Hokkien-Teochew Riots (1854)
The Hokkien-Teochew Riots, also known as the Great Riots of 1854 or the Five Catties of Rice Riots, began on 5 May 1854. The riots stemmed from conflicts between the Hokkien and Teochew communities in Singapore. Several accounts have suggested that secret societies were involved in the riots, especially the Ngee Heng (Ghee Hin) society, which had splintered into Hokkien and Teochew branches, but the extent of their involvement is uncertain. The riots lasted for at least 10 days, and led to the death of approximately 500 people and the destruction of some 300 homes. The riots are considered to be one of the most severe outbreaks of violent conflict within the Chinese community in nineteenth-century Singapore.
In the early 1850s, conflict between the Hokkien and Teochew communities rose over control of pepper and gambier plantations as well as lucrative revenue farms attached to them. Evidence suggests that the Hokkien merchant community became increasingly dominant in this economic sector, leading to dissatisfaction among the Teochews. Tensions were also heightened due to the greater unemployment levels in Singapore as a result of a decline in gambier production in 1854. This coincided with a period of rice shortages and high rice prices due to reduced imports from Java. These factors combined to foment discontent among the Chinese community.
In addition, an unusually large number of Chinese immigrants had arrived in Singapore in 1853. Many of these immigrants were members of the Xiao Dao Hui (Short Dagger Sect) that had fled to Singapore after participating in a failed rebellion in Amoy against the Qing Imperial government. These political refugees were well armed and considered to be more predisposed to violence than other Chinese immigrants, who usually came to Singapore seeking employment. European observer C. B. Buckley reports that disagreements emerged when the local Hokkien community refused to join in a subscription fund to aid the rebels, of whom a majority were reportedly Teochew. This caused tension between the Hokkien and Teochew communities.
Outbreak of violence
Violence first erupted on 5 May over a dispute between a Hokkien shopkeeper and a Teochew buyer regarding the price of rice. The argument drew the attention of bystanders, who took sides based on their affiliations, thus escalating the situation. This resulted in intense street fighting between the two communities. Shops were smashed and looted amid the chaos.
Upon the first outburst of violence, Police Superintendent Thomas Dunman called for military reinforcements to supplement the police force, but Governor William Butterworth, who failed to comprehend the gravity of the situation, overruled his initial requests. Instead, Butterworth took it upon himself to survey the troubled areas, where he was attacked by a mob. He ordered proclamations calling for calm to be posted throughout the town, but these proved to be ineffective.
When it became evident that the police force was unequal to the task of suppressing the riots, the military as well as contingents of marines from British men-of-war berthed in the harbour were summoned to aid in restoring order. European volunteers were also appointed as special constables to help contain the spread of violence. Influential Chinese businessmen and community leaders such as Tan Kim Seng and Seah Eu Chin rendered assistance by mediating with the headmen of the various secret societies. An appeal was also made to the Temenggong of Johore for assistance; in response, he sent 200 Malay soldiers as reinforcements.
Despite these efforts, the rioting continued to spread from the town to the rural areas after the first two days, to areas such as Paya Lebar, Bedok and Bukit Timah where many Chinese resided. Colonial reports suggest that the violence in the countryside was more intense and killings more widespread than they had been in the town area. On 10 May, five days after the start of the riots, the colonial authorities implemented a new course of action. Divisions of troops were transported by steamer to the corners of the island, from where they marched towards the town areas. The move caught the Chinese by surprise and was effective in quelling unrest in the countryside.
Resolution and aftermath
In all, the riots lasted for more than 10 days. While contemporary observers differed in their estimates, records indicate that approximately 500 persons were killed and some 300 homes were destroyed. In total, some 500 people were arrested, but only about 250 could be identified and tried. Following 17 days of trial, six men were sentenced to death and two were eventually executed.
In the aftermath of the riots, there were calls among the European merchant community for the colonial government to introduce more stringent legislation to better regulate the activities of Chinese secret societies, in order to prevent future riots. Editorials in The Straits Times and The Singapore Free Press also condemned Butterworth for his initially inadequate response, which they regarded as having led to a deterioration of the situation. Despite these calls for action, Butterworth remained steadfast in his view that minimal intervention was required, and strongly opposed any new legislation. He did, however, support the formation of the Volunteer Rifle Corps as a standby quasi-military force that could be called upon to put down any future instances of unrest, with Ronald MacPherson appointed as the its first commandant. Butterworth also bestowed upon Dunman the sword of honour, a military award in recognition of Dunman’s services in quelling the riots.
May – Dec 1853 : The arrival of Xiao Dao Hui rebels leads to a larger inflow of immigrants.
5 May 1854 : Violence breaks out in the town area.
6 May 1854 : The military is called in; special constables are appointed to restore order.
8 May 1854 : Rioting spreads from the town to the countryside areas.
10 May 1854 : Troops are sent to various corners of the island via steamer.
8 Jul 1954 : The Volunteer Rifle Corps, led by Ronald MacPherson, is established under the direction of Butterworth.
Yong Chun Yuan
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(Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY)
Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore (pp. 585-595). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC)
Davies, D. (1955, February 13). Many died in Hokkien-Teochew riots. The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved June 03, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57022 LEE)
Lim, I. (1999). Secret societies in Singapore: Featuring the William Stirling collection (p. 23). Singapore: National Heritage Board.
(Call no.: RSING 366.095957 LIM)
Rutherford, N. (1957, November 3). Colony’s first police chief had no experience. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved June 3, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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Song, O. S. (1984). One hundred years of history of the Chinese in Singapore (pp. 88-90). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)
Trocki, C. (1990). Opium and empire: Chinese society in colonial Singapore, 1800-1910 (pp. 111-113). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 305.89510595 TRO)
Untitled. (1854, May 13). Straits Guardian, pp. 74-75. [Microfilm: A00023973B].
(Call no.: RCLOS 079.5957 SG)
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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