Commerce and Kinship
Seah Eu Chin’s Legacy
In his financing of pepper and gambier planting, Eu Chin was responsible for opening up the interior of Singapore island, and for the clearing of large tracts of forest for agriculture. However, the deleterious effect of this agriculture on the land exhausted it, leaving behind lallang grassland and belukar (secondary forest) in its wake, constituting a major environmental impact on the island. Gambier and pepper plantations covered much of rural Singapore, and the kangchu system that operated so successfully in Johore also operated in Singapore, as evidenced by the names of places like Choa Chu Kang and Yio Chu Kang (see box What was the Kangchu System?). Hence the settlement pattern of Singapore’s interior was partly a consequence of Eu Chin’s involvement in gambier and pepper planting. Fittingly, the last tiger in Singapore was killed in Choa Chu Kang, for the ravages of tigers was one of the major perils for plantation labourers in the early years.
The impact of pepper and gambier agriculture extended beyond Singapore into Johore, where the Ngee Heng Kongsi became the de facto government for Chinese who worked in the network of kangs under the Kangchu system, participating in the gambier and pepper economy that Eu Chin, as a town trader and financier, sat at the top of. Hence he had an indirect role in the opening up of Johore to planting, and in its settlement by mainly Teochew Chinese. The legacy of gambier and pepper agriculture is still felt by the Chinese of Johore today. 170 see P.H.P. Lim, “Continuity and Connectedness,” and《柔佛潮人史料合作计划工作纪行》新山 : 南方学院, 2003. Beyond that direct impact, by organizing the pepper-and-gambier dealers into the Kongkek and nurturing the career of Tan Seng Poh, he set up the conditions for the amalgamation of opium farming and pepper-and-gambier agricultural interests. Aside from the human impact of these enterprises, revenue farming was also a major source of income for the Straits Settlements government, so in a wider context, British colonialism was supported as much by private immigrant ventures as it was by industrialized European-run resource extraction and commerce. Colonialism is often conceptualized as exploitation of “foreign” peoples by the West – but here we see that, at least for certain classes of society, it was potentially a mutualistic (if unequal) relationship between colonist and colonial.