In 1851, the Taiping Rebellion erupted in south China, leading to immense bloodshed. Many poor Chinese immigrants (sinkeh
, meaning new guests in Hokkien) escaped from the chaos by fleeing to Singapore in hopes of a better life, but ended up as coolies doing unskilled, hard labour in construction, agriculture, shipping, mining and rickshaw pulling. Many factors coalesced to create a trap that prevented coolies from escaping their deadly bond.
1. The exploitative emigration system
The credit-ticket system emerged to meet the booming labour demand in the agricultural and mining industries. As few could afford a ticket upfront, the system allowed them to repay with monthly deductions from their future wages after their voyage.
Many Chinese were also conned by unscrupulous recruiters. Some would tell tales of immense riches to be earned overseas and promise to pay for their passage. Others would introduce them to gambling and use their eventual debt to force them to emigrate.
Many immigrants would perish on the voyage itself. Some died from overcrowding onboard, while others drowned when the ship sank. For those who survived the trip, secret society
The major secret societies at the time were the Ghee Hin, Ghee Hok and Hai San. They helped new Chinese immigrants (sinkeh) find employment, kinship, protection and opium in Singapore. Despite their poverty, many Chinese labourers paid their subscriptions to the secret societies. Secret societies became a major source of violence in the 1870s, their rivalries frequently sparking off riots that crippled Singapore. While they were initially left alone to manage the Chinese communities, the British soon became wary of their growing power and set up the Chinese Protectorate in 1877 to regulate secret societies.
coolie-brokers in Singapore would sell them to employers. A credit-ticket cost about $33 to $38, which would take the sinkeh
about three years to repay.
Singapore became the headquarters of the coolie trade in Southeast Asia, where coolies were first shipped here and then out to the neighbouring mines and plantations.
2. Cruel living and working conditions
The coolie was required to work for his employer until he could pay off the amount the employer paid for him. The catch? His wages were fixed by the employer and rarely received in full or in cash. That meant coolies could not escape their abysmal working conditions. Overexertion, lack of sanitation and tropical diseases resulted in high death rates.
Historian W. L. Blythe noted the contractor system, where European business owners would buy coolies for their plantations and leave them under the complete charge of Chinese contractors. Coolies were imprisoned in their house when they were not working, severely beaten, badly fed and received no medical treatment.
3. Opium addiction and the kongsi
Kongsi is a Chinese word that used to mean partnership. Many kongsis started out as partnerships between coolies of an operation and the investor who provided resources for the operation. Ideally, each member of the kongsi would gain a fixed share in the profits when the goods were produced. However, the coolies ran up opium and gambling debts against their future wages and shares, and many were left in debt. Taukehs would control the kongsis and use secret societies to intimidate the labour force.
With no medical provisions or entertainment, coolies sought solace in opium. The drug helped kill pain, ease loneliness, stop diarrhoea, and relieve fevers.
Their opium addiction gave the kongsi
political and economic power at the coolie’s expense. The taukehs
—heads of the kongsi
—sold opium to the coolies, effectively taking back their wages and holding the labour force captive. The profits did not end there. Contractors would even run gambling dens for coolies.
In the end, as the coolies became poorer, the taukehs
got richer. Choa Chong Long was the perfect example of such wealth and power. He was Singapore’s first opium farmer and the head of the Hokkien bang