Commerce and Kinship
Personality, Lifestyle, and Cultural Affiliation
Seah Eu Chin was said to have been a strict father, who “took care to give his children a good Chinese education,” and who was a “careful and economical man, and never gave assistance to people unless he was sure they were deserving. Hence among those who did not get help, he was somewhat unpopular.” In the later years of his life, he spent about $1000 annually on charity, “chiefly among people of his native village.” 135 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 84. His personal parsimony was also an asset in his charitable endeavours.
Some historians have speculated about Seah Eu Chin’s cultural affiliation: to what extent did he assimilate Straits Chinese (Peranakan) characteristics into his life? Liang Yuansheng 136 梁元生 (Liang Yuansheng),“潮兴，潮落—早期新加坡华人社会中两个潮人家族之历史考察” in《潮州学国际研讨会论文集》（下册）Chaozhouxue guoji yantaohui lunwen ji (xiace), 郑良树 主编 [ed. Tay Lian Soo et al.] (Guangzhou: 曁南大学出版社, 1994), 828. suggests that through his marriage to Tan Ah Hun’s daughters, who were Straits-born Nonyas, he “broke through” into the Straits Chinese society, which then had a dominant economic and social position in the Chinese population. This is certainly possible, for Tan Ah Hun himself was Perak-born, so his family may have qualified as Straits Chinese. However, Liang is in error in saying that the Tan family was Hokkien, because they were Teochews, as Tan Seng Poh himself stated. 137 Straits Settlements Legislative Council Proceedings 1876, appendix 22, p.cclvi, National Archives of Singapore.
Lee Poh Ping makes a similar assertion, that Eu Chin, as a member of the mercantile elite, was culturally assimilated by the “Malacca Chinese” (i.e. the Babas), who through such assimilation held control of Chinese elite society. 138 Lee P.P., Chinese Society, 21-3, 65. He cites as his evidence Eu Chin’s business dealings with the Malacca Baba Yeo Kim Swee. Such assertions must be understood in the light of Lee’s attempt to prove his thesis of a cohesive “British Free Trade Society”, a social class among the Chinese that relied on free trade and good relations with the British for maintaining its wealth, in contrast to the “Pepper and Gambier Society” (no relation to the Kongkek; this term was coined by Lee and the similarity is an unfortunate coincidence) that subsisted on the lower rungs of the pepper and gambier economy (i.e. planters, petty merchants, labourers). Furthermore, whereas most Babas, especially those from Malacca, were Hokkien, not all of them were, and Eu Chin would not have spoken Baba Malay at home because that language was peculiar to the Hokkien Malaccan Babas.
It was unusual for Chinese immigrants to bring their families out of China, and those who married in the Straits, like Seah Eu Chin, usually married Nonyas because there were very few non-Straits-born women. Immigrants who married Nonyas frequently assimilated aspects of Straits Chinese culture, some even to the extent of “marrying into” their wives’ families. Eu Chin certainly did not, but what aspects of Straits Chinese culture did he adopt? One of his great-granddaughters-in-law, Chua Meng Khin (who married a grandson of Liang Seah) remembered wearing embroidered gowns that were made in the Nonya style at her wedding in 1939. 139 Oral history of Chua Meng Khin. She was born in 1921, and in 1939 married Seah Peng Hai, the 7th son of Seah Eng Tong, who was Seah Liang Seah’s 4th son. These gowns had been passed down and worn by consecutive daughters-in-law and thus were already quite old. The Nonya-styled bridal costume demonstrates the Straits Chinese influence on the Seah family’s practices, even though Eu Chin himself was not a Baba. Chua’s mother-in-law was born in China, but had adopted the practices of wearing the sarong and chewing betel nuts, under the influence of her own mother-in-law, Liang Seah’s wife. Straits Chinese cultural traits may thus have entered the household through marriage to Nonyas.
Aside from their language and material culture, the Straits Chinese were different from the immigrant Chinese because they had a longer-term stake in Singapore; compared to the newly immigrant Chinese, they were more British-oriented, and regarded their birthplace in the Straits as their home, rather than China. They were more focused on local, rather than Chinese, politics, and cooperated and identified with the authorities to improve their personal prestige and status. 140 Yong Ching Fatt, “Chinese Leadership in Nineteenth Century Singapore,” Journal of the Island Society 1 (1967): 16. Seah Eu Chin adopted this Straits Chinese attitude by consolidating his interests in Singapore rather than returning to China, hence he could emulate their success and gain a foothold into the elite. It is possible too that he modeled his political activity, in particular the way he cultivated relationships with the British, on successful Babas like Tan Tock Seng and his son Tan Kim Seng. Merchants whose businesses did well, like Eu Chin, were unwilling to return home to China because they were unable to give up their business, and had nothing better waiting at home; their social standing in China was also lower, at least in theory. 141 Yen, Social History, 8-9. An European observer, J.D. Vaughan had the following interpretation: “it is usual in the Straits to speak of well-to-do Chinamen as gentlemen but as a fact very few of them would be entitled to the distinction in China; … none would be allowed to stand upright in the presence of a Mandarin. Many Chinese and Babas however are fully entitled by their status in the Colony and the suavity of their manners, to the English title of Gentlemen.” 142 J.D. Vaughan, Manners and Customs of the Chinese in the Straits Settlements (1879; reprint, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1971), 22. Unlike many Chinese migrants, Seah Eu Chin was not subject to tactics that families in China used to ensure the return of their kinsmen, such as retaining wives at home, and arranging marriages with women in the home village before an immigrant’s departure. He was not known to have returned to China after settling in the Straits.
His own children also tended to identify with the Straits Chinese: Liang Seah was a founding member of the Straits Chinese British Association, now the Peranakan Association, and Peck Seah was a member of the first committee of the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School,143 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 305. set up primarily to educate Nonya girls. The grandsons also associated with Straits Chinese. One of Liang Seah’s sons, Eng Choe, was Captain of the Straits Chinese Recreation Club, where he was an active sportsman. 144 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 401-402. He was educated in England, where he also undertook his pupilage as an architect, 145 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 401; and Letter to Seah Liang Seah (1915), acc. 9/1990(3), microfilm NA1508, National Archives of Singapore. further demonstrating the increasing Straits Chinese (and hence pro-British) orientation of the family. The small size of the Straits Chinese community (or the Chinese elite, both Straits-born and not), and their connections with European business, are commonly held to be reasons for their economic success. 146 崔贵强[Cui Guiqiang],“19 世纪新加坡的华族巨商”《南洋文摘》Nanyang wenzhai 14, no. 3 (1973): 147.
If Eu Chin’s lifestyle was similar to other well-to-do merchants of his time, it was luxurious compared to that of most Chinese. They could afford rice with vegetables, meat with seasonings, and delicacies on special occasions. Many merchants hired horse-carriages to go about, and wore a long jacket or coat (called simply “baju”) with thick-soled shoes in addition to drawstring trousers. 147 Leung Yuen Sun, “Economic Life of the Chinese in Late 19th Century Singapore,” in Early Chinese Immigrant Societies: Case Studies from North America and British South-East Asia, ed. Lee Tai To (Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 1988); and Vaughan, Manners and Customs, 9. The surviving photograph of Seah Eu Chin shows him wearing a cap instead of going bare-headed. After his retirement from business, Lim Boon Keng claimed that Eu Chin’s time was “most happily spent in the cultivation of Chinese literature of which he was by no means a poor scholar.” 148 Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 84. Even in the 1890s, the Chinese in Singapore were said to lack books and culture, 149 Li Zhongjue, Xinjiapo fengtu ji, 166-7. so his scholarly inclinations set him apart. The Seah family residence was at No. 11 North Boat Quay, 150 Straits Times, 24 Sep 1883. though Seah Eu Chin’s address was listed at various times in the Singapore and Straits Directory as Elgin Bridge (probably the same place because that location was close to Elgin Bridge) or North Bridge Road, the latter his offices.
How rich was Seah Eu Chin?
Seah Eu Chin was a rich man, but how does his fortune translate into modern terms? Comparing economic value across different historical periods is a tricky business. Different metrics should be used depending on exactly what kind of comparison one is interested in. For example, the economic cost of a loaf of bread has not stayed the same over the past one hundred years; technological improvements mean that each one can be produced with significantly less resources and labor than was the case a century ago. For other goods, this may be different, and if we are interested in the cost of labor itself, or the value of a business or piece of infrastructure, then other types of comparisons are more appropriate, as explained in this essay on MeasuringWorth.com.
Seah Eu Chin's estate was valued at $1.35 million (Straits Dollars) at his death in 1883. We can gain a sense of the economic power this represents (using the rubric from MeasuringWorth.com), by comparing it to the gross domestic product (GDP) at the time. Unfortunately, such data are not available for that period, but we do have the total value of merchandise imported and exported through Singapore, which was $131.9 million in 1883 (Appendix A.1, in W.G. Huff, The economic growth of Singapore, Cambridge, 1994). This meant that his estate was worth about 1% of Singapore's annual trade at the time. Singapore's total trade in 2015 was worth $884 billion (Singapore Department of Statistics), so a comparable amount of economic power today would be about $9 billion.
His wealth can also be compared to the income of a typical labourer of the time as a rough measure of economic status. Seah Eu Chin himself, in his 1848 article on the Chinese in Singapore, said that plantation labourers were paid about $3 monthly. Construction workers (the closest modern equivalent) in Singapore earn as little as $480 to $800 a month (typically those from India and Bangladesh), whereas those from China earn about $1000 to $1500, according to a Straits Times article from 2012. If we round this to about $900 monthly, this represents a ratio of 300 relative to 1840s wages. Seah Eu Chin was enormously better-off than the typical labourer, as his estate would translate to $405 million.
None of these values are supposed to be exact, but only serve to translate these historical numbers into terms that we can understand. Even the very wealthy would have suffered from diseases and discomforts that are easily preventable today, and they would marvel at modern comforts that are easily accessible to the middle class today, like air conditioning and the Internet.
The affluence of the Seah family allowed them to partake of many past-times of the rich. While Eu Chin the patriarch was not known to have indulged in any of these recreations, his sons and grandsons were fully engaged in them. For example, his third son Song Seah was good enough at floral cultivation (or had hired good enough gardeners) to be among the winners of a Flower Show held in 1890. 151 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 259. The men could also join various social clubs; his grandson Eng Tong frequented the Wu Lu Club 吾庐俱樂部 in his retirement. 152 Oral history of Chua Meng Khin, reel 3. Horse-racing was popular among colonial society, and many wealthy men owned horses, which they raced for a number of named prizes. Tan Keng Swee, a son of Seng Poh, was the first Chinese to own race-horses, one of which won the Maharajah of Johore’s Cup in the Spring race meeting of 1879. Before him, there were already a number of prizes sponsored by Chinese merchants, such as the Cheang Hong Lim Cup (sponsored by its namesake) and the “Confucius” Cup (sponsored by a group of merchants). Tantalizingly, both the Kangchus of Johore and the Kongkek sponsored prizes – the Kang-chu Cup and the Kong-kek Cup – starting from 1880. 153 Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 154. Did their rivalries also extend to the race-course? Given that horse-racing was the preserve of the very wealthy, this indicates that by that late period, the kangchus and the Kongkek merchants no longer represented different class factions but had both become enriched to comparable levels of affluence by the profits of gambier and pepper agriculture (and the opium revenue farm) in Johore. While they may still have represented different factions with different bases of operation (Johore vs. Singapore respectively), they were now, quite literally, members of the same club. At least one of Eu Chin’s grandsons, Eng Kun (son of Cheo Seah), was also a horse-owner. Among the characters mentioned by Song Ong Siang in relation to horse racing, a sizeable fraction were Teochews who had made their fortunes from pepper and gambier.