Pickering’s Work as a Government Interpreter in Singapore

William Pickering
William Pickering

First Protector of Chinese

The first colonial officer with knowledge of Chinese languages. He served as Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements, and later, as the first Protector of Chinese in Singapore.

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First Protector of Chinese

I was offered the position of Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements Government by Straits Governor George Ord
George Ord was the first Governor of the Straits Settlements. During his tenure, he took measures to reduce carelessness and corruption, as well as nepotism and abuses of patronage. He questioned the taxation system as he felt that it was unfair to the poor and enabled the rich to pay very little. He also abolished the grand jury and registered immigrants. Despite his achievements in improving the efficiency of the colonial administration and achieving economic growth, he was an unpopular governor as his policies went against the established norms of the time.
, who valued my fluency in Chinese languages
In 1872, William Pickering was the only Chinese-speaking British officer in the service of the Straits Settlements. His expertise in Chinese languages led the Straits Government to send him to Penang to meet with the Chinese leaders of the Ghee Hin and Hai San secret societies, who were fighting over control of tin mines in Perak. He successfully persuaded them to agree to the Pangkor Treaty, which ended the clashes over the tin mines, and was later involved in the 1875 Pacification Commission that split territories between the two secret societies.
. Shortly after I arrived in Singapore to assume my duties, I discovered that the local translators have been playing a lengthy joke on the officials…
A Chinese Businessman
Circa 1872
I’m astonished by your command of the Chinese language. It’s rare for a European to have knowledge of Mandarin, as well as colloquial dialects! How in the world did you acquire your skills?

The 1876 Post Office Riots

William Pickering
William Pickering

First Protector of Chinese

The first colonial officer with knowledge of Chinese languages. He served as Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements, and later, as the first Protector of Chinese in Singapore.

Explore

First Protector of Chinese

I, together with Tan Seng Poh, have vetted the details of the sub-post office scheme for the Chinese community. It will be ready in four days, and will provide safe and reliable money remittance services
Remittance was the primary way that Chinese workers sent their earnings back home. Prior to the introduction of the post office, Teochew merchants had a monopoly on these services and charged a 3 to 5 percent commission per transaction.
for a small fee. It will be located on Market Street, and its services will…
A Troublemaker
Dec 1876
Alas, I feel sorry for our coolies and their miserable condition! After toiling and bearing heavy burdens, they have saved a dollar or two to send to their families overseas, only to have their remittances exploited by Chinese traitors with an insatiable lust for gain. While the cunning wolves establishing the post office claim they will charge us the old rates, they plan to raise their fees in order to cheat the poorer of us. If any virtuous man will cut off the heads of the Post Office Farmers, I will reward them with 100 taels
A tael is an old Chinese unit of currency. At that time, 100 taels were equivalent to about 360 grams of silver.
!

Secret Societies and the Sinkeh Kidnapping Attempt

William Pickering
William Pickering

First Protector of Chinese

The first colonial officer with knowledge of Chinese languages. He served as Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements, and later, as the first Protector of Chinese in Singapore.

Explore

First Protector of Chinese

Major Samuel Dunlop
The Inspector-General of Police in the Straits Settlements in the 1870s. He worked with William Pickering to suppress riots, and later, to register secret societies.
and I investigated a commotion by an angry crowd at Market Street. We found out that some sinkeh
Meaning new guests in Hokkien, the term sinkeh referred to new Chinese migrant arrivals in the Straits Settlements.
were forced onto vessels bound for Sumatra. We…
A Government Clerk
Circa 1877
The Chinese have formed a powerful empire within the British Empire! All our laws have failed to address this problem—the 1869 Dangerous Societies Suppression Ordinance was clearly a farce! Most of the Chinese community is ruled by the will of secret society headmen.

Pickering becomes the First Protector of Chinese

William Pickering
William Pickering

First Protector of Chinese

The first colonial officer with knowledge of Chinese languages. He served as Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements, and later, as the first Protector of Chinese in Singapore.

Explore

First Protector of Chinese

With the establishment of the Chinese Protectorate
The primary function of the Chinese Protectorate was to oversee matters concerning the Chinese community, such as managing newly-arrived coolies, regulating secret societies, and rescuing female victims of prostitution.
, I intend to use my new position as Protector of Immigrants and Emigrants
The words immigrant and emigrant both refer to a person who leaves a country to go to another. A person is an emigrant when they leave their country of origin and an immigrant once they arrive at their destination country.
to stop the worst abuses of the coolie trade. For starters, we will oversee the coolie system to ensure that employment contracts are officially registered and fairly drawn up, and…
A European Lawyer
Circa 1877
William, the passing of the Chinese Immigrants Ordinance and Crimping Ordinance will assist you in addressing coolie abuses. You will be allowed to license recruiting agents and go on board incoming ships to inspect them. This means that those who have already paid their passage to Singapore will have no fear of being illegally detained, while those who have not will be sent to government depots to be officially registered.

Ceremonial Traditions of Secret Societies

William Pickering
William Pickering

First Protector of Chinese

The first colonial officer with knowledge of Chinese languages. He served as Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements, and later, as the first Protector of Chinese in Singapore.

Explore

First Protector of Chinese

I witnessed a secret society initiation! It lasted from 10pm to 3am, during which 70 new members were admitted into the Ghee Hin Society. The Red Baton, an instrument of punishment that measured 36 Chinese inches in length, was placed outside the door of the venue. Each initiate had to…
A Ghee Hin Member
Circa 1878
I remember going through that ceremony. The entrance fee of $3.50
The initiation fee was split two ways: $2 went to the society’s treasury, while the other $1.50 went towards the expenses of the ceremony and fees for the office-bearers.
was almost more than what I had to spend. We had to recite this poem: “In my hands I hold the red cane, on the way to the Lodge I’ve no fear. You ask me brother, whither I go, you come early but I walked slow”.

Then, there was the Two-Plank Bridge, which symbolised rebirth. Before walking over it, we were given the purifying waters of the Three Rivers. It reminded me of the Chinese belief in the afterlife where everyone is given a bowl of soup to forget their past before crossing over a bridge.
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A New Approach to Secret Societies

William Pickering
William Pickering

First Protector of Chinese

The first colonial officer with knowledge of Chinese languages. He served as Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements, and later, as the first Protector of Chinese in Singapore.

Explore

First Protector of Chinese

I believe that British law is inadequate for governing the Chinese, and can see no other way of ruling them other than by recognising secret societies. Our new laws will allow us to keep the headmen of secret societies in check and make them refer any disputes to the Protectorate
Many headmen obeyed, as those who failed to cooperate faced banishment. William Pickering and his colleagues dealt with over 2,600 financial and domestic disputes in his first year as Protector of Chinese in 1877.
,…
A Colonial Clerk
Circa 1881
There is no doubt that the Protectorate has become one of the most important departments in the colony. Dangerous secret societies have become friendly ones, and its reputation for keeping the unruly populace in check is only second to that of the police!

The Final Assault

A Protectorate Staff Member

A desperate attempt on Mr. William Pickering’s life was made this morning. While he was assisting a group of immigrant women who had just arrived in Singapore, a Chinese man approached his desk and flung the iron head of a carpenter’s axe straight at him, inflicting an ugly skull wound.…
A Member of a Secret Society
Circa 1887
Pickering got what he deserved! It serves him right for pushing for more legal power
In 1886, William Pickering advised the government that its attempts to control illegal gambling had resulted in widespread police corruption instead. He urged that stricter measures be used to keep gambling in check.
to suppress our gaming houses
Secret societies ran illegal gambling establishments, and it was common practice to rig gambling sessions so that coolies, who were about to return to China, were cheated of their life savings.
and gambling dens. In fact, a mere head wound was too good for him!
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