Many moons ago, I researched and wrote up a biography of my ancestor Seah Eu Chin (1805-1883). He was a pioneer in the agricultural development of Singapore and Johor, and also one of the founders of the Teochew organisation the Ngee Ann Kongsi. The draft has been sitting around for a long time, and I have now finally converted it to a website, seaheuchin.info.
Working on his biography has stimulated my interest not only in Singapore history, but also in the broader fields of economic and social history. I hope that the way I present his story does not seem like hagiography, but instead puts his life into the context of the times that he lived in. Like a fish oblivious to the water it swims in, we tend not to think too much about the origins of the social order we live in and the institutions embedded in it. The 19th century seems irrelevant to most Singaporeans, and we only learn the barest outlines of the political history of this period in school. The history of immigration, for example, is often depicted as a dichotomy between faceless coolies on one hand, and the rags-to-riches stories of rich merchants like Seah Eu Chin on the other.
In fact, echoes of the 19th century are still with us. Some of these are indeed forgotten corners waiting to be rediscovered – the tomb of Seah Eu Chin was long thought to be lost and was only found again in a wooded area of Toa Payoh in 2012. But other traces are right in front of us just waiting to be seen:
Why do we have several place names in the north of the island that end in “Chu Kang”? This is a relict of gambier agriculture that used to be organized around river or inlet “harbours”, from which the goods and provisions could be loaded. These plantations were not just on Singapore island but also along the Johor coast, and boat traffic connected the Johor plantations with the merchants, like Seah Eu Chin, in the port of Singapore.
Why is one of the biggest malls in Orchard Road called Ngee Ann City? What business does a charity have in owning a shopping centre? It turns out that the site used to be a Teochew cemetery, run by the Ngee Ann Kongsi on land that it bought in 1845, and Seah Eu Chin was one of the original trustees.
Many issues that were once argued over in private homes, at clan organizations, and the legislative chamber are still with us today. I found it remarkable to read in the archives about disputes over the regulation of gambling, anxiety about immigration, and potential tax evasion. Of course the details may differ – people now bet illegally online and not in shady gambling dens, convict labourers are no longer a key source of manpower for public works, and opium is not subject to tax – but it is still surprising how many parallels remain.
In retrospect I should have done this sooner. With content on the web, I can easily update the pages with new information, and embed media including maps and videos. I hope that this work will be interesting to more than just myself and other Seah descendants, and that it will get at least some readers interested in connecting our present to the past.