Teochew through the eyes of its visitors: Karl Gützlaff's journey from Siam to Teochew

 A Chinese junk from Singapore with two European Protestant missionaries onboard entered the Chao Phraya River on 23rd August 1828. It carried also twenty-two chests of Christian scripture and tracts that Jacob Tomlin and Karl Gützlaff had brought to distribute to the Chinese who came to Bangkok to trade and find work. Through this way, they hoped that the Christian gospel could eventually spread to China, which had firmly shut its doors to foreigners. 

When John Crawfurd led a British embassy to Siam in 1821, he counted in Bangkok “about two hundred” Chinese junks that carried out different branches of trade to various ports in China and Southeast Asia. Each year, the junks from China brought thousands of male immigrants, including merchants, itinerant traders and labourers. Remarkably, according to the government census data obtained by Tomlin, there were 360,000 Chinese residing in Bangkok, which had a total population of 401,300.

Of these Chinese in Bangkok, Gützlaff observed:

The natives of China come in great numbers from Chaou-chow-foo [Chaozhou-fu, i.e. Teochew prefecture], the most eastern part of Canton [Guangdong] Province. They are mostly agriculturists; while another Canton tribe, called the Kih or Ka [客 Keh or Hakka], consists chiefly of artisans. Emigrants from Tang-an (or Tung-an) [同安Tong-an] district, in Fuhkeen [Fujian] province, are few; mostly sailors or merchants. Those from Hai-nan [Hainan] are chiefly pedlars and fishermen, and form perhaps the poorest, yet the most cheerful class.
Language, as well as customs, derived from the Chaou-chow Chinese, are prevalent throughout the country. They delight to live in wretchedness and filth, and are very anxious to conform to the vile habits of the Siamese. In some cases when they enter into matrimonial alliances with these latter, they even throw away their jackets and trousers, and become Siamese in their very dress. As the lax, indifferent religious principles of the Chinese do not differ essentially from those of the Siamese, the former are very prone to conform entirely to the religious rites of the latter. And if they have children, these frequently cut off their queues, and become for a certain time Siamese priests. Within two or three generations, all the distinguishing marks of the Chinese character dwindle entirely away; and a nation which adheres so obstinately to its national customs becomes wholly changed to Siamese. These people usually neglect their own literature, and apply themselves to the Siamese.
To them nothing is so welcome as the being presented, by the king, with an honorary title; and this generally takes place when they have acquired great riches, or have betrayed some of their own countrymen. From that moment they become slaves of the king; the more so if they are made his officers. No service is then so menial, so expensive, so difficult, but they are forced to perform it. And in case of disobedience, they are severely punished, and perhaps, put into chains for their whole lives. Nothing, therefore, exceeds the fear of the Chinese,—they pay the highest respect to their oppressors, and cringe when addressed by them. Notwithstanding the heavy taxes laid upon their industry, they labour patiently from morning to night, to feed their insolent and indolent tyrants, who think it below their dignity to gain their daily bread by their own exertions. With the exception of the Hwuy Hwuy, or Triad society, implicit obedience is paid to their most exorbitant demands, by every Chinese settler.

Image 1: A view of Bangkok and a Chinese junk on the Chao Phraya in 1824.

The first Teochew migrants to Siam in the early 18th century were traders in the old city of Ayutthaya and vagabonds and runaway criminals seeking refuge in Chanthaburi on the Cambodian border. They were poor cousins to the Hokkiens from Fujian, who were merchants in the service of the Siamese court. All these changed with the destruction of Ayutthaya by a Burmese army. A survivor of this calamity was the governor of Tak province, Taksin, whose father was a Teochew. He fled to Chanthaburi, where he raised an army among his kinsmen that helped him to expel the Burmese soldiers left behind in Ayutthaya. An  undercover official of the Qing dynasty later reported the following information he elicited in Siam from a native and two Chinese merchants:

The area around Bangkok in Siam is presently occupied by Phraya Tak. He is the son from a marriage in Siam between Zheng Yong [鄭咏 Teochew: De Iong], a man originally from Chenghai [澄海 Thenghai] county of Chaozhou prefecture in Guangdong, and a native woman. His real name is Zheng Xin  [鄭新 De Sing]. After his father died, he served under the king of Siam as a native chieftain with the title Phraya Tak. Seeing that the Burmese had conquered Siam, Zheng Xin led hundreds of soldiers to Chanthaburi and capture its wooden fort. The native chief Huang Qian  [黄潜 Ng Ciang] surrendered to him and offered his daughter in marriage to Zheng Xin. In the eighth month of the 34th year [of Qianlong, i.e. 1769], they settled in Bangkok. The followers [of Zheng Xin] are the chief treasurer Lan Lai [藍來 Na Lai] and native chiefs Chen Lian [陳連 Tan Liang, Tran Lien in Vietnamese sources], Chen Wu [陳五 Tan Ngoh], Huang Qian and Su Si [蘇四 Soh Si]. His soldiers number about ten thousand.

Image 2: The Qing undercover official report on King Taksin. Source:National Palace Museum Digital Library of Qing Archives《軍機處檔摺件》:《抄錄署遊擊鄭瑞等訪查節略》

Image 3: Qing dynasty map of sea-route from Guangdong to Siam (暹羅城). Chanthaburi is shown as 占澤汶 Source: National Palace Museum Digital Library of Qing Archives《軍機處檔摺件》:《廣東至暹邏水陸道里圖》

After Taksin became king of Siam, he entrusted the Teochew leaders who followed him to recover the country’s trade and economy. They brought over thousands of men from Teochew, especially his ancestral district Thenghai, to restore and expand its maritime trade networks, rebuild its food production, and open up new lines of revenue through plantation agriculture. The exodus came to the notice of the Qing imperial court, and it was recorded in the Jiaqing era (1796-1820) Revised Great Qing Grand Annals that traders from Thenghai were given permits to travel to Siam to purchase rice to relief the distressed inlands, but”though forty long years passed, it is said that not more than five or six out of ten returned”.

These migrations continued even after King Taksin was overthrown in 1782. With the passing years, Bangkok became the focal point of a Teochew maritime trading network that covered virtually every major coastal port of China and Southeast Asia. On the junk trade carried out between China and Siam in the 1820s, Gützlaff commented:

A country so rich in productions as Siam offers a large field for mercantile enterprise. Sugar, sapan-wood, beche-de-mar, birds’ nests, sharks’ fins, gamboge, indigo, cotton, ivory, and other articles, attract the notice of a great number of Chinese traders, whose junks every year, in February, March, and the beginning of April, arrive from Hainan, Canton, Soakah (or Shan-keo, in Chaou-chow-Foo,) Amoy [Xiamen], Ningpo [Ningbo], Seang-hae, (or Shang-hea-heen [Shanghai], in Keang-nan [Jiangnan],) and other places. Their principal imports consist of various articles for the consumption of the Chinese, and a considerable amount of bullion. They select their export cargo according to the different places of destination, and leave Siam in the last of May, in June, and July. These vessels are about eighty in number. Those which go up to the Yellow Sea take, mostly, sugar, sapan-wood, and betel-nut. They are called Pak-tow-sun, (or Pih-tow-chuen, white headed vessels,) are usually built in Siam, and are of about 290 or 300 tons, manned by Chaou-chow-men, from the eastern district of Canton province.
The major part of these junks are owned either by Chinese settlers at Bangkok or by Siamese nobles. The former put on board, as supercargo, some relative of their own, generally a young man, who has married one of their daughters; the latter take surety of the relatives of the person whom they appoint supercargo. If anything happens to the junk, the individuals who secured her are held responsible, and are often, very unjustly, thrown into prison. Though the trade to the Indian archipelago is not so important, yet about thirty or forty vessels are annually despatched thither from Siam.


The so-called Pak-tow-sun 白頭船 (white-head junks) were Chinese junks that were operated out of China’s Zhejiang province. Many of them were owned and crewed by Teochew merchants and traders, even though the community was better associated with the Ang Thau Tsung 红頭船 (red-head junks) from Guangdong province, to which the Teochew Prefecture belonged.

Poor health forced Tomlin to quit Bangkok after nine months in Siam. Despite the loss of his co-worker, Gützlaff persisted with his mission. He developed close relationships with the Chinese settlers and was adopted by a Kwo clan from Fujian’s Tong-an district and given the name Shih-lee. In June 1831, an opportunity came on Gützlaff’s way to China on a Teochew-manned white head junk, and he immediately jumped on the adventure that no European had taken before.


Between themselves, the Teochews and Hokkiens made hundreds of junk voyages to as far south as Java and north to Manchuria to trade each year. Yet, it never once crossed the mind of a Chinese to describe the crew and workings onboard these junks. Thankfully, Gützlaff was a curious and observant man:

Chinese vessels have generally a captain, who might more properly be styled a supercargo. Whether the owner or not, he has charge of the whole of the cargo, buys and sells as circumstances require; but has no command whatever over the sailing of the ship. This is the business of the Ho-chang [火長] or pilot. During the whole voyage, to observe the shores and promontories are the principal objects which occupy his attention, day and night. He sits steadily on the side of the ship, and sleeps when standing, just as it suits his convenience. Though he has, nominally, the command over the sailors, yet they obey him only when they find it agreeable to their own wishes; and they scold and brave him, just as if he belonged to their own company.

Next to the pilot (or mate) is the To-kung (helmsman 舵公), who manages the sailing of the ship; there are a few men under his immediate command. There are, besides, two clerks; one to keep the accounts, and the other to superintend the cargo that is put on board. Also, a comprador, to purchase provisions; and a Heang-kung, (or priest 香公), who attends the idols, and burns, every morning, a certain quantity of incense, and of gold and silver paper. The sailors are divided into two classes; a few, called Tow-muh  (or head men 頭目), have charge of the anchor, sails, &c.; and the rest, called Ho-ke, (or comrades 貨客), perform the menial work, such as pulling ropes, and heaving the anchor. A cook and some barbers make up the remainder of the crew. All these personages, except the second class of sailors, have cabins; long, narrow holes, in which one may stretch himself, but cannot stand erect.

Image 4: Karl Gützlaff dressed in the costume of a Hokkien sailor.

Gützlaff had learned Chinese in Java, presumably from a Hokkien. This equipped him to understand not only the constant arguments on the deck but also how the junk actually operated:

If any person wishes to go as a passenger, he must apply to the Tow-muh, in order to hire one of their cabins which they let on such conditions as they please. In fact, the sailors exercise full control over the vessel, and oppose every measure which they think may prove injurious to their own interest; so that even the captain and pilot are frequently obliged, when wearied out with their insolent behaviour, to crave their kind assistance, and to request them to show a better temper.
The several individuals of the crew form one whole, whose principal object in going to sea is trade, the working of the junk being only a secondary object. Every one is a shareholder, having the liberty of putting a certain quantity of goods on board; with which he trades, wheresoever the vessel may touch, caring very little about how soon she may arrive at the port of destination.
The common sailors receive from the captain nothing but dry rice, and have to provide for themselves their other fare, which is usually very slender. These sailors are not, usually, men who have been trained up to their occupation; but wretches, who were obliged to flee from their homes; and they frequently engage for a voyage, before they have ever been on board a junk. All of them, however stupid, are commanders; and if anything of importance is to be done, they will bawl out their commands to each other, till all is utter confusion. There is no subordination, no cleanliness, no mutual regard or interest.
The navigation of junks is performed without the aid of charts, or any other helps, except the compass; it is mere coasting, and the whole art of the pilot consists in directing the course according to the promontories in sight In time of danger, the men immediately lose all their courage; and their indecision frequently proves the destruction of their vessel. Although they consider our mode of sailing as somewhat better than their own, still they cannot but allow the palm of superiority to the ancient craft of the "Celestial Empire." When any alteration for improvement is proposed, they will readily answer,—If we adopt this measure we shall justly fall under the suspicion of barbarism.

On how the Chinese navigated at sea, Gützlaff elaborated:

The whole coast of China is very well known to the Chinese themselves. As their navigation is only coasting, they discover, at a great distance, promontories and islands, and are seldom wrong in their conjectures. They have a directory, which, being the result of centuries of experience, is pretty correct in pointing out the shoals, the entrances of harbours, rocks, &c. As they keep no dead reckoning, nor take observations, they judge of the distance they have made by the promontories they have passed. They reckon by divisions, ten of which are about equal to a degree. Their compass differs materially from that of Europeans. It has several concentric circles; one is divided into four, and another into eight parts, somewhat similar to our divisions of the compass; a third is divided into twenty-four parts, in conformity to the horary division of twenty-four hours, which are distinguished by the same number of characters or signs; according to these divisions, and with these signs, the courses are marked in their directory, and the vessel steered.

Gützlaff’s junk headed first for what he described as a small port near the mouth of the Jaou-ping river in Teochew called Soakah (or Shan-keo) [山腳?]. This possibly meant the town of Huanggang [黃岡 Ng-gang], which sits on the entrance of Huanggang River [黃岡河, Ng-gang Ho], the longest river in Raoping [饒平Jaopeng] district, as well as the boundary of the districts inhabited by the Teochew and Hokkien-speaking Chinese. Because of their common pursuit in maritime trade, a bitter rivalry existed at this time between the two communities, which Gützlaff explained:

As soon as the first promontory of the Chinese continent was in sight, the captain was prompt and liberal in making sacrifices, and the sailors were not backward in feasting upon them. Great numbers of boats appeared in all directions, and made the scene very lively. We were becalmed in sight of the Lema islands [Lamma, in Hong Kong], and suffered much from the intense heat. While there was not wind enough to ruffle the dazzling surface of the sea, we were driven on by the current to the place of our destination, Soakah, in Chaou-chow-foo, the most eastern department of Canton province, bordering on Fuhkeen. This district is extensive, and closely peopled. The inhabitants occupy every portion of it; and must amount, at a. moderate calculation, to three or four millions. Its principal ports are Ting-hae [澄海 Thenghai] (the chief emporium,) Ampoh [庵埠 Ampou], Hae-eo [海陽Hai-yor, present-day Teo-Ann], Kit-eo [揭陽Gek-yor], and Jeao-ping [饒平 Jaopeng].

The people are, in general, mean, uncleanly, avaricious, but affable and fond of strangers. Necessity urges them to leave their native soil, and more than 5000 of them go every year to the various settlements of the Indian archipelago, to Cochin-China, and to Hainan, or gain their livelihood as sailors. Being neighbours to the inhabitants of Fuhkeen, the dialects of the two people are very similar, but in their manners there is a great difference. This dissimilarity in their customs, joined to the similarity of their pursuits, has given rise to considerable rivalry, which frequently results in open hostility. But the Fuhkeen men have gained the ascendency, and use all their influence to destroy the trade of their competitors.

On the situation at Soakah, the Prussian preacher added:

The entrance of the Soakah river is very shallow; but numerous small craft, principally from Ting-hae, are seen here. The duties, as well as the permit to enter the river, are very high; but the people know how to elude the mandarins, as the mandarins do the emperor. Ting-hae is a large place, tolerably well built, and inhabited principally by merchants, fishermen, and sailors. The productions of the surrounding country are not sufficient to maintain the inhabitants, who contrive various ways and means to gain a livelihood. There is no want of capital or merchants, but a great lack of honesty and upright dealing.

For many centuries, the centres of wealth of the Teochew region were the prefectural capital Teochew (Chaozhou) and the agricultural heartlands Teo-yor 潮陽 and Gek-yor. With the establishment of regular trade with Southeast Asia, the doors to better lives were now opened to the fringe fishing communities on the coasts of Thenghai, Hai-yor and Jaopeng.

In the end, Gützlaff’s junk was denied a permit to proceed to Soakah. Thus, he failed to step onto Teochew soil, but found himself at Namoa [南澳], the prefecture’s largest offshore island:

Our sailors were natives of this district, and anxious to see their families after a year's absence. As, however, our junk had no permit, we could not enter the river of Soakah, but had to anchor in the harbour of Nan-aou, (or Namoh) whilst passage - boats came in all directions to carry the men to their homes. Rice being very cheap in Siam, every sailor had provided a bag or two, as a present to his family. In fact, the chief thing they wish and work for, is rice; their domestic accounts are regulated by the quantity of rice consumed; their meals according to the number of bowls of it boiled; and their exertions, according to the quantity wanted. Every substitute for this delicious food is considered meagre, and indicative of the greatest wretchedness. When they cannot obtain a sufficient quantity to satisfy their appetites, they supply the deficiency of rice with an equal weight of water. Inquiring whether the western barbarians eat rice, and finding me slow to give them an answer, they exclaimed; "O, the sterile regions of barbarians, which produce not the necessaries of life! Strange, that the inhabitants have not, long ago, died of hunger!" I endeavoured to show them that we had substitutes for rice, which were equal, if not superior to it. But all to no purpose; and they still maintained, that it is only rice which can properly sustain the life of a human being.

When most of the sailors had left the junk, I was led to reflect on their miserable condition. Almost entirely destitute of clothes and money, they return home, and in a few days hurry away —again to encounter new dangers and new perils…
It was the 17th of July when we anchored in the harbour of Namoh. The island, from which this harbour takes its name, is mostly barren rock, consisting of two mountains connected by a narrow isthmus, in lat. 26 deg. 28 min. N.; long. 116 deg. 39 min. E. It is a military station; it has a fort; and is a place of considerable trade, which is carried on between the people of Fuhkeen and Canton. The harbour is spacious and deep, but the entrance is difficult and dangerous.


Image 5: Map of the 8 historical counties of Teochew Prefecture. Namoa is the turtle-shaped island beside Chenghai.

Namoa was historically a pirate's nest and a calling point for Portuguese smugglers. The fact that its inhabitants were not the most refined was quickly apparent to Gützlaff:

As soon as we had anchored, numerous boats surrounded us, with females on board, some of them brought by their parents, husbands, or brothers. I addressed the sailors who remained in the junk, and hoped that I had prevailed on them, in some degree, to curb their evil passions. But, alas! no sooner had I left the deck, than they threw off all restraint; and the disgusting scene which ensued, might well have entitled our vessel to the name of Sodom. The sailors, unmindful of their starving families at home, and distracted, blinded, stupified by sensuality, seemed willing to give up aught and everything they possessed, rather than abstain from that crime which entails misery, disease, and death. Having exhausted all their previous earnings, they became a prey to reckless remorse and gloomy despair. As their vicious partners were opium-smokers by habit, and drunkards by custom, it was necessary that strong drink and opium should be provided; and the retailers of these articles were soon present to lend a helping hand. Thus, all these circumstances conspired to nourish vice, to squander property, and to render the votaries of crime most unhappy.

The progress of vice was halted by the return of the junk captain, who had gone onshore. The descriptions of the land and people of Teochew before the 19th century that we have are primarily the writings of Chinese mandarins. They were men who sat on the apex of the local society, and surrounded by the scholar-gentry, landowners and merchants. On the other hand, Gützlaff was literally on the same boat with the “most debased class of people”. In his journal, he offers us a glimpse into the lives of these commoners, not merely as statistics in official reports or as subjects of the Chinese emperor, but the realities of their struggles to survive in the lowest echelons of imperial China, resorting to any means necessary:

Here I saw many natives famishing for want of food; they would greedily seize, and were very thankful for, the smallest quantities of rice thrown out to them. Though healthy, and strong, and able to work, they complained of want of employment, and the scarcity of the means of subsistence. Urged on by poverty, some of them become pirates, and in the night time surprise and plunder the junks in the harbour. When fourteen days had elapsed, all were anxious to depart, because their treasure was exhausted, and the opportunities for farther expenditures were only the means of tantalizing and annoying them. As we were getting under weigh, an old man predicted that we should have to encounter storms; but this did not deter us from proceeding. Many junks, loaded with sugar for the north of China, left the harbour in company with us.


As late as 1795, Teochew was struck by a severe famine. It resulted in its people resorting to eating grass and tree-barks and an untold number of deaths. If King Taksin had not opened Siam’s doors, what would have befallen the Teochew people?  

From Namoa, Gützlaff travelled on the same junk northwards to Tianjin, where it unloaded its cargoes of sugar, tin, sapan-wood and pepper. It went on to the Liaodong Peninsula before sailing back south. Gützlaff disembarked at Macau, where he was told there were many “barbarians”. He never tried again to enter Teochew, but he laid the foundation for other Western missionaries to do so. 

The full accounts of Gützlaff's journey are published in Journal of Three Voyages Along The Coast Of China in 1831, 1832, and 1833.

Subscribe to The Teochew Store Telegram channel to receive our latest updates/歡迎訂閱潮舖的Telegram頻道,獲得最新資訊: https://t.me/theteochewstore



Leave a comment