The Teochew migrants to Southeast Asia in the early 19th century were a rough lot. John Crawfurd, who led a British mission to Siam and was the second Resident of Singapore, in a testimony made before a House of Commons Select Committee in 1830 reported that they were mostly fishermen and mariners, and described them to be “numerous”, “the lowest in rank (among the Chinese in Southeast Asia)”, and “most noisy and unruly”.
German missionary Karl Gützlaff, who sailed from Siam to China on a Teochew junk in 1831, was equally scathing in his portrayal of the Teochews he encountered. Those living in the kingdom, Gützlaff noted in his journal, were mostly agriculturalists who “delight to live in wretchedness and filth, and are very anxious to conform to the vile habits of the Siamese”. As for the sailors, he pointed out the major part were “opium-smokers, gamblers, thieves and fornicators”, who would “indulge in the drug till all their wages are squandered; “gamble as long as a farthing remains”; and “put off their only jacket and give it to a prostitute”.
These negative impressions however tell only one side of the story. For insights into the true character of these men can be discovered in two articles that Teochew merchant Seah Eu Chin (Siah U Chin) contributed to the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia in the late 1840s.
Sojourners whose Hearts Never Left Home
Seah was the son of a senior county official in Teochew. He arrived in Singapore in 1823 at the age of 18 and being one of few who were literate, he easily found work as a clerk on the trading junks. By the 1840s he was a highly successful businessman and one of the most influential figures in the island’s Teochew community. His writings, which were translated and published in English, are possibly the only essays left behind by a Teochew overseas in his time.
In the 1848 piece General Sketch of the Numbers, Tribes and Avocations of the Chinese in Singapore (Dropbox link to download full pdf article), Seah gave an insightful overview of the state and condition of the British colony’s predominantly male Chinese population. Among other details, he highlighted that the dominance in numbers of the Teochews, especially the gambier and pepper planters. Mostly from very poor background, these labourers always saw themselves as sojourners, rather than settlers or colonists. This was because they always harboured the dream of returning wealthy to their native land after a stay of 3 or 4 years. Sadly this goal was fulfilled only by 1 or 2 out of 10, as the vices of opium and gambling were too strong for the rest to resist. (There were few women in Singapore at the time). Still, the longing of those who failed for home never diminished, and they would eventually return to their families, some after more than 10 years, even if all they had was only a small “fortune”.
Even if one was free from the addictions of opium or gambling, the labourers amongst the early Teochew migrants, whose monthly wages ranged between 2 and 4 dollars, had to live frugally in order to save any money. Yet in Seah’s second article, Annual Remittances by Chinese immigrants in Singapore to their families in China (1847) (Dropbox link to download full pdf article), we learn further of their yearly ritual to converge in the town area to send letters and remittances to their families in China by junks leaving on their return voyage. Unable to write on their own, these men had to engage professional letter-writers, and then entrust either to a passenger from their own county or an agent who earned a commission to deliver their money and messages. While the merchants could afford to send home hundreds of Spanish dollars each year, the poor coolies did so in units of tens – which was hardly insignificantly considering the meagre amounts they earned.
The Life of Self-Sacrifice
Being dependent on the monsoon winds, the Chinese junks travelled to and fro between China and Southeast Asia only once a year. Given the difficulties in communication and the circumstances of their daily lives, as well as the impoverished state of the Teochew region in those days, it would perhaps have been easier for the early Teochew migrants to forget their homes altogether. In view of their lowly status and the unwholesome character that the Westerners observed them to have, this is probably also what we would expect of these men.
Yet contrary to what the history books often portray, the Teochew forefathers who first migrated overseas did not do so with the intention to abandon their impoverished villages or to find new lives abroad. Instead they were bound by vows to return to their place of ancestry and remained steadfast to their commitments to their parents, spouses and children, regardless of their own circumstance. They were hardly saints, but as mortals they understood and lived the life of self-sacrifice that gives essence to the soul of the Teochew family.
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