Two weeks after landing in Singapore, Stamford Raffles wrote a despatch dated 13 February 1819, which reported: “The industrious Chinese are already established in the interior and may soon be expected to supply vegetables etc equal to the demand.”
More likely than not, these “industrious Chinese” who arrived before the British were Teochew gambier and pepper cultivators who lived along waterways in the northern parts of the island.
With the approval of native Malay rulers and the Dutch, Teochews had been cultivating gambier and pepper in the Riau archipelago since the 1730s. They operated a Kangchu system to convert tracts of virgin jungles around a river catchment area into plantations, called bangsal in Malay. The settlement of each plantation cluster was known as Kangkar 港脚 (“foot of the stream”). Kangchu 港主 (“master of the stream”) referred to the head of these settlements, who was responsible for the organisation of capital, coolie labour and tools, as well as welfare and security of its inhabitants. The produces were collected and sold at Senggarang, the main Teochew market town on Bintan. Also named Canton Kampong by the Dutch (after the province where Teochews came from), Senggarang had a separate existence from Amoy Kampong (Tanjong Pinang), the centre of local Hokkien merchants. The two communities had apparent economic ties. While the Teochews provided labour, the Hokkiens, who were closely allied with the Dutch and probably also well-connected to Peranakan businessmen in Melaka, were responsible for capital goods. (Read more about the early Teochews in Riau in “Secret Societies” Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Social History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia.)
Map showing Singapore, Senggarang and Tanjong Pinang
To avoid paying taxes to the Dutch, the Teochews began to smuggle their produces to sell in Singapore after it was declared a free port by the British. They also transplanted their Kangchu operations across the sea. According to a Singapore Free Press report on 26 October 1849, around 20 Kangkars existed around the island.
The Kangkars in Singapore were commonly called “Chu Kang” (or “Choo Kang”) 厝港in indication of its settlement by a specific dominant clan. The name Lim Chu Kang, for example, shows that it was a river commune belonging to the Lim clan.
The list below provides additional information of some Kangkars formed in the 1850s or earlier:
- Au Kang (Hougang) 后港
- Bookoh Kang 巫許港
- Chan Chu Kang 曾厝港
- Chan Chwee Kang
- Choa Chu Kang 蔡厝港
- Chu Chu Kang 朱厝港
- Lau Chu Kang 劉厝港
- Lim Chu Kang 林厝港
- Nam To Kang
- Peng Kang 秉江
- Sempang Kang (Simpang) 新邦港
- Tan Chu Kang 陳厝港
- Wha Heng Kang
- Yio Chu Kang 楊厝港
The British initially held a laissez-faire attitude towards the Kangkars. However rapid proliferation of new plantations in the island’s interior (including many belonging to Hokkiens) led to growing number of conflicts. The authorities began to assert control by imposing a rural landholding registration system in the 1840s, conducting a survey of the plantations in 1854/1855, and the disbandment of the Chinese secret societies behind the plantations in 1890. Thereafter gambier began to lose its importance in the Singapore economy. The Kangchu system was eventually abolished by the British colonial government in 1917.
In 1848, Singapore produced 80,000 pikuls (1 pikul equals approximately 60kg) of gambier (up from 22,000 pikuls in 1836) and 30,923 pikuls of pepper. Together these two crops accounted for nearly three-fifths of the total value of Singapore’s agricultural produce that year (figures from Prince of Pirates: The Temenggongs and the Development of Johor and Singapore, 1784-1885). Based on Seah Eu Chin’s estimation in 1848 that 19,000 out of the 39,700 Chinese in Singapore were Teochews (of whom 10,000 were gambier and pepper planters), it is clear that the role played by Teochew pioneers in the survival of the nascent Singapore colony was a critical one.