In 1823, a gutsy and astute eighteen-year old from Yuepu (Guek-po) village in Guangdong province, 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.

Seah Eu Chin His Life and Times Portrait

Several significant points stand out in his life.

His Early Days

Seah Eu Chin was born in 1805. His father was Seah Keng Liat, a yamen secretary in Puning (P’o leng). The yamen was the local government bureaucracy and court of law, and a yamen secretary was a minor provincial official. This was during the rule of the Jiaqing Emperor.

No one knows for sure why Seah Eu Chin wanted to leave China and come to Singapore. One push factor could have been chaos, disorder, and dissatisfaction in China at the time. A pull factor could be Seah Eu Chin’s willingness to take risks for opportunities. Similarly, many others also left China to seek their fortunes overseas.

What we do know for sure is that the young man’s decision was not a conventional one for a minor official’s son.

Business Leadership

Upon his arrival in Singapore, Seah Eu Chin first worked as a clerk and bookkeeper. In his early days, he worked for a businessman called Yeo Kim Swee. According to Sir Song Ong Siang, Kim Swee had a large business in Boat Quay, between Market Street and Bonham Street. Another interesting fact is that Kim Swee co-founded an association called the Keng Teck Whay in 1831, a private family benefit society.

An enterprising man, Seah Eu Chin later established his own successful trading firm in 1830, at the age of 25 years old. He set up business in Kling Street (which was later renamed Chulia Street) and later in Circular Road as a commission agent, supplying junks trading between Singapore and neighbouring ports.

He was also an astute risk-taker. In 1835, using his profits from his successful business, 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.

Gambier and pepper were typically grown together because gambier leaves could be used as fertiliser for pepper vines. While pepper harvesting was seasonal, gambier leaves could be collected all year round. While pepper plants took time to mature, gambier matured quickly. Therefore, cultivating them together ensured a steady income.

At first, the crops failed despite many attempts. His friend, Thomas Church, persuaded him to keep going on.

Despite the initial failures and setbacks, Seah Eu Chin eventually became successful and widely known as the “King of Gambier and Pepper”.

Around the same time Seah Eu Chin entered the gambier and pepper industry as a capitalist investor, he consolidated his commission business under the name, Eu Chin & Co., and branched out into a wide assortment of goods. He built up many respectable business connections with European firms.

Seah Eu Chin collaborated closely with the Ngee Heng kongsi, a labour organisation or cooperative, earlier in his career because they controlled labour while he controlled financial capital. As his wealth grew and his status rose, he eventually dominated their relationship, as a capitalist investor with economic interests aligned with the town merchants and Straits Chinese.

In 1840, Seah Eu Chin became a member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, composed of the principal European and native merchants.

Community Leadership

Seah Eu Chin was also a respected community leader who contributed much to Singapore.

For example, in 1845, he formally established the Ngee Ann Kongsi with 12 other Teochew community leaders, a charitable social welfare organisation that has lasted till today.

“Ngee Ann” was the old name for Chaozhou prefecture in Guangdong province, where Teochews originated from. Seah Eu Chin became the Ngee Ann Kongsi’s first President, a post he held for the rest of his life.

Seah Eu Chin was deeply concerned about the welfare of the Chinese community in Singapore. He was an avid observer and writer who wrote articles about the community in 1847 and 1848, published in Logan’s Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. Although not perfectly accurate, these articles provide a Chinese observer’s perspectives and insights on the working and living conditions of Chinese migrants in Singapore.

In February 1850, Seah Eu Chin headed a deputation of the Chinese welcoming the Governor-General of India, the Marquis of Dalhousie, on his visit to Singapore.

An anecdote goes that Lord Dalhousie presented Seah Eu Chin with a purse of 100 sovereigns as a token of appreciation for his services, but the generous community leader gave the money to the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital (established by Tan Tock Seng) instead.

From the 1850s to 1870s, he was on the management committee of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He served in member and treasurer posts.

Seah Eu Chin also supported other charities and humanitarian efforts. For example, in May 1874, he and other prominent members of the Chinese community in Singapore contributed to a fund, in aid of victims of the Bengal famine.

Law and Order: Leadership During Challenging Times 

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 the book One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, Sir Song Ong Siang wrote that Seah Eu Chin “rendered many valuable services to the Government, especially during the great Hokien [sic] and Teochew riot in 1854.” He also stated that Seah Eu Chin was “quite fearless during those troublous times” and “used to go with the Sepoys who escorted the conveyance of food to his plantations.”

In fact, Seah Eu Chin was highly respected for his efforts in mediation and negotiation. A Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly) report in 1923 cited an 1849 “Free Press” extract that stated:

The police having found themselves unable to compose the differences existing between the different societies of Chinese in Singapore, which for some time past have been producing scenes of riot and violence, Seah Eu Chin has been called in to their assistance and, we are glad to hear, has succeeded in effecting a treaty of peace, though probably not of friendship amongst the belligerents, whom he bound over in heavy penalties to keep the peace in time to come.

The writer of the 1923 report wondered:

It remains to be seen whether a modern Eu Chin will arise with sufficient influence over his turbulent countrymen to succeed in quelling the internecine troubles now existing among them.

In 1851, Seah Eu Chin was made a member of the Grand Jury by the British, and when Singapore became a Crown Colony on 1 April 1867, he was made a Justice of the Peace by Sir Harry Ord. Seah Eu Chin was among the first Chinese to receive this distinction of being made a J.P. In 1872, he was made an honorary police magistrate, along with his famous brother-in-law, Tan Seng Poh.

Retirement and Passing 

Seah Eu Chin retired from business in 1864 when he was around 60 years old, to concentrate on scholarly pursuits, spending the rest of his long life in the cultivation of Chinese literature.

While pursuing his scholarly interests, he maintained his interest in community issues, especially issues involving the Teochews. 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 passed away on 23 September 1883 at the age of 78 – one of the oldest Chinese residents in Singapore at the time – in his beautiful home at No. 11 North Boat Quay. According to the Straits Times Weekly Issue (27 September 1883), he reportedly passed away at eight o’clock at night. The same article reported that “Eu Chin was highly respected by the Chinese community and possessed great influence amongst all classes”.

He was laid to rest at Grave Hill, part of the Seah family’s plantation along Thomson Road. (For more details on the tomb, please visit Seah Eu Chin’s Final Resting Place.)

Seah Eu Chin’s wife Tan Meng Choo, who was known for her kindness to the poor and those in need, passed away in March 1905.

She was also buried at the private family burial grounds off Thomson Road.

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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, 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 British Association (SCBA), the forerunner of today’s Peranakan Association Singapore, 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, and member of the Municipal Commission, and he funded the King Edward Medical School, the precursor of the renowned NUS today.

The Family Today

In modern times, Seahs maintain a lower profile than their ancestors; nonetheless, the tradition of contributing runs strong. Shawn’s father started his career in SIA; after a short stint, he subsequently entered the profession of education, in which he remains an active proponent of lifelong education. Shawn’s father donates extensively to Boys’ Town, and like his ancestors, he tries to better the lives of the unfortunate.

Shawn himself has dedicated his own career and passions towards the nation. His career in the Public Service has brought him through various portfolios with the ability to change lives. Like his father, he started out in the Ministry of Education as a teacher; he subsequently served in the Ministry of Defence, and now reviews policies on migrant workers at the Ministry of Manpower. In his personal capacity, he is committed to preserving and promoting Singapore’s heritage and identity, with a book on Seah Eu Chin published and another on Seah Liang Seah on its way.

It is often quoted that Singapore has no resources but her people, and that Singapore is only as successful as those who are determined to make it so. When Seah Eu Chin first arrived in Singapore as a youth, it is unlikely that he strove to become a public figure and a philanthropist. Yet, driven by a passion to do his bit, he eventually became such a person; just as importantly, he started a family that continues his values to the present day. In their own ways, Shawn and his family represent the ideal of active citizenry – a family dedicated to improving the lives of people in their country and of those around them. His family story is a story of service that has continued unbroken throughout the generations, and an inspiring representation of how a people can build their country.

Source: Mr Kenneth Chong, added by Tan Zhi An on 1 August 2018 to the Singapore Memory Project. Credit belongs to Mr Chong. Only edited slightly by Shawn Seah for accuracy in September 2020.

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Seah Eu Chin - His Life and Times 2nd Edition

Short blurb of the book, Seah Eu Chin – His Life and Times

Seah Eu Chin – His Life and Times (first published 2017; 2nd edition 2019) 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.

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Copyright © 2017 Shawn Seah

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