In 1823, a gutsy and astute eighteen-year old from Swatow, China, arrived in Singapore to seek his fortune. He succeeded in his adopted home, and when he died 60 years later, he left a legacy that remains to this day.
This business and community leader was Seah Eu Chin.
Several significant points stand out in his life.
Seah Eu Chin was a talented businessman, establishing his own successful trading firm in 1830, at the age of 25 years old.
He was also an astute risk-taker. In 1835, he entered the agricultural sector in Singapore. He invested in the growing of gambier and pepper, two cash crops for export in the international economy, and acquired an eight-mile stretch of land between River Valley Road and Bukit Timah Road.
Despite his initial failures and setbacks, Seah Eu Chin eventually became successful and widely known as the “King of Gambier and Pepper”.
Seah Eu Chin was also a respected community leader.
For example, in 1845, he officially established the Ngee Ann Kongsi, a charitable social welfare organisation that has lasted till today. Concerned about the welfare of the Chinese community in Singapore, Seah Eu Chin was also an avid observer and writer who wrote articles about the community in 1847 and 1848.
Most importantly, Seah Eu Chin brought peace and stability during Singapore’s tumultuous early days. He played the role of mediator, negotiator, and peacemaker, for example, during the 1851 Anti-Catholic riots and the 1854 Hokkien-Teochew riots. In 1851, he was made a member of the Grand Jury by the British and when Singapore became a Crown Colony on 1st April 1867, he was made a Justice of the Peace. In 1872, he was made an honorary police magistrate, along with his famous brother-in-law, Tan Seng Poh.
In 1875, Seah Eu Chin was appointed trustee of the Teochew burial ground in Orchard Road.
After a long and fruitful retirement, Seah Eu Chin died in 1883 at the age of 78 – then one of the oldest Chinese residents in Singapore – in his beautiful home at No. 11 North Boat Quay. He was laid to rest at Grave Hill, which was part of the Seah family’s plantation along Thomson Road.
Relevant Extracts from the Singapore Memory Project
Seah Eu Chin first came to Singapore in 1823, a youth of 18 years. Common wisdom holds that most immigrants to Singapore from China then were economic migrants, people seeking to leave the strife and poverty in the mainland to have better lives overseas. Seah, however, was not of the same mould.
A son of a provincial official in Swatow, he was from a comparatively privileged background, part of a social class whose members would often choose to become scholars and part of the governing elite. Seah, however, bucked the trend; perhaps to seek adventure, perhaps to leave the instability of China, he set sail for Singapore.
It is speculated that of all the British possessions then, Seah picked Singapore because it was the most prominent and bustling trading post in the region, one that held promises and opportunities that would attract a man of Seah’s drive and ambitions. As history would eventually turn out, Seah’s decision was a boon to the fledging colony. When he landed in Singapore, he began his career as a clerk and a bookkeeper. In time and with the assistance of his employers, he eventually became a capable and very wealthy businessman in his own right by 1835, eventually becoming the “King of Gambier and Pepper” in Singapore’s agricultural sector.
A History of Service
Seah’s legacy, however, is not his business acumen nor his amassed wealth, but a family tradition that has contributed to the people of this island. Deciding against returning to China, he married into local nobility and settled in Singapore. In 1845, he founded and established the Ngee Ann Kongsi, the charitable foundation which still stands today as a pillar of philanthropy and assistance. Recognised as the leader of the Teochew community, he was called upon by the British to quell riots in the Chinese community through mediation, a role that he succeeded in because of his sterling reputation as a man for the people. Certainly, Seah Eu Chin was very much a man for the people; having made much of his wealth in Singapore, he devoted his efforts, and indeed much of his life, to improving the community. From the provision of donations and social services to keeping the peace and order in Singapore’s tumultuous early days, Seah played an instrumental role in developing the foundations of today’s modern city-state.
Likewise, his sons and subsequent descendants gave equally distinguished service to Singapore. Seah Peck Seah, a son and Shawn’s direct ancestor, was a famous businessman and owner of his own steamship company in the late 19th century. A Justice of the Peace, he gave his time to mediate conflicts and was the Honorary Treasurer to the Straits Chinese Business Association (SCBA), the forerunner of today’s Peranakan Association, and was very active in other community and educational work – a very early and effective version of the grassroots leaders that we know of today. Seah Liang Seah was yet another son that continued his father’s drive to better the lives of his fellow man. He took over the running of the Ngee Ann Kongsi and co-founded the previously-mentioned SCBA. Seah Liang Seah created some of Singapore’s most pivotal moments – he was the first Singapore-born Chinese member of the Legislative Council, member of the early Municipal Commission, and he funded the King Edward Medical School, the precursor of the renowned NUS today.
Source: Mr Kenneth Chong, added by Tan Zhi An on 1 August 2018 to the Singapore Memory Project. Edited slightly by Shawn Seah for accuracy in September 2020.
Short blurb of the book, Seah Eu Chin – His Life and Times
Seah Eu Chin – His Life and Times (first published 2017) captures snapshots of his life, and the lives of his famous sons, such as Seah Liang Seah and Seah Peck Seah, interwoven with other early pioneers such as Tan Tock Seng, Whampoa, Dr Lim Boon Keng, and Sir Song Ong Siang.
Told against a backdrop of a declining China and a rising British Empire, Seah Eu Chin – His Life and Times also tells the story of the founding and rise of a small maritime settlement nominally under British rule. It also tells the story of a fledgling agricultural industry – and the rise of the “King of Gambier and Pepper”. And it narrates episodes of rampages and widespread outbreaks of mayhem like the Anti-Catholic Riots of 1851 and the Hokkien-Teochew Riots of 1854, and how the hapless colonial authorities turned to respected Chinese leaders like Seah Eu Chin for help.
Seah Eu Chin – His Life and Times is largely based on documented material drawn from various sources including One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore by Sir Song Ong Siang.
Copyright © 2017 Shawn Seah
Updated 13 September 2020