William A. Pickering



William Alexander Pickering (b. 9 June 1840, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England–d. January 1907, San Remo, Italy) was the first Protector of Chinese in Singapore. He joined the British colonial administration in 1877 and was the first British officer who could speak and write Chinese. He was also fluent in the Mandarin dialects, having worked for over two decades in China. As the first Protector of Chinese, he worked to eradicate the abuses of the coolie (unskilled labourer) trade, regulate secret society activities and arbitrate their conflicts, as well as establish an Office of Virtue (called Poh Leung Kuk in Cantonese) for the prevention of child prostitution.

Fascination with all things Chinese
The sixth child and only son in a family of eight, Pickering was born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. He received his education at a private school in Nottingham and at 16 years old, embarked on a career at sea. He became an apprentice on board an East Indiaman vessel that sailed the ports of China, Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand) and the Malay archipelago.1 By the age of 22, he was a third mate on a Liverpool tea clipper involved in trade with China.2


In 1862, Pickering became disenchanted with the sea and, imbued with a strong curiosity about the Chinese, became a tide-waiter (an officer who boards anchored vessels to take stock of imports and exports) with the Chinese imperial maritime custom service on Pagoda island. The island was located on the River Min, near Foochow in Fujian Province, China. He took the opportunity to learn the Foochow dialect and spent a quarter of his salary to hire a native speaker to teach him Mandarin.3

Given his knowledge of Chinese and Mandarin dialects, Pickering was asked to accompany Mr Maxwell, the newly appointed commissioner of customs for Formosa, to the southern Chinese ports to establish custom houses in 1863. There, Pickering went on expeditions up the coast to arrest vessels that were conducting illicit trade at forbidden ports. In order to identify these illegal vessels, he communicated with local fishermen in their native languages or dialects. In 1865, Pickering was given charge of the customs at Anping, the port of Taiwanfoo, Formosa. In 1867, he moved on to take charge of the Taiwanfoo branch of an English firm, Messrs McPhail & Co. Plagued by fever and chronic dysentery, Pickering returned to England for a year’s leave at the end of 1870.4

Making his mark: ending the dispute in Larut

Pickering met Sir Harry St George Ord (governor of the Straits Settlements from 1867–1873) during his leave in London. Finding Pickering fluent in the Chinese language, St George offered him the position of Chinese Interpreter to the Straits Settlements Government.5 When Pickering arrived in Singapore in March 1872 to assume the post, he was the only European officer in the service of the Settlements who could speak Chinese. He set about to ensure that official interpretations and translations were performed correctly, and removed many corrupt court interpreters who had connections with secret societies.6

Pickering rose to prominence after successfully settling long-standing disputes between two secret societies, the Ghee Hin and Hai San, over tin mines in Perak, Malaysia during the Larut Wars (1861 to 1873).7 Pickering was sent to Penang to meet with the relevant Chinese leaders, persuading them individually to a peaceful co-existence in the tin mines in Larut. He persuaded them to resolve their disputes under British arbitration, which led to the signing of the Pangkor Treaty in January 1874.8 Pickering was also involved in the Pacification Commission that followed in 1875, which accorded different tin mine territories to the two secret societies.9

Singapore’s first Protector of Chinese
The 1870s was a decade of riots and unrest in Singapore, caused largely by the Chinese secret societies. Faced with the need to police the growing Chinese population, Pickering was appointed the first Protector of Chinese on 3 May 1877, and was given a Chinese shophouse on North Canal Road for the office of the Protectorate of Chinese. One of his immediate tasks was to keep in check the large number of Chinese immigrants arriving in Singapore and to eradicate the abuses of the coolie trade. One measure was to inform the sinkhehs (newly arrived coolies) of the presence of the protectorate, encouraging them to approach it when they required help. Pickering did this through interviewing all arriving Chinese immigrants about their circumstances when they disembarked. He stipulated that coolie brokers and coolie depots (where coolies were held while awaiting transport to their assigned work sites) had to be licensed. He also supervised the re-distribution of some of these immigrants to neighbouring regions in Southeast Asia.10


Pickering was concurrently made a Registrar of Societies in 1877. He believed that governing the Chinese was the most pressing problem confronting the government, and recognised that control of the Chinese population would require control of the Chinese secret societies.11 Working through the societies, he made their headmen the channels through which government regulations were passed down, and had them punish law offenders who were their members themselves. Pickering also acted as the mediator for disputes between societies. Any headman who refused to cooperate with the protectorate was banished from Singapore.12 Gradually, the protectorate supplanted the societies in settling financial and domestic disputes for the Chinese population.13 

In 1878, with the help of prominent Chinese and European missionary agencies, Pickering established the Office for the Preservation of Virtue, which operated a refuge for women who had fallen victim to prostitution. Women who took shelter there were taught domestic chores, and learned to read and write Chinese in preparation for marriage. Those who married were ensured a recourse should they be ill-treated by their husbands.14 

The final assault
The secret societies perceived Pickering’s regulatory measures as an interference in their affairs. On 18 July 1887, a Teochew carpenter, Chua Ah Siok (also spelt as Chua Ah Sioh or Choa Ah Siok), approached Pickering at his office under the guise of presenting a petition, and suddenly hurled an axe at his forehead.15 Pickering did not recover fully from the attack despite repeated extensions of leave, and permanently retired in 1890. He died in San Remo, Italy, in January 1907.16




Author

Irene Lim



References
1. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 1. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J); Pickering, W. A. (1898). Pioneering in Formosa: Recollections of adventures among mandarins, wreckers, and head-hunting savages. London: Hurst and Blackett Limited, p. 1. (Call no.: RCLOS 915.124903 PIC)
2. Pickering, W. A. (1898). Pioneering in Formosa: Recollections of adventures among mandarins, wreckers, and head-hunting savages. London: Hurst and Blackett Limited, p. 1. (Call no.: RCLOS 915.124903 PIC); Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 2. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J)
3. Pickering, W. A. (1898). Pioneering in Formosa: Recollections of adventures among mandarins, wreckers, and head-hunting savages. London: Hurst and Blackett Limited, pp. 1–3, 5–6. (Call no.: RCLOS 915.124903 PIC); Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 2. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J)
4. Pickering, W. A. (1898). Pioneering in Formosa: Recollections of adventures among mandarins, wreckers, and head-hunting savages. London: Hurst and Blackett Limited, pp. 6–7, 9, 239–240. (Call no.: RCLOS 915.124903 PIC)
5. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 16. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J); Koh, T. (Ed.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Heritage Board, p. 413. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
6. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 18. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J)
7. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 20. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J); Y. T. Wong. (2015). Penang Chinese commerce in the 19th century: The rise and fall of the big five. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, p. 88. (Call no.: RSEA 338.7095951 WON)
8. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 21, 23–24. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J); Awang, M. K. (1998). The Sultan & the Constitution. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, p. 30. (Call no.: RSING 342.59502 MUH)
9. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 25, 34. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J); Comber, L. (1959). Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A survey of the triad society from 1800 to 1900. Locust Valley, N. Y.: Published for the Association for Asian Studies by J. J. Augustin, p. 200. (Call no.: RCLOS 366.09595 COM)
10. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 49–51, 62–63, 65, 68, 70–72. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J)
11. Koh, T. (Ed.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with National Heritage Board, p. 413. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN -[HIS]­); Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, p. 73. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J)
12. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 77–79. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J)
13. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 278. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
14. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 94, 98. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J)
15. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 105–107. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J); Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 279. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE -[HIS]); Giving crimebuster the axe-triad style. (2005, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 105. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Jackson, R. N. (1965). Pickering: Protector of Chinese. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, pp. 113, 279. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 PIC.J); Pickering, W. A. (1898). Pioneering in Formosa: Recollections of adventures among mandarins, wreckers, and head-hunting savages. London: Hurst and Blackett Limited, p. 8. (Call no.: RCLOS 915.124903 PIC)



Further resource
Blythe, W. (1969). The impact of Chinese secret societies in Malaya: A historical study. London, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSEA 366.09595 BLY)



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.

 

Subject
Colonial administrators
Colonial administrators--Singapore--Biography
Pickering, William Alexander, 1840-1907--Biography
Law and government>>Regulatory role
Chinese--Singapore--History--19th century
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators