The First Teochews in Singapore: Part 1 - An Old Teochew Account on the 1819 Founding of Singapore

2019 is officially the bicentennial year of Singapore, a former British colony and today one of Asia's wealthiest cities.

The island-state is also home to the second largest Teochew overseas diaspora, after Thailand, and up till the mid-20th century a critical node on a trading and migratory network that connected the principal Teochew port of Swatow with key trading centres such as Hong Kong, Saigon and Bangkok. Teochews from Singapore were responsible for the early economic development of Johor, Malaysia's southernmost state whose capital Johor Bahru was once known as "Little Swatow".   

What has long been forgotten is that more than half a century ago, the Teochews in Singapore held to an oral tradition claiming that their forerunners were settled in Singapore before Sir Stamford Raffles, the Englishman hailed as Singapore's modern founder, even arrived. If true, this assertion will demand a change in the written history of Singapore.

Starting from this week, The Teochew Store will publish in three parts an in-depth research that sheds light into what this oral tradition says and seeks to verify its authenticity and accuracy.

Introduction: The Chinese in Singapore Before Raffles

The landing of Sir Stamford Raffles at the Singapore River on 28 January 1819 is often seen as the turning point of Singapore’s history, marking its modern era. To no small extent, this has been influenced by the Englishman’s writings back home, which included his famous declarations to the Duchess of Somerset of Singapore as “my new colony” and “a child of my own and I have made it what it is”. [1] Other luminary patrons were briefed that the settlement’s original population “scarcely amounted to 200” before it surged to “not less than 3,000” in three months, and that in over a year, the “insignificant fishing village” was transformed into a “port… surrounded by an extensive town” with “ten or twelve thousand souls, principally Chinese”.[2]

These testimonies invariably aggrandised Raffles’ personal role in the founding of Singapore. However, a recently published private correspondence dated 8 January 1819 between Raffles and East India Company (EIC) Governor General Lord Hastings, reveals his possession, at least nine days before sailing from Penang to Singapore, of intelligence that his intended destination already had “about 2,000 Inhabitants upon it (new settlers) under a respectable Chief” [text in parentheses in original].[3] Conspicuously, all his known communications to England excluded this information, for instance, Raffles had later told Hastings that “when the British flag was first hoisted, there were not perhaps fifty-three Chinese on the island”.[4]

Within two days of his arrival, Raffles had the written agreement of the local ruler, Temenggong Abdul Rahman, to set up an EIC trading factory. This was formalised by a treaty with the former Johor Sultanate crown prince Tengku Long (whom he assented to recognise as Sultan Hussein Shah) and the Temenggong on 6 February 1819.[5] Exactly a week later, Raffles prepared an official report to the EIC Supreme Government in Calcutta that contained, among other insights, a full description of ongoing economic activities in Singapore. In his own words:

“… the industrious Chinese are already established in the interior and may soon be expected to supply vegetables, and c., and c., equal to the demand. The port is plentifully supplied with fish and turtle, which are said to be more abundant here than in any part of the archipelago. Rice, salt, and other necessaries are always procurable from Siam, the granary of the Malay tribes in this quarter. Timber abounds in the island and its vicinity; a large part of the population are already engaged in building boats and vessels, and the Chinese of whom some are already engaged in smelting the ore brought from the tin mines on the neighbouring islands, and others employed as cultivators and artificers, may soon be expected to increase in a number proportionate to the wants and interests of the settlement…” [6]

Without question these were commercial activities beyond the scale of an “insignificant fishing village” and the Chinese participation in them was not inconsequential.

Between giving two contrasting pictures — one of a sleepy village with 200 persons and another of a bustling new settlement of 2,000 individuals — Raffles privately admitted to a merchant in Penang that Singapore had, as of end-January 1819, “only five hundred” persons who were “inhabitants from Malacca and Rhio that are gone there”.[7] This was as close as he got to the truth; the first resident of Singapore, William Farquhar, independently confirmed many years later that the Temenggong was found established with “four or five hundred followers”.[8]

Another member of the 1819 expedition party, Captain John Crawford (not to be confused with Dr John Crawfurd, who was the second British Resident of Singapore), recalled in his diary an encounter with “upwards of 100” of Chinese, who offered themselves as labourers and were duly hired to cut down rank grass and root out jungle near the British tents.[9]

Eminent Raffles scholar John Bastin considered Raffles’ acknowledgement of the Chinese in his February 1819 official report “an interesting reference”.[10] However outside of writings that completely overlook them, these Chinese have barely merited more than passing mentions by Singapore historians, so as to stress the smallness of their number.[11] In a recent instance, they were even assumed to be in Singapore because they were “very lost”.[12] The implication is that existing accounts of Singapore’s modern founding have drawn on incomplete information about an anonymous, but important, group of Chinese.

An Old Teochew Oral Account

The Teochews hailing from the eastern Guangdong Province were one of the first resident groups of Chinese in Singapore. In the earliest-known written description of the Chinese in Singapore by one of its own member, prominent Teochew merchant Seah Eu Chin reported in 1848 that his “tribe” was then the largest, accounting for 19,000 out of 40,000 Chinese in total.[13] 

At present, nearly all published knowledge about the Singapore Teochew community in the early half of the 19th century is centred on the life of Seah and his success as a plantation owner that earned him the nickname “Gambier King”. However, Seah only arrived in Singapore in 1823 at a relatively young age of 18 years.), and handful of late-1940s and early-1950s publications by the Teochew community expressed an unequivocal belief that the Teochews had been established in Singapore even before a port was opened in 1819.[14] If true, then there is a good possibility that the first group of Chinese in Singapore reported by Raffles were Teochew. However there was no writing to show the grounds for the Teochews’ conviction that their forefathers were here before Raffles, until an elucidation of how the Teochews first arrived  was presented in the 1950 publication Teo-chews in Malaya (馬來亞潮僑通鑑 - click here to download book).

The editor of this encyclopaedic title, which focused on the background and activities of the Teochew migrant communities in Singapore and Malaya, was Phua Chye Long (潘醒農),[15] a publisher and an office-bearer with Ngee Ann Kongsi and Singapore Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan. [16] He was also the author of the relevant text that was attributed to oral tradition. It appears over two separate passages in the book and an English translation of the first passage is as follows:

“It is said that before Englishman Sir Raffles arrived, Singapore was a fishing village and a Malay sultan resided in Sek Lak Mung.[17]

據傳英人萊佛士氏未抵星以前, 新加坡為一漁村, 馬來蘇丹住居於石叻門。

There were more than ten persons from Hai Ior,[18] who were all tragically killed by the Malays; and subsequently Teochew sojourners were recruited from Siam, and they lived at Sua Kia Deng [meaning “top of the little hill”], which is the Wak Hai Cheng Bio compound of today.[19]

有海陽人十餘名,每受巫人殘殺, 乃由暹招集潮僑前來, 居住於山仔頂, 即今粵海清宮地。

From Dang Khoi, Ampou, were two men, Heng Kim (a descendant of Tsap Poih Buan Seng) and Heng Hong Sung, who sailed to Singapore before others and as leaders of the Teochew sojourners built Wak Hai Cheng Bio and formed Ngee Ann Kun.[20]

嗣有庵埠東溪人王欽(十八萬勝之後)及王豐順兩人, 首先航海來星, 為潮僑領袖, 建粵海廟, 創義安郡。

Thereafter, whenever Teochew sojourners sailed south to Singapore, the red head junks would moor in front of the temple, [21] and [the migrants] would put up inside the premises, so that whoever wanted to hire a shop assistant could negotiate with them there.

此後凡潮僑南來至星者, 紅頭船艤於老爺宮前, 宿於廟內, 凡欲聘請店員時, 即親至廟面議。

Until 1819 when Sir Raffles obtained a lease for Singapore, Sung Heng gambier plantation was their base; this is today’s Uang Ge Sua,[22] and by then the number of the Teochew sojourners was already in the thousands.”[23]

至一八一九年, 萊佛士氏即租得新加坡, 乃以順興甘蜜園為根據地; 既今之王家山是, 時潮僑旅星者已達數千眾矣。

The second write-up of what we may term, for the purposes of discussion, as the “Teochew oral account” similarly told of two waves of arrival of the Teochew people in Singapore, before Raffles arrived in 1819. A translation of it reads:

“According to the oral traditions, at the beginning a group of more than ten persons from Hai Ior travelled afar to Singapore, but they were all tragically killed by local Malays. Subsequently a number of Teochew sojourners came from Siam, and they lived at Sua Kia Deng (that is the present Wak Hai Cheng Bio grounds) and around Boat Quay, which became the base of the Teochew sojourners in Singapore.

據傳說謂: 初海陽人十餘到遠新加坡時, 每受當地巫人之殘殺, 後暹羅徒來潮僑若干, 卜居於山仔頂(即今粵海廟宮地)及吻基一帶, 此為潮僑旅星之基地也。

At that time the Malay ruler’s seat was at today’s Sek Lak Mung, and though the Chinese and the natives were mixed freely, there was peace among them.

當時巫王都於今之石叻門, 唐番雜處, 頗能相安。

From Dang Khoi, Ampou came Heng Kim and Heng Hong Sung, who were the descendants of Tsap Poih Buan Seng, a forerunner of the junk trade, and in his day leader of the Teochew sojourners.

嗣有庵埠東溪人王欽及王豐順者, 乃十八萬勝之後輩, 為航業界之先進, 該時潮僑之領袖也。

Thereafter the Teochew sojourners migrated south continuously and their numbers grew by the day...[24]

此後潮僑陸續南來, 人數日多。。。

Except for uncertainty over whether only Heng Kim, or both Heng Kim and Heng Hong Sung, descended from Tsap Poih Buan Seng, the two texts can be seen to adhere to a coherent storyline.

Notwithstanding references to him as a sultan, the unnamed Malay ruler can be readily identified as Temenggong Abdul Rahman, the Johor Chief Minister for Justice. Holding hereditary fief over the Singapore Straits and land on both sides (except for Riau and Lingga),[25] he moved to Singapore with 150 followers in 1811 and lived by the Singapore River north bank (see Map 1) until the British compelled the relocation of his istana (palace) to Telok Blangah in 1823.[26] 

Phua confirms this identification in another section of Teo-chews in Malaya introducing Wak Hai Cheng Bio:

“The temple compound that at first covered more than 130 acres was a grant by the Temenggong-Sultan [圖明果蘇丹]. Later when the land lease was obtained, the document reflected only the present site that measures 13,273 square feet in total, as the rest of the land had been parcelled out by others to build shops and houses.” [27]

Map 1 – Map of Singapore River mouth showing locations of Wak Hai Cheng Bio, Boat Quay, Raffles landing site, Temenggong Istana and Fort Canning Hill. Map data © 2017 Google, Urban Development Authority.

Though the Teochew oral account was composed during a period of growing Chinese nationalism and anti-colonial sentiment in the mid-20th century, it is necessary to observe that its balanced presentation does not overtly exalt the Chinese or denigrate the British. To a large part this can be credited to Phua’s standing as a leader in the literary field among the overseas Teochews.[28]

As testament to its broad acceptance within the Chinese-language scholarship, the Teochew oral account has, in subsequent years, been cited or referenced in a number of Chinese publications concerning the history of the Chinese in Singapore and Teochews overseas.[29] Until today, its key points continue to be quoted in local and overseas Chinese-language news reports and online articles.[30]

Critically, however, Phua’s writings on the activities of Heng Kim, Heng Hong Sung and their followers failed to stir any discussion in mainstream historical circles about the evidence of early Teochew migration to Singapore. This may be due to the Teochew oral account’s limited circulation, its unknown provenance (in accordance to literary practice of Phua’s day, he did not name or profile any of his informants), or its regurgitation by writers who assumed its credibility without providing any further justification. The Teochew oral account may also have simply ignored because it contradicts popular recognition of Raffles as the founder of modern Singapore.

Oral traditions, being narratives passed down by word-of-mouth over generations, are vulnerable to distortion due to the tendency of transmitters to conflate disparate events, contributing to an inevitable loss of detail over time.

That the Teochew oral account is not without deficiency is emphasised by its sketchy rendering of the alleged ill-fated landing of the men from Hai Ior — even if the deadly incident’s plausibility is supported by Dutch representations of pre-1819 Singapore as a “den of murderers” and of Temenggong Abdul Rahman as the “head of the pirates”.[31]

Still, the account is significant as it seeks to tell the story of the Chinese who were already in Singapore when Raffles arrived, It cannot be dismissed without an investigation into the writings of the Englishman, Farquhar and other established historical sources, to discover whether the “industrious Chinese” Raffles reported about in February 1819 were indeed Teochew. Should an affirmative answer to this pivotal question be found, the inquiry can then be extended to other major revelations of the Teochew oral account, including its claims that the first Teochews in Singapore came immediately from Siam and were settled at Sua Kia Deng, as well as if their named leaders Heng Kim and Heng Hong Sung were actual persons and co-founders of Wak Hai Cheng Bio.

[To be continued...]


[1] Letter from T.S. Raffles to Duchess of Somerset dated 11 June 1819, as cited in Bastin, J. (2014). Raffles and Hastings: Private exchanges behind the founding of Singapore (pp.88-89). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.

[2] Letter from T.S. Raffles to Marquess of Lansdowne dated 15 April 1820, as cited in Bastin, J. (2014). Raffles and Hastings: Private exchanges behind the founding of Singapore (pp.147-152). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.; Letter from T.S. Raffles to Duke of Somerset dated 20 August 1820, as cited in Raffles, S. (1830). Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (pp. 464-468).London: J. Murray. The population numbers cited by Raffles are highly questionable. Raffles was informed by the Singapore Resident William Farquhar in May 1820 of a census finding that the island had no more than 4,727 residents with 506 houses, of whom 1,159 were Chinese. See Solomon, E. (1996). Farquhar's life in the Far East: a chronology. (p.32). Singapore: Singapore Resource Library, National Library Board; Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). (p.344). London: J. Murray. Furthermore official census figures from subsequent years show that Singapore’s total population surpassed the 10,000 mark only at the end of 1823 and the Chinese only overtook the Malays as the largest community in 1827. See Eastern Settlements. (1842).The Bengal and Agra Annual Guide and Gazetteer (Vol.2). (p.287). Calcutta: W. Rushton and Company.

[3]Letter from T.S. Raffles to The Marquess of Hastings KG dated 8 January 1819, as cited Bastin, J. (2014). Raffles and Hastings: Private exchanges behind the founding of Singapore (pp.32-35). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.

[4] Raffles, T.S. (1824). Substance of a Memoir on the Administration of the Eastern Islands (p.12). London.

[5] For the articles of these two treaties, see Buckley, C.B. (1902). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore (Vol. 1) (p. 36 and pp.38-40). Singapore: Fraser & Neave.

[6] Despatch from T.S. Raffles to J. Adam, Esq. dated 13 February1819, as cited in Bastin, J. (2014). Raffles and Hastings: Private exchanges behind the founding of Singapore (pp.52-70). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.

[7] Letter from “Carnegie” to unknown dated 2 July 1819, as cited in Raffles, S. (1830). Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (p. 402). London: J. Murray. Rhio, or Riau, refers to Bintan island.

[8] Farquhar. W. (1830, May to August). The Establishment of Singapore. The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australasia, 2, 140. 

[9] How Singapore was Founded. (1937, 18 October).The Straits Times, p.10.

[10] Bastin, J. (2014). Raffles and Hastings: Private exchanges behind the founding of Singapore (p.51). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions.

[11] Taking the cue from T.J. Newbold, many historians have expressed in their works that Singapore had 20 to 30 Chinese in January 1819. However, Newbold’s estimate has been pointed out by W. Bartley to be without authority and questionable. See Newbold, T.J. (1839). Political and statistical account of the British settlements in the Straits of Malacca, viz. Pinang, Malacca, and Singapore (Vol.1) (p.279). London: John Murray; Song, O.S. (1984). One hundred years' history of the Chinese in Singapore (p.6). Singapore: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1902); Turnbull, C.M. (2009). A history of modern Singapore, 1819-2005 (p.25). Singapore: NUS Press; Kwa, C.G., Heng, D. & Tan, T. Y. (2009). Singapore, a 700-year history: from early emporium to world city (p.111). Singapore: National Archives of Singapore; Bartley, W. (1933, December). Population of Singapore in 1819. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 11 (2), 177.

[12] Kwa, C.G., Heng, D. & Tan, T. Y. (2009). Singapore, a 700-year history: from early emporium to world city (p.1). Singapore: National Archives of Singapore. 

[13] Siah. U.C (1848). General Sketch of the Numbers, Tribes and Avocations of the Chinese in Singapore. The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 2, 283-290.

[14]These publications include 陳別同 (主編). [Chen, B. T. (Ed.).] (1949). 新加坡潮州聯僑俱樂部特刊 [Singapore Teo Chew Lian Kheow Club Special Publication]. 新加坡: 新加坡潮州聯僑俱樂部;新加坡潮州西河公會. [Singapore Teochew Sai Ho Association] (1949). 新加坡潮州西河公會:中華民國卅八年一月至六月份會務報告書 [Singapore Teochew Sai Ho Association: Working Report for January to June 1949]. 新加坡: 新加坡潮州西河公會: 許武榮. [Xu, W. R.] (1951). 馬來亞潮僑印象記 [The Impression of Teo-chews In Malaya]. 新加坡: 南洋書局. 

[15] Variant spellings: Phua Chay Leong and Phua Chay Long. Names of Teochew persons and place without commonly used romanisation are transcribed from Chinese according to transliterations found on the website 潮州•母語 (Teochew Mogher):

[16] 周漢人(主編). [Zhou, H. R. (Ed.).] (1958). 南洋潮僑人物志與潮州各縣沿革史 [Biographies of overseas Teochew leaders with history of Teochew districts] (p.AA24). 新加坡:中華出版社; NUS Libraries (2008, September 25). 潘醒農 (Phua Chay Long, 1904-1987). Retrieved January 04, 2017, from 海外華人研究 [Overseas Chinese Research] website:

[17] Literally “gateway of the straits”, with Sek Lak being a transliteration of selat, meaning “straits” in Malay. This is a colloquial Chinese name for Telok Blangah Road. See 潘醒農  (主). [Pan, X.N. (Ed.).] (1939). 南洋各屬地名街名錄 [Directory of Towns and Streets in Malay Archipelago] (p.98). 新加坡: 南島出版社.

[18] A county in the historical Teochew prefecture in China, now Teo Ann (潮安, in Mandarin Chao’an) district in Chaozhou prefectural-city.

[19] Wak Hai Cheng Bio, also known as Yueh Hai Ching Temple, is located at 30B Phillip Street.

[20] This is a historical name of the Teochew prefecture from the 5th and 6th centuries. Ngee Ann Kun was the predecessor of Ngee Ann Kongsi that was formed in 1845.

[21] 紅頭船. In Teochew: Ang Thau Tsung. Based on an edict issued by Qing Emperor Yongzheng in 1723, junks from various provinces in China had to have their bows painted in different colours for customs inspection and taxation purposes. Vessels from Guangdong, of which the Teochew prefecture was part of, were assigned red and those from Fujian green. As many red head junks were built and operated by the Teochews in Siam, this category of junks became synonymous with the community.

[22] Literally means “royal hill”. This was a colloquial Chinese name of Fort Canning Hill. See Braddell, R.S.J. (1921). The Good Old Days. In Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). (p.470). London: J. Murray. 

[23] 潘醒農(主編). [Pan,X.N.(Ed.).](1950). 馬來亞潮僑通鑒 [Teo-chews in Malaya](p.29).新加坡: 南島出版社.

[24] 潘醒農(主編). [Pan,X.N.(Ed.).](1950). 馬來亞潮僑通鑒 [Teo-chews in Malaya](p.40).新加坡: 南島出版社

[25] The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies (London: January to June 1820), 9, 93. 

[26] Crawfurd, J. (1856). A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries (p.402). London: Bradbury & Evans; Abdullah Abdul Kadir, & Hill, A.H. (1985). The Hikayat Abdullah: the autobiography of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, 1797-1854: An annotated translation. (pp.176-177). Singapore: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1969); and Buckley, C.B. (1902). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore (Vol.1) (p.104). Singapore: Fraser & Neave.

[27] 潘醒農(主編). [Pan,X.N.(Ed.).](1950). 馬來亞潮僑通鑒  [Teo-chews in Malaya](p.351).新加坡: 南島出版社

[28] 周漢人(主編). [Zhou, H. R. (Ed.).] (1958). 南洋潮僑人物志與潮州各縣沿革史 [Biographies of overseas Teochew leaders with history of Teochew districts] (p.AA24). 新加坡:中華出版社.

[29] These publications include 许武荣. [Xu, W. R.] (1951). 马来亚潮侨印象记 [The Impression of Teo-chews In Malaya]. 新加坡: 南洋书局. 黃堯(主編). [Huang,R.(Ed.).](1967); 星馬華人志 [The history of the Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore]. 香港: 明鑒出版社. 林孝勝等著. [Lin,X.S. et al.](1975); 石叻古迹 [Historical Monuments in Selat].新加坡: 南洋學會; 李志賢.(主編). [Lee,C.H.(Ed.).](2003). 海外潮人的移民經驗[The Migration Experience of the Overseas Teochew Community].新加坡: 八方文化.

[30] Examples of these references include: 謝燕燕 [Xie,Y.Y.](2010,June 14). 宣揚廟宇文化與歷史內涵--讓百年粵海清廟尋回昔日光輝[Promote the Temple Culture and its Historical Connotations - Let century-old Wak Hai Cheng Bio find back its Glory].聯合早報 [Lianhe Zaobao],p. 9;張家慶[Zhang,J.Z.](2015,July 30). 潮人移民海外紀略[Accounts of theTeochew People Migrating Overseas].潮州日報 [Chaozhou Daily],p. 6.Retrieved from; 林濟[Lin,J.](2010,February 2). 近代東南亞潮商與汕香暹叻國際貿易圈第一節早期的東南亞潮州移民 [Modern Teochew Merchants and Their International Business Circles in Swatow, Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore - Part 1 - The Early Teochew Migrants to Southeast Asia]. Retrieved March 15,2017 from 世界潮商網 [World Chaoshang] website:; 粵海清廟 [Yue Hai Ching Temple].(n.d.). Retrieved March 8, 2017, from 新加坡八邑會館 [Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan] website:八邑相關社團/粵海清廟/

[31] Miller, H.E. (1941, October). Letters of Col Nahuijs. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 19 (2), 192-193.


Article is adapted from "An Old Teochew Oral Account Sheds New Light on the 1819 Founding of Singapore", a research paper originally commissioned by the National Library Board, Singapore during the Author's tenure as a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellow attached to the National Library, Singapore during 2016-2017. 


You may also be interested in:

"Like" our Facebook page to stay updated with The Teochew Store.

Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • NA says...

    Interesting read, thank you for publishing. Please state the author of this 4 part article, and that of “An Old Teochew Oral Account Sheds New Light on the 1819 Founding of Singapore”?

    January 30, 2019

Leave a comment