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Oct 23, 2014

Footprints of Singapore Immigrants

An oil painting entitled Dr Sun Yat Sen and Chinatown a century ago by artist Chen Chudian displayed at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.  (Photo above).

Following in the Footsteps of Singapore's Chinese immigrants

On 26 July 2014, some 200 people gathered at the National Museum to revisit the lives of Singapore's Chinese immigrants and to learn how they helped the nation in Singapore's early years.

They watched a special screening of Footprints - a four-part documentary about Singapore's earliest migrant communities. Those who attended included students and members of clan associations.

The event is a tie-up between Channel NewsAsia and the National Heritage Board, and is part of the celebrations of Singapore's Heritage Festival.


The immigration of Chinese coolies was high between the periods of 1823 to 1891 after Singapore became a free port, between 1910 to 1911 before the first World War and between 1926 to 1927, soon after the war. Coolie emigration decreased after 1927 because of the economic depression, followed by the Japanese occupation and then the World War II.

Unemployed immigrants by the boatloads flocked to Singapore due to the unfavourable conditions in their villages in China. While others were simply attracted to Singapore because there were many job opportunities available for them. 

Coolie trade never peaked after this and most immigrants after World War II were workers with better education, skills and training.  My father arrived in Singapore in the early 1940s with book-keeping qualification in Chinese.

"May you always find new roads to travel; new horizons to explore; new dreams to call your own".   – James Oppenheim

To escape from the Chinese Revolution, (1911–12), nationalist democratic revolt that overthrew the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty in 1912 and civil war in China.  There was news by words of mouth in the village that Nanyang (Chinese: 南洋; literally: "Southern Ocean") offers the uneducated and illiterate people to earn their livings in Singapore for menial jobs as Singapore's growth as an entreport and trading centre.  Many immigrants travel on one way boat ticket to Singapore from China with their hard-earned own life savings.

Coolies worked as rickshaw pullers, trishaw riders and farmers. They were employed in mines, ports, in rubber and other plantations, in clearing jungles and on construction sites. They did back-breaking tasks such as loading and unloading cargo and as farmers. They were employed in ports, in rubber and other plantations, in clearing jungles and on construction sites. They did back-breaking tasks such as loading and unloading cargo and dulang washing or tin ore mining under the scorching sun. It was a common sight in early Singapore to see coolies carrying gunny sacks filled with commodities such as spices and sugar near the Singapore river.

The coolies were, in a way, the backbone of early Singapore's economy because they generated growth for the economy and caused the country to prosper. Few Chinese coolies went back to China later but most coolies settled down in Singapore doing other odd jobs.

A Samsui worker at a construction site 

The coolies contributed to Singapore's growth as a trading centre as they helped in the urban city planning of Singapore. When they provided the necessary transport, more traders and merchants were attracted to Singapore as transportation was readily and easily available When the coolies helped to grow those things more traders and merchants were attracted to Singapore. Not only that, there was an increase in trading activities as there were many varieties of merchandise from Great Britain and other European countries in the early days.

The coolies suffered much hardship, they were very poor and lived in cramped dwellings with no windows and light. Many of the jobs taken by coolies involved hard labour, taking a toll on their bodies.

The coolies lived in cramped environment and most of them were near Chinatown as the Singapore River was near and was easy for them to go to work.

Coolies were employed in almost every sector of work including construction work, plantation work, in ports and mines and as rickshaw pullers. The word “coolie” is believed to have come from the Hindi term kuli, which is also the name of a native tribe of Gujerat in western India. It is believed that the Kulis were among the first coolies as they were easy to recruit because they lived on the northern Indian coast. The word kuli  also means "hire" in Tamil.

Chinese coolies were driven by poverty in China to seek a better life in Singapore.

The newly arrived coolie recruit was called sin kheh which meant "new arrival" in Hokkien. The secret societies and clan associations were involved in controlling and regulating the immigration of coolies from China. Secret societies would help the peasants pay for their journey to Singapore.

Upon arrival, the majority of the early coolies would be handed over to employers of the same dialect, The kongsi, or a "clan association" was either an organisation, a group or a network of like-minded individuals speaking the same dialect or from the same province/part of China. The secret societies therefore acted as agents helping the peasants to come to Singapore, and to find employers from a certain kongsi, depending on the dialect of the particular peasant. Recruitment was carried out based on dialect connections. The secret societies helped support the coolies financially in times of illness, defended their livelihoods and organised final rites.

The British however felt threatened by the rising power and prominence of the secret societies, and made these societies illegal in 1890. An official Chinese Protectorate was set up to handle the immigration and official procedures for coolies. Voluntary associations also arose, supporting the coolies in their immigration and transition into Singapore.

They were given to opium inhaling to relieve their tired bodies of its soreness and to gambling in an attempt to escape from their misery. The whites and wealthy Chinese employed the coolies mainly because of their willingness to work hard for little money.

During the Japanese Occupation, Singapore was "Syonan-To" and purchase of "chandu" (opium) was legalized.  Authorisation cards are issued by the Japanese military administrators at a controlled quantity for each person.

As Singapore developed economically, the need for coolies declined. With Singapore's independence in 1965, came new laws and radical economic restructuring. Modern technology was developed and incorporated at a fast pace which included use of machines in freight transport. The coolies in the harbour were no longer needed. Similarly the need for coolies in other areas of work too declined. This forced the coolies to look to other means of living. Coolies to on work as domestic servants, shop assistants and as helping hands in different areas of work. Some coolies even picked up some skills and found employment in shops such as that of shoe makers, blacksmiths and carpenters.

Excerpts from a history project by Harreini Jeyaudin, Bonita Ong, Sahanas d/o Syed Muabarak and Vinnie Heng Kai Ning in 2013 with acknowledgement of sources from Naidu Ratnala Thulaja at Infopedia., the National Archives of Singapore, NewspaperSG of National Library Board are acknowledged with thanks as the source credit on the blog.

The relevant material from various resources to share on this nostalgic blog for the benefit of everyone.  The articles and archived photos are not intended for commercial or for profit purposes.


Blogger joanne said...

Hi There! Thanks for sharing these wonderful stories from our colourful history! I would like to share such stories in school classrooms packed with archive images like you have on your blog. They offer such a unique look into our past! Can I ask how you were able to find the images and what channels I would have to go through to acquire them for non-profit, educational purposes? Any advice in the area would be much appreciated!

October 30, 2014 at 12:02 PM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

Hi Joanne,

Thank you for your comments.

These heritage personal blogs were posted by Thimbuktu about 7 years ago with over 500 blogs currently. I have mentioned on these blogs that the "memory-aid" photos and stories were found on the Internet from various resources which public published, mostly several decades ago for the benefit for non-profit, community and educational purpose.

With respect to the owners of the sources, pls acknowledge with thanks and credit to them. Blogs which are posted indiscriminately for commercial or advertising purpose would be reported by the owners and removed accordingly.

November 2, 2014 at 12:28 PM  
Blogger FT said...

Hello Thimbuktu, Do you have anything on Fairchild factory at Lorong 3 Toa Payoh?

Sincerely ..>FT

November 24, 2014 at 8:33 AM  
Blogger Thimbuktu said...

The anonymous enquiry to reply here:

November 28, 2014 at 5:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me find what does people do during their free time during 1900s-1930s

September 22, 2016 at 12:42 PM  

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