How Colonial Singapore Got To Be Chinese
A story of racial immigration.
You can watch the video here:
Before moving to Taiwan, I strongly considered moving to Singapore. I received a few offers, but then Taipei came calling. However, I never lost my fondness for the place and the people who live there. They are a quirky, fun bunch. Serious, hard-working and humble. They also have a good and friendly opinion of the Taiwanese, which I like. It never fails to amuse me how their Redditors call mainland China “West Taiwan”.
Having recently finished up a video about racial relations in Singapore’s frenemy Malaysia, I feel like I have a lot more context about just how impactful this series of events was for Singapore.
Throughout this script, I have added annotations and little notes. They are in bold and italics.
“Singapore? Aren’t they part of China?”
Few words get a Singaporean more riled up. Most people visiting Singapore talk about how clean the streets are and how advanced of a society it is. I personally love it. I’ve been there three times and have very good friends there. This video is dedicated to them. If you are a Singaporean, feel free to email me and say hello.
But the other interesting thing that people notice is just how much greater a proportion of the population do Chinese Han people make up in the country as compared to the rest of Southeast Asia.
I definitely noticed it. Singapore’s Han dominance has had major influence in its history. And for a while I wondered how it came to be this way.
In this video I am going to talk about how Singapore got to be so Han Chinese and at the same time get into some of the wild and wooly early years of the Singapore colony.
Singapore's Early Years
Singapore by itself is a small, diamond-shaped island bordered to the north by its frenemy Malaysia and to the south by its frenemy Indonesia. Its total land space is about 719 square kilometers, which makes it about 2.5 times bigger than Taipei but smaller than Hong Kong.
With 5 million people, it is the second most densely populated large country in the world. Today it is a multi-racial society with a Han majority but significant Malay and Indian minorities. Their stories are worth telling as well - and hopefully I can get to it in the future.
Much like so many other things in our world today, Singapore as we know it began as colonialism. Sir Stamford Raffles arrived at the island in 1819 and quickly realized that this small island sits at a strategically important trade route between India and China.
The area at the time was nominally ruled by the Sultan of Johor, the sovereign ruler of the nearby Malaysian state of Johor. Raffles negotiated a deal with a pretender to the Sultanate to recognize and fund him to take the throne in return for a trading post on Singapore.
Just months after the creation of the British trading post, Chinese immigrants began to come at the island.
Most of the Han immigrants came from two Chinese provinces: Fujian and Guangdong. These provinces have traditionally been the greatest contributors of the Chinese overseas diaspora.
Singapore is some 2,600 kilometers from these southern Chinese provinces. It was not an easy process to get there. Many of these men (and it was almost certainly all men up until 1837) had nothing but their own bodies to offer. They were loaded onto overcrowded ships, 40-50 of them stuffed into a room built for eight.
And yet they came. The flow of Chinese grew slowly but steadily. In 1838, the annual immigration flow was about 2,000 a year and their population had already overtaken the non-Chinese residents of Singapore. Twenty years later in 1850 it had grown to 10,000 annually. By 1895, the flow reached 100,000 a year.
There were three big changes in Chinese immigration policy that led to this huge immigration growth.
Strife at home
Flows were driven by constant strife and poverty in the Chinese homeland. There was the Taiping Civil War in the 1850s, the riots of the 1890s, and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
And then there were the famines of 1901, 1906, and 1910. The Yellow River floods in 1887. Millions were left unable to take care of themselves. British surveys of the Chinese immigrants found that over two thirds left China because they had been unable to feed their families.
Western anti-Chinese immigration policies
But the problem was that by the time the late 1800s came around, many countries around the world had shut their doors to Chinese immigrants. This included the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
I talked a bit about the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in the United States - the only immigration act targeting a specific ethnic race - in another video. (See the link below)
Singapore was one of the few places that would accept these flows of Chinese immigrants. This is due to the fact that the British colonial authorities saw them as good workers on the plantations in contrast with the native Malay people, who did not want to do the work at the rates the British paid. The Chinese had little else to go, so to Singapore they went.
The first Chinese immigrants to Singapore were making a tough decision - what essentially was a one-way journey. They would never be able to come back to China ever again.
The Qing Chinese authorities did not particularly like the flow of emigrants leaving their borders. The standard policy to deal with these emigrants was to behead them. Or at the very least refuse their re-entry - so conditions for these people must have been truly desperate (and they were).
This changed in 1860 when the Qing government signed an agreement with the British and French that allowed their subjects to emigrate and work abroad. It opened up the possibility of indentured servitude agreements, with joint British and Chinese supervision to cut down on abuse.
When the Republic of China was founded in 1911, Sun Yat-sen would quickly set up bureaucratic organs to monitor the Chinese living abroad and work to protect their interests. Chinese people, knowing that they could no longer be persecuted at home for leaving, now left in large numbers.
Policing the new entrants
An 1881 survey grouped the Han Chinese into 6 sub-divisions: the Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese, and the Malaysian-born Chinese. The largest two groups were the Hokkien and the Teochew, named for the individual villages and communities from which they came from back home. And they each spoke differing Chinese dialects - making communications between the group exceedingly difficult.
The vast majority of the Han Chinese in Singapore were men - some 80% of them. They came here to work and earn money. And many had connections back home to secret societies and organized crime. Secret societies had ostensibly risen as a force against the ruling Manchu dynasty, but pivoted to crime (especially after the 1911 revolution). Each newly arrived Chinese would be forced to choose a "secret society" to which they needed to pledge allegiance.
Author’s Note: For the sake of brevity, I had to leave out so much information about the secret societies. They began as groups of people looking to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. But after the Qing fell, they converted into being crime rings. Singapore police officers reported finding murdered bodies in the countryside for many years. Each body mutilated in a peculiar way - with the right or left hand chopped up into little parts, but the skin left on.
At first Raffles and early British colonial authorities followed a "hands off" policy with regards to these Chinese immigrants. This had been more of a practical decision than anything as the British only had a small police force to keep order in society. But this approach eventually led to colonial Singapore acquiring a reputation for lawlessness and crime. Several murders were being reported every week.
Here is one story from 1831. A gang of convicts were working alongside the road when a group of Chinese came out of the jungle to rescue them. They knocked off the convicts' irons and then melted into the jungle before the police could stop them. 18 policemen were gathered to give chase. They discovered a secret jungle fort of a thousand Chinese. A literal fort.
In 1851, a secret society attacked a group of Roman Catholic Chinese living in the interior Singaporean jungle - far out of the reach of the British colonial authority. Some 500 were said to have been killed over the span of a week.
Author’s Note: There were estimated to be 40,000 secret society members in Singapore at their peak.
Three years later in 1854, the Fujianese and the Cantonese clashed in an epic ten day riot that would kill some 400-600 people. Hostilities were split right along geographic lines - with sworn brothers of secret societies fighting each other. The British eventually had to declare martial law to bring order.
And then there is the theft. Often working with servants, gangs of thieves working groups of 10 or so would stealthily enter homes and steal goods. Or they might sweep upon a shop or a pawnbroker, grab everything, and be out within minutes. Most happen at the outskirts of town, but a police chief recalls one bold Oceans-Eleven style plunder on the Singapore High Street near the Government Treasury.
The riots and crime would eventually cause the British to work towards suppressing the influences of the secret societies. Appointed by the British government to manage the Chinese protectorate in Singapore, William Pickering would largely reduce the influence of the secret societies by 1890 through the use of registration and criminal order.
Author’s Note: Pickering was really qualified for this post. He had worked in China for several years before joining the Straits Settlement as it was called. In 1863, he had worked in Great Britain’s Customs office in what is now Kaohsiung, Taiwan (then called Takao, Formosa). He spoke not just Chinese, but several dialects of it - Foochow, Teochow, Hakka, Mandarin, and Hokkien. This was essential in communicating between the different Chinese people living there.
A society needed to be registered and approved in order to exist. Many turned in their seals and burned their books. Some small time crime rings tried to continue the old ways with extortion and what not - but the Singaporean police captured them, took their photos, and ejected them from the island.
This system of indentured servitude would largely end in 1914, the result of strong criticism from the newly established Republic of China. Immigrant rights would over time be more of a focus for the colonial administration.
Author’s note: The indentured servitude system ended due to with strong urgings from the Hong Kong colony, where Sir Frederick Lugard said it was a constant thorn in his side. The Chinese government constantly criticized Hong Kong and in the end he asked for its abolition within 4 years.
Then in 1928 as a response to the Great Depression and island-wide unemployment, the government passed restrictions on immigration for the first time. Further restrictions including those on alien re-entry would be passed in the following years.
In 1938, the immigration quotas of Chinese men was cut to some 500 a month and the quota extended to women too for the first time, essentially ending the flow of Chinese economic immigration to Singapore prior to World War II. That war and the Communist Takeover following it is a story for another day.
Author’s note: The quota on women was a first and it was in response to a reduction in exports from British Malaya on rubber and tin. In addition, the colonial government was responding to an increasing tendency of businesses to employ women in factories.
Early on, huge inward flows of Chinese men helped spur Singapore's early growth - but it was not until the Chinese women began coming to Singapore that the numbers of local-born Chinese began to grow and eventually overtake inward flows. Those people began to settle and make their home on this little island.
Author’s note: Most Chinese immigrants to the Straits intended to come back. But the chaos of the Sino-Japanese War in World War II and then the Communist victory in China ended their hopes of doing so.
The Chinese immigrants here helped make Singapore what it is today. They came with often nothing but made a success of themselves - a recurring theme in the country's history. Singapore is the only Han-majority nation outside of Greater China, which makes it unique and definitely worth writing more about in the future.