Chinese Post Office Riots
The Chinese Post Office Riots of 15 December 1876 were a series of violent protests by the local Chinese community to demolish a new post office established by the colonial government to handle letters and remittances sent to China. The perpetrators of the riots were said to be local Chinese towkay (businessmen) who had previously monopolised the letter-forwarding business and resented the emergence of a competing agency. Some Chinese secret societies, such as Ghee Hin, were also believed to be involved in mobilising the Chinese during the disturbance. The colonial authorities exercised an unprecedented use of police force during the riots – and this was later praised in newspaper editorials as it was said to have helped bring the riots to a quick end.
By the 1860s, censuses indicated that there were more than 50,000 Chinese in Singapore,1 most of whom were immigrants who regularly sent letters and remittances back to their hometown. In 1847, Seah Eu Chin, a leader of the Chinese community, estimated that Chinese immigrants remitted as much as 70,000 Spanish dollars annually, an amount that increased over time. The remittance money was either sent through immigrants returning to China, or by a remitting agent who operated on board one of the many Chinese junks that called at Singapore.2 As these channels were unregulated, agents often absconded with the money, with little legal recourse for the immigrants.3
To amend the existing system, in 1876 then Governor William Jervois proposed to establish a government-regulated firm to collect all China-bound letters and remittances, which would then be transported via a postal system operated by the British colonial government. The operational cost would be borne by a new stamp fee levied on every letter sent. Known as the Chinese Sub-Post Office, the new agency would also be allowed to operate as a forwarding agent for letters or remittances, and to compete with existing Chinese businesses.4
On 11 December 1876, details of the new scheme were announced through several notifications, which had been vetted by the Straits Settlements Chinese interpreter, William Pickering, as well as Tan Seng Poh, a prominent member of the Chinese community.5
However, information about the new post office was distorted by a series of placards containing false information said to be distributed by the Chinese towkay who were unhappy about losing their monopoly over the remittance business.6 Posted on 13 December, the placards alleged that it would be compulsory for the Chinese to send letters and remittances via the new post office, and suggested that the fees imposed were likely to be raised in the future. The new scheme was portrayed as an attempt by the colonial government to reap profits at the expense of the Chinese. To incite violence, the placards even offered a monetary reward for any man willing “to cut off the head[s]” of the post-office operators. The colonial government issued notices rebutting the false claims, but these did not placate the Chinese community and tensions continued to escalate.7
Violence and resolution
On the morning of 15 December, a huge crowd gathered outside the new Sub-Post Office in anticipation of its inaugural opening. Police officers stationed nearby failed to disperse the crowd, and fighting broke out after a brick was thrown at the post office. Police officers arrested 15 people, but they escaped when the officers were assaulted by another group of rioters. Police Superintendent R. W. Maxwell led reinforcements to the post office, but sustained injuries amid the fighting.8
At the police station of New Market Street, the police fired upon a mob when the latter attempted to assault the building despite repeated warnings. Three people died in the gunfire, while several others were wounded.9 The house of a Chinese businessman, Lim Eng Keng, on Amoy Street, was also attacked – ostensibly because he had previously provided lodging to the newly appointed Chinese sub-post masters.10 Disturbances were also reported in the Kampong Glam area.11 While it was believed that the Ghee Hin secret society was involved in mobilising Chinese opposition to the new sub-post office, not all secret society members were involved in the violence. Chua Moh Choon, headman of the Ghee Hock society, instead helped to persuade the rioters to desist.12
On 16 December, 44 rioters were tried in court, with most of them sentenced to rigorous imprisonment and caning. While the violence had stopped, the Chinese bosses resorted to staging a passive protest by ordering the shops in town to remain closed. Notices carrying the message that “provisions should not be sold to the ‘Barbarians’” were found posted along the streets. The authorities’ attempts to negotiate with shopkeepers were unsuccessful, as many replied that they would only reopen for business if the captured rioters were released.13
Shops remained closed on the morning of 17 December, while newly written placards urging the Chinese to resume violent protests continued to appear.14 To send a stern warning to the Chinese community, the colonial government, which had detained 12 Chinese bosses, marched the detainees through town and exiled them on the government steamer, Pluto, in open waters three miles off the coast of Singapore. Shortly after, the shops resumed normal operations.15
On 18 December, the sub-post office reopened peacefully with its signboard repaired; by the end of the day, several Chinese customers had gone forth and posted their mail. At a parade that afternoon, Jervois honoured the police force for its work, and rewarded its members with an extra week of pay.16 The 12 detainees incarcerated on board the Pluto were allowed to return to Singapore on 21 December, with the exception of Ghee Hin headman Lim Ah Tye, who was deemed to have the greatest involvement in the violence and was deported to Hong Kong.17
Several months after the riots, a report by Pickering concluded that the disturbance was not solely a secret society affair. Instead, Pickering pinned most of the blame on the Chinese businessmen whose economic interests had been threatened by the new scheme.18 He also affirmed the need for firm police action, including the use of force, as a deterrent against any future riots. An editorial in The Straits Times Overland Journal newspaper concurred with Pickering’s stance that the use of such force had minimised damages and loss of life.19 Opinions such as this came to influence the colonial government towards taking a more interventionist approach in dealing with future outbursts of violence.20
In 1877, the operations of the Chinese Sub-Post Office were subsumed under the General Post Office. Over time, the Chinese community came to accept the government-operated post office, which became the main avenue of postal communication and handled increasing volumes of mail.21
Yong Chun Yuan
1. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 23. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
2. U. C. Siah, “Annual Remittances by Chinese Immigrants to Their Families in China,” Journal of the Indian Archipelago and East Asia, I (1847): 35–36. (Call no. RRARE 950.05 JOU; Microfilm NL1889)
3. Wilfred Blythe, The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya: A Historical Study (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 201. (Call no. RSEA 366.09595 BLY)
4. Blythe, Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya, 201.
5. “Reuters’ Telegrams,” Straits Observer (Singapore), 20 December 1876, 2; “The Riot Reports,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 8 February 1877, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “The Riots,” Straits Times, 23 December 1876, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, 186–87.
7. “The Late Riots,” (1876, December 23). Straits Times, 23 December 1876, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, 185.
8. “Riot Reports.”
9. “Riot Reports.”
10. “The Riot Reports II,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 8 February 1877, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Riot Reports.”
12. “Riot Reports II.”
13. “The Late Riots,” Straits Times, 23 December 1876, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Late Riots.”
15. “Late Riots”; “Reuters’ Telegrams.”
16. “Late Riots”; “Reuters’ Telegrams.”
17. “Thursday, 21st December,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 27 December 1876, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Riot Reports.”
19. “Riot Reports II.”
20. Blythe, Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya, 210–13.
21. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 138. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
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.