Commerce and Kinship


Seah Eu Chin’s Legacy


Popular Memory


As he was such a prominent figure in the public life of the Chinese community and of the settlement as a whole, Seah Eu Chin was remembered in the popular public consciousness for some time after his death.

The “Emperor Seah”

One instance is a Teochew saying that was quite widely known even up to the 1960s, “陈天蔡地佘皇帝” Chén tiān Cài dì Shé huángdì meaning “Tan is heaven, Chua is the earth, Seah is the emperor.” According to Hsu Yun-tsiao 159 许云樵 [Hsu Yun-tsiao],《马来亚从谈》Malaiya Congtan (1961; reprint, Singapore: Youth Book Store, 2005), 125-129. the first term refers to the preeminence of the Teochew Tan clan that produced leaders like Tan Seng Poh, Tan Yeok Nee, Tan Kee Soon, and the numerous Tans who were kangchus in the pepper and gambier plantations in Johore. Their dominance of the pepper and gambier industry was partly due to the Seh Tan group, which was headed at one point by Tan Seng Poh. 160 Trocki, “Tan Seng Poh,” 252. The second term refers to the one-time headman of the Teochew Ngee Hock 潮群义福 Cháoqún Yìfù secret society, Chua Moh Choon,161 Trocki, Opium and Empire, 111. and the “underground” power among the Chinese community that he held in his position. Finally, the last term refers to Seah Eu Chin and his family, because of the good standing they were in with the authorities, and the numerous Justices of the Peace that were in the family.

Four Great Mansions

Another folk memory that persisted through the times among the Chinese community was that of the Four Great Mansions 四大厝 sì dà cuò built in the Chinese style in the latter half of the 19th century, by Tan Seng Poh, Seah Eu Chin, Wee Ah Hood, and Tan Yeok Nee (Tan Hiok Nee). 162 See, for instance, Hsu Yun-ts’iao, Malaiya congtan, 115; Leung, “Economic Life”; and 林孝胜 [Lin Xiaosheng] et al.,《石叻古迹》Shile guji (Singapore: South Seas Society, 1975), 225-6. The house of Tan Yeok Nee was known to have been built with labour specially recruited from China, so we can presume that the rest of them were built in a similar way at similar expense. The Seah family’s mansion, named Dàfǔ Dì 大府第 was built on Boat Quay in 1872, on land that was occupied by the warehouses of Guthrie and Co. In the 1930s, it had already fallen into disrepair and was no longer inhabited by the descendants, but was partly rented out for use as a warehouse. 163 Oral history of Chua Meng Khin, reel 4. By the 1970s, no trace of the building remained.

House of Tan Yeok Nee (Tan Hiok Nee), the only surviving one of the Four Great Mansions, gazetted as a National Monument in 1974.
Image source: By User:Sengkang (Own work) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons

All the four mansions were built by Teochew merchants who had made their fortunes by their involvement in the gambier and pepper trade. Wee Ah Hood 黄亚佛 Huáng Yǎfó, like Eu Chin and Seng Poh, was also a major gambier and pepper agent and financier who had dealings with European traders. Tan Yeok Nee was appointed by the Johore Sultan as the Major China over the Chinese community of Johore (see Take-off and Maturity), and was at the centre of the gambier and pepper economy of that state. Having such magnificent homes fulfilled the aspirations of these merchants and added to their prestige. Furthermore, it shows how great and profitable a venture gambier and pepper planting was in the 19th century before its eventual decline by the turn of the century.

At the same time, though, it is entirely possible that folk memory of these houses was also coloured by resentment against the elite’s great wealth in the face of the poverty of the majority of the Chinese community. By imprinting such obvious symbols of status and prosperity in the urban landscape of Singapore town, they impressed their status on the consciousness of the populace, who defined their space and took their bearings from the landmarks surrounding them. By decorating them in the ornate Chinese style in contrast to the more utilitarian buildings surrounding them, the owners of these houses were not trying to be discreet about their wealth.

The Fangtou Rivalry Story

Surely the most unusual story about Seah Eu Chin is recorded in an oral history interview conducted with a Teochew named Heng Chiang Swee 王昌瑞 in 1986. He relates a story that was told to him by his elders about Seah Eu Chin, 164 Oral history of Heng Chiang Swee (recorded 20 Nov 1986), no. 648, reel 3, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore. which I have translated below:

Heng: “…regarding surnames [姓氏] the older generation had this sort of feeling of vengeance. Let’s discuss Seah Chin Hin [佘振兴]. When Seah Chin Hin came over, he was poor, in his village he was bullied by the rich people, then after he came over he made his fortune, and returned to China to build houses. But there after he bought property it was snatched away by people from the strong fang [房], so he sold off his property. Those village kin [乡亲] from China came to him when they ran into difficulty here, and when those who were from fang that had previously taken advantage of him came to him, he would treat them very well, but his aim was to do them to death.

“Singapore was a very hot place in the past, and without a bath, one cannot tahan (tolerate) it. In old Singapore, rice would go bad after a meal, because the weather was hot. When those from the strong fang came, he [Eu Chin] would talk about such-and-such an uncle, such-and-such a cousin… and gave them sweets fried in pork fat to eat, letting them have the whole plate, calling upon them to eat without needing to work, letting them rest under banana trees. When those from his own fangtou came, however, he paid them no courtesies, but made them bathe before dawn, and usually asked them to do this and that, to go work and exert themselves. Those from the poor fang thought he was treating the rich people well, or treating those from strong fang well, since they need not work after coming here, but only ate sweets and rested in the shade. Those of us who were poor in the villages, from weak fang, we had to do hard work after coming here, ordered to bathe even before dawn. Eventually those who rich, because they were not accustomed [to the climate], died of heat stroke. Because the weather was hot, and they did not bathe, and even ate sweets fried in pork fat, heat [i.e. ‘heatiness’] piled on heat, leading to certain death. This is to say that some of the older generation could not let go [of fang rivalries], and were always thinking of revenge in their hearts.”

Interviewer: “And who is this Seah Chin Hin that you speak of?”

Heng: “Seah Chin Hin is Seah Eu Chin, the father of Seah Liang Seah. Seah Liang Seah was the first [sic] member of the Legislative Council.”

Interviewer: “Was this very long ago?”

Heng: “Very long ago.”

Interviewer: “How do you know of it? Did you hear your family speak of it?”

Heng: “The old generation all told this, it is the truth, it is real.”

The fang system that Heng speaks of was a means of subdividing localized lineages of clans into various groups called fang or fangtou, each of which was comprised of the descendants of the sons of an ancestor chosen to be the point of division (i.e. the household fang system writ large). Each fang had a particular name in genealogical records, and was referred to by a number or by its place of settlement in the home region. Within the overall clan or surname (kinship) identity, fang identity and loyalty also developed, and in parts of South China this led to feuding and fighting between various fang, but feuding was less common among overseas Chinese. The smaller overall population made such subdivision impractical, but fang identity was still retained when lineage structures were incompletely transplanted overseas by the immigrants. 165 Yen Ching-Hwang, “Early Chinese Clan Associations in Singapore and Malaya 1819-1911,” in Early Chinese Immigrant Societies: Case Studies from North America and British South-East Asia, ed. Lee Tai To (Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 1988), 197-8.

This story here is impossible to corroborate or disprove, though most sources 166 e.g. Seah Eu Chin’s obituary, Straits Times, 24 Sep 1883. say that Seah Eu Chin never left Singapore after coming down, and there is no evidence that he returned to China or had such a desire, unlike other immigrants who had made it good in the Straits (such as his business partner Koo Goo). The name “Seah Chin Hin” contains the name of Eu Chin’s business chop, Chin Hin, showing that prominent merchants were associated with the names of their business chops, and that they were identified with the businesses that they ran. 167 See also 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. Yeo also refers to Seah Eu Chin by his business chop, suggesting that he was better known by his chop than his given name within the community. It may also have been a mark of respect to avoid mentioning his personal name. Eu Chin most likely had associations with kinsmen from his home village. Tan Seng Poh, for example, gave testimony that when employers of coolies like himself heard of “people connected with [them] or from [their] neighbourhood, [they] always arrange to pick them out, so that they may remain in Singapore, and not be sent somewhere else.” 168 Evidence given by Tan Seng Poh, in “Report of the Committee appointed to consider the evidence upon the condition of Chinese labourers in this colony”, Straits Settlements Legislative Council Proceedings 1876, appendix 22, p.cclvi (12 Jun 1876), National Archives of Singapore. They heard of their arrival by letter or by word of mouth from coolie agents. Since this practice was common, Seah Eu Chin would have done the same in his earlier days when he was still more directly involved in the running of his gambier and pepper plantations rather than financing operations from afar. He had business associations with other Seahs as well; in the memorial of the gambier and pepper planters, 169 SSR W21 p.120, National Archives of Singapore. there is a Shé Dá 佘达 among the gambier planters, whose name is also recorded in Koo Goo’s will as a scribe (代书人 dàishū rén).

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