Teochews in Singapore Town

The earliest centre of the Teochew community in Singapore town was at Boat Quay and its immediate vicinity. This was prime location situated at the “belly of the carp” (referring to the shape of the Singapore River), and also till mid-20th century  the heart of trade and commerce for the Chinese on the island.  The dominant presence of the Teochews at Boat Quay reveals the immensity of their contributions to the rise of Singapore’s commercial fortunes and an important fact long buried in history…

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Map of old Singapore River (credit : Editions Didier Millet, National Archives of Singapore). The Teochew community in downtown Singapore congregated in the area on the immediate right-hand side of Elgin Bridge (middle arched bridge, originally a footbridge) and Coleman Bridge in this photo.

From the account given by Song Ong Siang in One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (1923), we know that in early June 1819,  just four months after an agreement with the Temenggong to set up a British trading post in Singapore was signed, Sir Stamford Raffles hired 200 to 300 coolies, including Chinese, to break up a nearby hill to fill a swamp at where is now Boat Quay. The size of Singapore’s population at that point, as claimed by Raffles was 5000, consisted principally of Chinese. Later in the same month, Raffles arranged with the Temenggong for his Malay followers to move to the Singapore’s north bank, while a Chinese kampung would be created on the south side. The location of this Chinese kampung at the end of the planned Elgin Bridge, which is where Boat Quay is, strongly suggests that it was in fact a Teochew kampung. By inference, the Chinese who helped Raffles lay the foundations of the Singapore town were Teochews!

Other information support this likelihood:

  • Two weeks after landing in Singapore, Raffles reported in a dispatch dated 13th February 1819 that “the industrious Chinese are already established in the interior and may soon be expected to supply vegetables etc.” In addition, he revealed that these Chinese were connected to the neighbouring Riau islands. Riau was since the 1700s inhabited by two groups of Chinese – Hokkiens, who were primarily merchants, and Teochews, who cultivated gambier for livelihood. As Singapore had no trade when Raffles first landed, it is suffice to believe that the “industrious Chinese” he encountered were Teochews.
  •  Gambier plantations were established around the Singapore River before, or soon after the British arrived. A map (below) dated 1825 marked the land beside “Kampong China” as gambier plantation. In what may be the first land transaction documented in Singapore, three men with distinct Teochew-sounding names (Tan Ngun Ha, Tan Ah Loo and Heng Tooan) sold their gambier plantations at Pearl’s Hill (then called Stamford Hill) to Captain James Pearl in May 1822.

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Extracted from an old map of the settlement around the Singapore River in 1825. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

  • Some Peranakans and Hokkiens arrived from Melaka (and maybe Penang) in 1819, including Tan Tock Seng and Tan Che Sang. However they were mainly merchants and were quite unlikely to have came in large numbers or performed coolie labour;
  • The Chinese who first settled in Boat Quay were also unlikely to be Hokkien as the first junk from Amoy (Xiamen) reached Singapore only in February 1821. Moreover the area of Hokkien concentration was along the coast at Telok Ayer.

As the Chinese Kampung grew in size, it became known to the Chinese as “tua poh”, while the district across Elgin Bridge (extending along North Bridge Road) was called “sio poh”. “Tua poh” and “sio poh” are often written in Chinese as 大坡 and 小坡 (literally “big/main hillside” and “small/secondary hillside”), but this is wrong. Instead, the correct word for “poh” is 埠 (“bou” in Teochew). This term refers to a port and was used as part of the name of major trading centres in Teochew. For example there is a major town in Teo-Ann county called Anbou 庵埠, where the Qing maritime customs were established. When Swatow became a Treaty Port after the Second Opium War in 1860, it was known as Swatow-bou 汕頭埠.

The first phase of development in tua poh before 1840 was in a district bordered by South Bridge Road, the Singapore River (along Boat Quay) and the coast (along Telok Ayer). The pattern of expansion from the Teochew-area in Boat Quay, to the Hokkien enclave of Telok Ayer and the inland sections where the Hakkas (Nankin Street, Chin Chew Street) and Cantonese (Pagoda Street, Smith Street and Temple Street) later occupied is apparent from a comparison of a 1822/1823 map of Singapore and a 1828 proposed town plan shown below.

1823
Extract of Map of Singapore 1822-3. Source National Archives of Singapore.

1828
Extract of Proposed Plan of the Town of Singapore, 1828 by Lieutenant Jackson. Source National Archives of Singapore.

More information about the streets dominated by the Teochews in the pre-1840 tua poh district can be found in this post.

The spiritual and community centre for the Teochews in Tua-poh was Wak Hai Cheng Bio temple on Philip Street. Read more about it here.

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