Commerce and Kinship
Marriage and Family
Seah Eu Chin married Tan Meng Guet,117aThe names of his wives were not preserved in published materials but are attested on his tombstone inscription. the eldest daughter of Tan Ah Hun, who was the first Kapitan China of Perak, in either 1837 or 1838. 118 Buckley (Anecdotal History, vol.1, 151) gives the date as 1837, whereas Lin (“Local Chinese Worthies,” 82) gives 1838. Unfortunately, she died a few months to a year later from smallpox. He then married Tan Meng Choo, the younger sister of his late wife, celebrating the marriage the following year. Tan Ah Hun may have been the one who sought out Seah Eu Chin as a suitable husband for his daughters. 119 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 82. Tan was appointed as Kapitan China in 1830s, and was also a revenue farmer in Singapore and Johore, 120 Wong Choon San, A Gallery of Chinese Kapitans (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1964), 68. and was therefore familiar with the community of merchants in the south. Tan Seng Poh, Eu Chin’s brother-in-law who would later become so prominent in Singapore, accompanied his sister to Singapore for her marriage, being about 10 years old at the time (he was born in 1828). He stayed there for his education, and eventually took over his father’s revenue farm operations, later heading the opium farming syndicate. 121 Ibid., see also Trocki, “Tan Seng Poh,” 249-254, for a short biography Trocki speculates that Seng Poh was brought up in Eu Chin’s household because his father may have died shortly after the marriage. In any case, the two had a close business relationship and mutually beneficial interests when Seng Poh grew up.
Because Tan Ah Hun had commercial interests in Singapore, either party would have heard of each other through their business contacts, and the marriage proposal was likely made through those channels. Seng Poh being sent to Singapore to be schooled and to acquire a practical business education demonstrates that the marriage also forged a business relationship, beneficial to both parties. Tan Seng Poh himself had two sons, Keng Swee and Keng Wah. He died four years before Eu Chin on 18 Dec 1879. 122 Wong, Chinese Kapitans, 68.
Seah Eu Chin’s second wife bore him four sons and three daughters; of the three daughters, two died young. 123 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 83. His four sons (in order of birth) were Seah Cheo Seah (石城 1846 -1885),124 Buckley (Anecdotal History, vol. 1, 151) states that he died in 1885 died 39. Liang Seah (连城 1850-1925), Song Seah (松城 d.1910) and Peck Seah (柏城 d.1939). According to Lim Boon Keng, 125 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 83. Also see the family tree in I.M. Lim, “Teochew Chinese Leadership,” appendix 1, compiled from various sources, and Straits Settlements Law Reports, vol. 4 (1897): 25, which quotes Eu Chin’s will. his surviving daughter Sin Seah (Chinese characters uncertain) married Tan Chek Thoo, a High Street merchant, whereas Pan Xingnong in his Chaoqiao Tongjian 126 Pan, Chaoqiao Tongjian, 223. states that his son-in-law was Tan Swee Kee, one of the founders and directors of the Teochew Sze Hai Tong Bank and a business partner of Eu Chin’s youngest son Peck Seah.
Liang Seah was educated at home in Chinese by a private tutor supervised by his father, and also learnt English for a while at St. Joseph’s Institution. 127 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 212. The rest of his sons presumably underwent a similar education, and indeed Song Seah, as mentioned above, donated money to St. Joseph’s. Later inscriptions also record donations from Seah Eng Kiat and the Opium and Spirit Farms, showing that the Seah family sent at least some of its sons to be educated at the Institution for some generations. By educating his sons, even partially, in English, Eu Chin groomed them for positions that would straddle both the Chinese and British spheres. Liang Seah married at 17 and thereafter worked in his father’s business, making it clear that Eu Chin’s aim, like most Chinese merchants, was to train his sons as his successors. In at least one branch of the family (Liang Seah’s grandsons), the boys continued to be educated in English schools and receive a Chinese tutor at home, who was hired from the Teochews’ Tuan Mong School. They generally stopped school when they were married around the age of 21. 128 Oral history of Chua Meng Khin (recorded 18 Nov 1986), no. 724, reel 5, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore. According to a British traveler’s account, Liang Seah “spoke English perfectly, but he was thoroughly a Chinese, although, curiously enough, he had never yet been in China.” 129 Mrs. Florence Candy, To Siam and Malaya in the Duke of Sutherland’s Yacht, Sans Peur, quoted in Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 213. And while Liang Seah was photographed dressed in Chinese clothes, his youngest brother Peck Seah appears in surviving photographs in the dress of an Englishman: waistcoat, bowtie, cane, and, in one picture, even holding a cigar in the left hand; the sons of subsequent generations mostly wore Western clothing.
Eu Chin and other Chinese merchants of the time saw no contradiction in educating their sons at a Christian mission school like St. Joseph’s while continuing to engage in traditional Chinese religion and rites, as required by his leadership of the Ngee Ann Kongsi. Other leading Chinese also practiced traditional religion despite being educated in mission schools, and Tan Tock Seng was said to have been unwilling to accept Christianity because he was head of the Thian Hock Kheng temple. 130 庄饮永 [David K.Y. Chng],《新甲华人史新考》Xinjia huaren shi xinkao (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1990), 171. See also Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 292, on the ‘Isaiah disclosures’. These Chinese leaders were prevented by their position from accepting a “foreign” religion because they wanted to maintain their leadership position, which was bound to the execution of religious rites.
At home, he would certainly have used Teochew to communicate with his family members. His sons and grandsons, likewise, must have used Teochew in private life and English in public life. Having lived so long in Singapore, and having participated in local trade in his youth, he would also have known some Malay, as was common for most Straits-dwelling Chinese. 131 Li Zhongjue, Xinjiapo fengtu ji, 166. Eu Chin, “as head of the family, would be informed of the exact position of all members of the household.” 132 Straits Settlements Law Reports 4: 29. His sons and their families lived under the same roof as he in their house, the Boat Quay mansion, at least until his death. Liang Seah, for example, bought Whampoa’s (Hoo Ah Kay) old estate at Bendemeer and his family branch moved there to set up a new household. Living under the same roof allowed the patriarch to exercise control over the family, even over grown sons with families of their own.
In his will dated 6 Jan 1881, Eu Chin left his estate to his four sons in the following proportions: Cheo Seah 4.5, Liang Seah 2.5, Song Seah and Peck Seah 1.5 each. Payments from his estate to his sons were to be made according to Chinese years. Should his sons die, their respective “male issue” (i.e. sons) would share in their father’s portion. This information was made public because of the case of Seah Liang Seah v. Seah Eng Kiat and others (In the matter of the estate of Seah Eu Chin, deceased).133 Straits Settlements Law Reports 4: 22-43. The legitimate sons of Cheo Seah contended that the illegitimate sons (their half-brothers) were ineligible to partake of their late father’s share in their grandfather’s estate. Song Ong Siang, a lawyer by profession, was an editor of the volume of the Straits Settlements Law Reports that reported this case, but chose not to include these potentially embarrassing facts in his One Hundred Years’ History. Inheritance issues are frequently a source of contention in families, and the Seah family was no exception, particularly when a fortune of $1 350 000 (at the time of Eu Chin’s death) was at stake.
The early death of Eu Chin’s eldest son, Cheo Seah, caused the de-facto headship of the Seah family to pass through the lineage of Liang Seah, the second son, instead. In 1933, Liang Seah’s son Eng Tong was manager of Chop Chin Heng, the company that Eu Chin founded, still located at No. 4 North Bridge Road. 134 “Straits Settlements Ordinance to Incorporate the Ngee Ann Kongsi, no. 5 of 1933” (25 Feb 1933), p. 9, National Archives of Singapore. Inheriting both the family company and the leadership of the Ngee Ann Kongsi established him as his grandfather’s successor.