were actively loaded and unloaded, towards the metaphorical and geographical center of the town. He built houses at the end of the “Bridge”, i.e. Elgin Bridge. His North Bridge Road houses and offices were located near the Singapore River, in the vicinity of High Street, according to addresses found in commercial directories of the time. This location was appropriate because at this later stage he had moved into financing and other business not so directly concerned with the physical movement of goods. This was prime real estate, in large lots close to the government offices to the Southeast, and the Assembly House to the Northwest. 107 “Plan of Town of Singapore and its environs, surveyed 1842 by the Government Surveyor” (1854), no. 2154, Map Collection, National Archives of Singapore.
The price of land in Singapore appreciated as the settlement grew, and early settlers who bought land in the early days, when it was cheap, and then built on it, could see their property grow in value and stand to reap profits from their foresight – or good fortune in timing. Eu Chin was no different; he bought up property in town throughout his career, probably investing in real estate for supplementary income to his primary ventures in agriculture. One could say that the fortune he made from gambier and pepper provided him with enough capital to deal in real estate. However, this was not without its risks. Land disputes could lead to lawsuits and bad falling-outs between former partners, because the informality of the settlement’s “frontier days” invited later contention.
In 1877, one such incident arose to “harass” Eu Chin. 108 “Claim of $6843 on Seah Eu Chin for encroachment on Gaol [sic] Land. Forwards memorial from Mr. Euchin objecting thereto. Submits explanations.” (Includes letter from Col. Anson [the then Acting Governor, Straits Settlements] to Colonial Secretary and a report by Colonial Engineer, Straits Settlements with an attached plan, covered by a minute of the Attorney-General, T[homas]. Braddell) (file dated 14 Aug 1879), series CO 273/98 (Colonial Office correspondence), no. 7965, dispatch 136 (p.657), Public Record Office, UK. He had bought in 1870 a parcel of land in North Boat Quay from the executors of the late Syed Ally bin Mohamed Al Junied. 109 Modern transliteration of his name: Said Ali bin Muhammad Al-junied, nephew of Syed Sharif Omar Aljunied, an Arab trader who founded the Aljunied clan in Singapore, for whom Aljunied Road is named. The original parcel of land owned by Said Ali was part of a government grant dated 28 Jan 1827 and numbered 217 by the land office, and was bounded by High Street to the North and the Singapore River to the South. It was now divided into two portions, and Eu Chin had bought the portion fronting the river for $43,600. In 1877, however, the land office discovered that the lot was larger than the size specified in the original grant, and demanded $6843, at the rate of $1 per square foot, on 31 Dec for the additional encroachment.
Seah Eu Chin was not responsible for this encroachment, however. As part of the terms of Said Ali’s original lease, he was to build a sea wall and quay along his river frontage at his own expense when called to do so, presumably together with the other land owners fronting the river. This work was carried out in 1838 under the direction of the Government Surveyor, who caused the wall to be built “in a line not parallel to the boundary of the grant,” such that a small triangle of land outside the original land parcel boundary was reclaimed and later built upon by Said Ali. Eu Chin hence disclaimed responsibility for the supposed encroachment, and argued that he only became aware of the disparity between the original grant and the land he bought when the demand for payment was issued from the land office. He added that when High Street was altered, around the same time that the sea wall was built, it encroached upon the land parcel without compensation. Hence, the land reclaimed from the river somehow made up for what had been taken away by the road, in Eu Chin’s opinion. Because he was unwilling to pay the amount demanded, he first submitted a petition to the Governor of the Straits Settlements but instead received a formal notice of action. Therefore, he went over their heads to appeal to the Colonial Secretary, by which time it was already 1879.
Although this seems like an ordinary legal dispute, it gives some insight into the way that administrative matters were handled in the early days of the settlement, and into the rhetoric of race relations between the European colonial government and Asian settlers. In his petition, Eu Chin reflected on the informal way that governmental matters were handled in the past: “At the time of the reclamation (1838) land in Singapore was of comparatively small value and grants were frequently if not generally transferred by a few words written on a slip of paper or a memo endorsed on the ground that the property on that lease had been sold to the purchaser and it would have been surprising to find that the land department had issued a grant for so small a portion of land.” It was certainly to Eu Chin’s advantage to cast his memories in this manner. In his report on the dispute, Thomas Braddell, the Attorney-General for the Straits Settlements, took issue with Eu Chin’s recollections 110 Report by the Attorney-General, T. Braddell (file dated 30 May 1879), series CO 273/101 (Colonial Office correspondence), no. 8822 (p.392), Public Record Office, UK. Braddell happened to be in England on leave when Eu Chin’s petition was received in London, so he was asked to write a report which is cited above. and insisted that “a matter of such importance could not have been settled by the department officers but must have been submitted to the Governor, through the Resident Councilor, for his sanction, and consequently a clear record of the transaction would be forthcoming.” Eu Chin also tried to plead for relief from such “harassment” because he was an old man. He attempted to manipulate the rhetoric by which Europeans regarded their dealings with Asians, by pointing out that:
“... the grant of this land and the subsequent change in the boundary … took place in the early days of the Colony when land was of little value and formalities in dealings with if little thought of if not absolutely unnecessary and the word of a government officer [i.e. an European] looked upon, by Asiatics at least, as equivalent to the most formal document.”
Braddell was insistent, however, that “[his] own experience goes to show that Asiatics are perfectly prepared to enforce and do enforce whatever rights or claims they may have against the Government and have no grounds to [illegible] such a defence as this against the rights of the Government.” He cites concerns from colonial officials on the ground (Colonel Anson and Major McNair) who were worried that acceding to Eu Chin’s petition would encourage more such actions in the future, such that government interests would suffer and be inconvenienced. He recommended that if leniency were to be shown, the government should only reduce the amount demanded to be proportional to what was originally paid for the land, rather than asking for payment in 1877 prices.
This exchange shows how wealthy Asians in colonial society used their access to European legal advice to actively negotiate the terms of their relationship with the colonial administration and Europeans in general. Eu Chin likewise tried negotiating a better deal for himself when the government demanded payment in 1855 for land occupied by plantations. At the same time, Braddell suspected that Eu Chin was resisting this claim only because his (European) solicitors were encouraging him to. European lawyers were often hired by wealthy Asians, but their role in mediating interactions between them and the colonial government has not been well-explored by historians.
Seven years after Eu Chin’s death, Yeo Kian Guan, the son of Yeo Kim Swee and administrator of his father’s estate, brought a suit against Seah Liang Seah, Eu Chin’s son and executor. Kian Guan wanted to recover property owned by the Eu Chin estate that he claimed was only being held for Kim Swee by Eu Chin as a trustee. 111 Singapore Law Journal and Reporter 3, no. 25 (Jun 1890): 9. Eu Chin had been named as an executor and trustee in Kim Swee’s will, and after Kim Swee’s death, Eu Chin bought property from Kim Swee’s estate. The central issue, as the judge recognized, was whether Eu Chin was simultaneously acting as an executor and trustee and buying the property, in which case the transactions would be illegal and the property would have to be returned to Kian Guan. It was found, though, that Eu Chin did not prove the will, and did not act as trustee, hence his purchases were legitimate and the estate did not have to return them to Kian Guan. 112 Singapore Law Journal and Reporter 3, no. 25 (Jun 1890): 10. The case was decided in the Supreme Court on 21 Apr 1890 in Liang Seah’s favour. 113 Singapore Law Journal and Reporter 3, no. 25 (Jun 1890): 10. After the decision,
“the Chinese showed their feelings of joy and satisfaction that a Court of law had upheld the honourable character of Seah Eu Chin, which had been impugned by the nature of the plaintiff’s claim, by giving a wayang [operatic performance] at Mr. Liang Seah’s house to which Europeans were invited, and further, by the presentation of a silk scroll on which were set forth the virtues of the late Seah Eu Chin.” 114 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 262.
This episode shows that: (i) Eu Chin’s name was still respected in the community, (ii) Liang Seah was seen as a person of influence such that many Chinese would wish to express their good wishes to him (rather than support Kian Guan’s action) and seek his good favour by praising his late father, and (iii) power and legitimation were seen to be in the hands of Europeans (at least in the eyes of Song, who wrote this passage), because of their acceptance of the colonial Court’s decision and the invitation of Europeans to Liang Seah’s home for the celebration.
The evidence presented in the case also help us reconstruct some of Eu Chin’s commercial dealings, in an era from which surviving business records are rare. Aside from the property Eu Chin bought after Kim Swee’s death, Kian Guan had also hoped to recover another set bought in 1845, when Kim Swee was still alive and active in business. The Seah family, however, was able to produce written evidence that ownership was legally transferred to him by Kim Swee. At this time (in the 1840s), both Kim Swee and Eu Chin “were mutually engaged in large land transactions.” 115 Singapore Law Journal and Reporter 3, no. 25 (Jun 1890): 10. The property bought up by Eu Chin from Kim Swee’s estate gives us a flavour of what a rich merchant of that period would have held: a plantation and houses, a house and ground at Old Bridge Road, houses and land in North Boat Quay, South Bridge Road, Upper Circular Road, and Carpenter Street. 116 Singapore Law Journal and Reporter 3, no. 25 (Jun 1890): 9. Clearly much of the wealth that the merchant class held was in the form of real estate – an astute investment because as the colony grew and matured, its value could only appreciate.
From this case we also see how the merchant class, or at least the wealthiest among them, engaged European lawyers not only to deal with the government, but also with each other. They took their disputes to the colonial courts, rather than resolving conflicts informally within the institutions of the Chinese community. Both sides had engaged prominent European lawyers: “the then Attorney-General, now Chief Justice of Ceylon, represented the claimant so that it could not be urged that his cause was not well looked after.” 117 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 85. Their reasons for doing so are clear: for the commercial transactions to hold water they had to be legally sound, therefore any cautious businessman, European, Chinese, or otherwise, would take care to have his deeds and titles drafted by a competent lawyer.