Influence and Leadership


Cultivating Leadership Position within the Chinese Community


The Ngee Ann Kongsi and the Watt Hai Cheng Beo


Seah Eu Chin consolidated his bàng position early through the Ngee Ann Kongsi, which was the earliest Teochew charitable organization, thereby identifying himself with the Teochew community and its interests. Until recent decades, Chinese society in Singapore was segregated by dialect differences, 7 Yen Ching-Hwang, “Early Chinese Clan Organizations in Singapore and Malaya, 1819-1911,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12, no. 1 (1981): 69. and such segregation extended to trades and professions. Being an acknowledged Teochew leader was advantageous to Eu Chin because the Teochews controlled pepper and gambier planting and trading, where his business interests lay. Hence, his community leadership and mercantile leadership of that trade went hand in glove.

In 1830, Seah Eu Chin, with representatives of the other 12 major surname groups of the Teochews, namely Lim 林 Lín, Heng 王 Wáng, Tan 陈 Chén, Quek 郭 Guō , Low 刘 Líu, Chia 蔡 Cài, Goh 吴 , Teo 张 Zhāng, Yeo 杨 Yáng, Ng 黄 Huáng, Sim 沈 Shěn, and Chan 曾 Zēng, formed the Ngee Ann Kun 义安群 Yì'ān Qún (the old name for the Teochew prefecture in China) to conduct religious rites for the worship of two major deities, the male Xuántiān Shàngdì 玄天上帝 and the female sea deity Māzǔ 妈祖 (also known as 天后圣母 Tiānhòu Shèngmǔ), and to perform burials for Teochew immigrants who died in Singapore. 8 The history of the Ngee Ann Kongsi is summarized in many sources. The original account appears to be the manuscript 义安公司始末记 in the Ngee Ann Kongsi membership register of 1933 (National Archives of Singapore). See also 潘醒农 [Pan Xingnong],《潮侨溯源记》Chaoqiao suyuan ji (River Edge, New Jersey: 八方文化企业公司, 1993), 111-113; 吴华 [Wu Hua],《新加坡华族会馆志》Xinjiapo huazu huiguan zhi (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1975), 62-64; 潘醒农 [Pan Xingnong],《马来亚潮侨通鉴》Malaiya chaoqiao tongjian (Singapore: 南岛出版社, 1950), 331-333; and the “Straits Settlements Ordinance to Incorporate the Ngee Ann Kongsi”, 25 Feb 1933, National Archives of Singapore. The Kongsi itself holds many manuscript records of its history, but almost all of these are from the post-1927 era, during and after the challenge and takeover of the organization by the faction led by Lim Nee Soon. At this time, Eu Chin had only been five years resident in Singapore, was still a small trader, and had not yet begun planting pepper and gambier.

In 1845, the Ngee Ann Kun formally became the Ngee Ann Kongsi 义安公司 Yì’ān Gōngsī and it is this year that is usually recorded as the date of the Kongsi’s founding. Its legal incorporation allowed it to purchase land, and in that year, it acquired a plot of land of just over 72 acres on Orchard Road (the then Claymore District) on 20 Oct from the East India Company, which it named Tie Swah Ting 泰山亭 Tàishān Tíng. The trustees of this land were named as Seah Eu Chin and Choa Poh Choo. 9 “Ordinance to Incorporate the Ngee Ann Kongsi”, p.20 (2nd schedule item 15). In Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (1923; reprint, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 1875 is erroneously cited as the year that Eu Chin was made trustee of the cemetery. Teochew folk history has it that this land used to be a pepper and gambier plantation and was originally named Gambier Hill 甘蜜山 Gānmì Shān, owned by a Teochew named Lín Tàishān 林泰山, and so claims that the cemetery was named Tie Swah Ting to commemorate him. 10 Pan Xingnong, Malaiya chaoqiao tongjian, 342. Ngee Ann Kongsi, Ngee Ann Kongsi: Into the Next Millennium (Singapore: Ngee Ann Kongsi, 1999), 90, has a photograph of the area as it appeared in the 1950s. The earliest cemetery set up by the Teochews, however, was Chung Shan 塚山 Zhǒng Shān (Cemetery Hill) at 7th mile, Thomson Road. 11 Pan Xingnong, Malaiya chaoqiao tongjian, 342. Tie Swah Ting was then in the suburbs of the town, tending towards the rural districts, nothing like the busy shopping district it is today. The cemetery was bounded by Paterson Road (Tanglin), Orchard Road, and Grange Road, with fruit gardens nearby from which Orchard Road got its name. 12 “Singapore Town and Environs” (1893), no. 2143, Map Collection, National Archives of Singapore. The cemetery also held a temple (泰山亭伯公宫 Tàishān Tíng Bógōng Gōng) that was a focal point for Teochew religious activity. 13 Pan Xingnong, Malaiya chaoqiao tongjian, 351.

The land on which the major Teochew Temple, the Watt Hai Cheng Beo 粤海清庙 Yuè Hǎi Qīng Miào (first built in 1826 though with an earlier history) stood on Philip Street was also acquired by the Kongsi in 1845, which then undertook refurbishment and rebuilding works from 1852 to 1855. 14 see Pan Xingnong, Chaoqiao suyuan ji, 71, and also discussion by 林纬毅 on the meaning of the temple’s name, in 李志贤 [Li Zhixian ed.], 主编.《海外潮人的移民经验》Haiwai Chaoren de yimin jingyan (Singapore: Global Publishing and Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan, 2003), 215-6. It was also known as the Yueh Hai Ching Temple or Philip Street Chinese Temple. The temple was dedicated to the same two deities that the Ngee Ann Kongsi was set up to worship, and it was a tradition that Seah Eu Chin and the elders of the Kongsi would go to offer prayers to Xuantian Shangdi on the 3rd day of the 3rd month of the Chinese calendar every year. 15 Pan Xingnong, Chaoqiao suyuan ji, 72. Although the exact date from which the Ngee Ann Kongsi took over the running of the temple is uncertain, it seems that from the 1850s onwards, the temple and the Kongsi were closely identified with each other. In fact, the 999-year lease title for the lot that the temple was built on, dated 8 May 1909, lists Seah Liang Seah, Eu Chin’s second son and primary heir (his elder brother Cheo Seah died in 1885, only two years after his father), at the head of the 14 trustees, 16 Manuscript records held by the Ngee Ann Kongsi. who were presumably drawn from the Kongsi. The Kongsi itself was based at the temple from 1930 to 1963, after rebuilding work at the temple was completed and before the construction of the Teochew Building at Tank Road. 17 吴华 [Wu Hua],《新加坡华族会馆志》Xinjiapo huazu huiguan zhi (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1975), 63

Courtyard of the Watt Hai Cheng Beo today with modern buildings of the Central Business District behind.
Image source: by User:Sengkang (Own work) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons

Rich Chinese like Seah Eu Chin turned to the leadership of clan associations like the Ngee Ann Kongsi to fulfill the need for prestige and position that the colonial government did not provide, or would only provide for a narrow elite of wealthy individuals. The bulk of the towkay class fulfilled their need to play a leadership role through Chinese organizations. 18 Yen, “Clan Organizations,” 63. Clan associations in general had several functions, which included religious rites like ancestral worship and festivals, as well as civic and social services like helping the poor and recognizing marriages. 19 Yen, “Clan Organizations,” 76. The Kongsi served some but not all of these functions during Seah Eu Chin’s era; its major function, conducting burials for immigrants who died in Singapore, is not any of these. Furthermore, some of the functions that it did not fulfill were carried out by Eu Chin himself as acts of private charity, e.g. in providing for destitute paupers (through the Tan Tock Seng Hospital), and donating to education (through the Chongwenge School). His ex officio leadership of the Watt Hai Cheng temple, as director of the Ngee Ann Kongsi, was also not as much an extension of his trade monopoly interests as a means of maintaining his leading position in Chinese society. 20 Yen, Social History, 14. Such a position was probably welcomed by the community as well, because his personal wealth would have acted as a financial guarantee for the temple’s interests. In the absence of a scholar-gentry class as existed in China, the wealthy merchant elite could thus monopolise leadership positions.

After Seah Eu Chin’s death, his position as director of the Kongsi was taken over by his eldest son Cheo Seah, and after the latter’s early death, the second son Liang Seah assumed leadership. Liang Seah was also involved in Watt Hai Cheng Beo temple activities, 21 see Pan Xingnong, Chaoqiao suyuan ji, 74. and would have continued the annual tradition of leading Ngee Ann elders to pray at the temple. Liang Seah and his brother Peck Seah also acted as trustees for several land titles held by the Kongsi. 22 “Ordinance to Incorporate the Ngee Ann Kongsi”. After his death, the directorship of the Kongsi was taken over by his son Seah Eng Tong. It was during Eng Tong’s tenure that Lim Nee Soon and 13 other prominent Teochews challenged the Seah family’s monopoly over the leadership of the Kongsi, setting in motion the events that led to the formation of the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan and the incorporation of the Ngee Ann Kongsi in its present-day form in 1933. 23 See 杨缵文 [Yeo Chan Boon],“杨缵文先生致本会馆及义安公司全体董事书” (28 Oct 1965) in《新加坡潮州八邑会馆四十周年纪念》Xinjiapo Chaozhou Bayi Huiguan 40 zhounian (Singapore: The Association, 1969), 164, for more details about the conflict and takeover.

The Teochew Building on Tank Road is the current headquarters of the Ngee Ann Kongsi.
Image source: By User:Sengkang (Own work) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons

The leadership of the Kongsi had become almost a dynastic succession, passing from father to son (or brother) down three generations of the Seah family. This was resented for several reasons: (i) the Seah clan represented the Cheng Hai bang of the Teochew Eight Districts group, whereas members of other bang who had become wealthy, such as the Hai Yang bang, also aspired to the leadership, (ii) the Seah clan’s dominance probably violated principles of generation and age seniority in the leadership succession of Chinese clan organizations in general; Seah Eng Tong was born in 1880, 24 The 1933 Ngee Ann Kongsi membership register records his age as 53 in that year. and would have leap-frogged over generational elders when he took over leadership from Liang Seah, (iii) the Seah clan was seen as pro-British in outlook, compared to the pro-China stance of the wider community in an era where Chinese nationalism was on the rise; 25 Yen, Social History, 190-191. furthermore, the Seah family had distanced itself by not participating in an important Teochew community effort, the building of the Tuan Mong School in 1906. 26 Yen (Social History, 190) discusses the significance of this, pointing to the Tuan Mong School trustees as the new power base for Teochew community leadership that challenged the Seah clan. The Seah family’s generational domination of the Ngee Ann Kongsi was not unique. The Lim Kongsi Toon Pun Tong and Lim Sz Bian Soot Tong of Penang show some parallels in leadership succession: their leaders were all wealthy businessmen, most of whom were appointed Justices of the Peace by the British, and father-and-son pairs overrode generational and seniority considerations for leadership. 27 Yen, Social History, 86. Liang Seah’s prestige and wealth were too strong to be challenged while he was still alive, so it was only during Eng Tong’s directorship that all the factors came together to result in the reform and reincorporation of the Kongsi.

Seah Eu Chin’s relationship to the Ngee Heng Kongsi has been discussed in the earlier article on his commercial activities. It is important to clarify the differences between the Ngee Ann and the Ngee Heng, not because there is some sort of “criminal taint” from the Ngee Heng being a secret society, but because here is an instance of class-division that is important to the historical process and the economic story. The similarity of the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s name to the Ngee Heng Kongsi is a red herring and erroneous conclusions have sometimes been drawn from it. 28 For example, a student paper published online calls Seah Eu Chin “the president of the Ngee Ann Kongsi, a secret society in Singapore.” The Ngee Ann and regional associations like it were comprised of the rich merchant elite, whereas the Ngee Heng and other secret societies (more accurately, ritual brotherhoods) drew their membership from merchants, small traders, and labourers. While the secret societies were actively persecuted by colonial authorities and declared to be illegal, they were not “organized crime” or criminal gangs as they are often depicted to be today (such depiction results from their colonial-era persecution and the emulation of their names and rites by latter-day criminal groups). The Ngee Heng in particular evolved from a political entity devoted to the overthrow of the Manchurian Qing empire in China, to become in the Southeast Asian context primarily an economic institution, controlling the kangchu system of Johore’s pepper and gambier agriculture, 29 P. Lim Pui Huen, “Continuity and Connectedness: the Ngee Heng Kongsi of Johore, 1844-1916,” in New Terrains in Southeast Asian History, ed. Abu Talib Ahmad and Tan Liok Ee (Singapore: Singapore University Press and Ohio University Press, 2003), 310. and representing the interests of the local merchant leaders 30 Chng, Heroic Images. and the labour pool whom they led and controlled, vs. the interests of town traders and the rich merchant elite financing the plantations. Based on this, there was probably little direct competition, if any, between the Ngee Ann and the Ngee Heng. The two institutions had different aims and purposes: religious and charitable for the former, economic and ritual-brotherhood for the latter. 31 see Carl A. Trocki, “The Rise and Fall of the Ngee Heng Kongsi in Singapore,” in ‘Secret Societies’ Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Secret History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia, ed. David Ownby and Mary Somers Heidhues (Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), 95-97. Note that “pepper and gambier society” in this usage does not refer to the Kongkek, but to the class dichotomy of a “pepper and gambier society” versus a “free trade society” theorized by Lee Poh Ping (Chinese Society in Nineteenth Century Singapore, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1978), that had their economic interests in those respective realms. The illegality of the Ngee Heng and other secret societies was not inherent to them, but a construction of the colonial state and its policing efforts, a suspicious and cautious response to their influence among the sizeable Chinese population. Because rich Chinese like Eu Chin were regarded as community leaders by the colonial authorities, the societies and organizations of the upper classes were interpreted as charities and benign associations by the authorities, while the obscure and secretive societies of the lower classes were held to be dangerous elements. Therefore, the real conflict between the Ngee Ann and the Ngee Heng might have been the conflict between capitalist interests and labour interests, or at least different sets of capitalist interests. 32 The Ngee Heng could be interpreted anachronistically as a labour union ahead of its time, but it was more an economic and political organization than a benevolent society. There was an hierarchical structure, and its leaders (kangchus and above) got rich on the labour of their subordinates. Tan Yeok Nee, the major China of Johore and a possible Ngee Heng leader, was rich enough to build a private mansion similar in size and grandeur to the Seah family home.

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