Commerce and Kinship
Early Commercial Activities
Seah Eu Chin was unusual among immigrants to Southeast Asia (known to Chinese as the South Seas, or Nanyang 南洋) of that time, not only because he was educated and literate, but also in how he financed his voyage. He set off from Swatow, and worked his way by keeping accounts in the junk that he sailed on, in 1823 or 1824. 10Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Printed by Fraser & Neave, 1902), vol. 1, 151. Lin (“Local Chinese Worthies,” 81) says that he worked as a clerk. Most migrants came to work as labourers, and paid for their voyages through systems of credit (precursors to the later “credit ticket” system), incurring debts that they had to work off after arriving at their destinations. By paying his way during his voyage, Eu Chin managed to avoid being weighed down by debt and thus had the liberty to venture into business upon arrival. He may also have brought some capital with him with that intention from the very beginning.
At this point, the existing accounts of his life, both dating from about 1900, diverge. Lim Boon Keng states that the owners of the junk that he traveled on recommended him to other local trading vessels, and that for five years he was engaged in the barter trade with surrounding Malay islands, and “visited from time to time practically all the coasts of the Straits of Malacca, the islands of the Rhio Archipelago, and the East coast of the Malay Peninsula as far north as Singgora.” 11Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 81. In doing so, he would have built up a knowledge base of the conditions of local trade and other practical business skills. Charles Buckley, on the other hand, writes that when he reached Singapore in 1823, he took two shares in a boat that rowed and sailed to Klang and elsewhere, for two years. He stayed in Singapore from then on (around 1825) as an agent for the above boat and other boats, basing himself in Kling Street (now Chulia Street) and then Circular Road. 12Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol.1, 151. Lim agrees in this detail, that he started out as a commission agent, trading produce brought in by junks for necessities and provisions needed by their crews, when he was 25, i.e. in 1830. He also invested in landed property, which at the time was cheap, leading to considerable gains when it appreciated in value later as the settlement developed and grew in importance. The two accounts – Lim’s more romantic, Buckley’s more prosaic – can be reconciled if we surmise that he did settle down as a commission agent but before doing so he traveled in regional trading vessels as a clerk, saving up the money needed to establish himself. In any case, he was certainly involved in the Johore-Riau regional trade, which had already been flourishing indigenously and with Chinese involvement before Stamford Raffles ever set foot in Singapore. The fortuitous circumstance of Eu Chin’s arrival here in the early years of the settlement gave him an advantage over later settlers and merchants, because of his head start on securing his business and trade relationships, and in the acquisition of land property both in town and for agricultural use.
Aside from this, James Guthrie, who was a contemporary of Eu Chin, noted that he was a book-keeper to Kim Swee, who owned a large business on Boat Quay between Market and Bonham Streets in the 1820s. 13Buckley, Anecdotal History, vol.1, 151. This Kim Swee is most probably Yeo Kim Swee, a Baba (or Peranakan Chinese) who also followed the pattern among Chinese merchants of acquiring land and erecting houses, though little else is known about him. 14Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (1923; reprint, Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 26, 43. His name is back-transliterated in Chinese secondary sources as Yáng Jīnruì 杨金瑞, 15e.g. see Pan, Malaiya chaoqiao tongjian, 78. assuming the Teochew pronunciation of the name. However the manuscript will of Koo Goo 邱牛 , a fellow merchant who named his business partner Eu Chin as executor of his estate, also has a 杨金水 as one of the witnesses; this name can also be rendered as Yeo Kim Swee in Teochew. 16Last will and testament of Koo Goo (1842), and letter of Seah Eu Chin requesting probate (1845), acc. 242, microfilm NA1490, National Archives of Singapore. Eu Chin bought over land on High Street that had belonged to Kim Swee, 17Song, One Hundred Years’ History, 43. doubtless only a fraction of the property that was changing hands between them and within the merchant community at that time. After Eu Chin’s death, these purchases were later to be the cause of contention between Kim Swee’s son and Eu Chin’s second son Seah Liang Seah, who was acting as executor of his father’s estate (see Property and the Risks of Enterprise). In the course of rapidly changing fortunes, common in the pioneer economy of early Singapore, perhaps Eu Chin was more fortunate than Kim Swee, and as he prospered, could afford to acquire property from his former employer.
The premises of Kim Swee’s business were located in the Commercial Square area, where most merchants initially set up their offices. 18Lt. Jackson’s Map (1828), no. 2158, map collection, National Archives of Singapore. When Eu Chin established his own business, using the name (or “chop”) Chin Hin 振兴 , 19Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 84; Will of Koo Goo; and 关楚璞 [Guan Chu Pu],《星洲十年》Xingzhou shinian (Singapore: 星洲日报 [Sin Chew Jit Poh], 1940), 999. his offices were at Kling Street (today’s Chulia Street), then Circular Road, moving closer to the Singapore River in the process. Both these sites were shophouse lots along South Boat Quay facing the River. Such locations were the most sensible ones for agencies like his that were involved in the supply and receipt of goods to and from trading boats. 20“Singapore Town, building allotments around North of Singapore River” (1881), no. 2160, map collection, National Archives of Singapore.
Koo Goo’s will also sheds some light on the social relationships among the Chinese mercantile class in the earlier half of the 19th century. His will was drawn up on 21st June 1842. Koo was at the time a partner in Chin Hin with Eu Chin. He left his shop affairs, debts, and accounts with Eu Chin, and drew up the will before his journey home to China, in case he died en route or in China. He made Eu Chin the sole executor, choosing him even over his own relatives. Koo Goo died in Amoy 厦门 (Xiamen) on 30th July 1842, and Eu Chin petitioned for probate (the legal proving of a will) on 8th May 1845.
Merchants were unlike the majority of Chinese in the Straits, who came as labourers, and who were largely unmarried or who had left their wives and families back home in China. Koo had a wife and daughter, to whom he left sums of money. But as recent immigrants (save for the Straits-born Chinese) the majority had few or no extended family with them in the settlement, and so had to rely on friends and associates to play roles, such as the execution of wills in this case, that would otherwise have been fulfilled by relatives. Having been transplanted out of the traditional community support structure, they had to rely upon and trust those whom they associated with and who were most like them: their fellow merchants with whom they had entered into business partnerships. This was true for the majority of Chinese immigrants as well; hence the role of secret societies and huìguǎn (会馆, clan associations, district associations) in filling the gaps left by the absence of family. The differences between the labourers and the merchants, particularly the merchant elite, were that the merchants more often tended to associate outside their kinship, clan, or dialect groups (because the elite was small to begin with), and that they had the opportunity to start families and settle in their new adopted home. These traits were fulfilled in the case of Seah Eu Chin.
In Eu Chin’s early career, he was also a general trader in cotton and tea, which were then costly commodities, 21Lin, “Local Chinese Worthies,” 82. but his reputation and fortune was to be made not on general trade, but on agriculture and the financing of agriculture, especially the cultivation of gambier and pepper. Through this enterprise, they became the main crops of cultivation on Singapore Island and later in Southern Johore. Eu Chin and his family would come to acquire a high social position in the Chinese community of the time.