The Chinese Protectorate

The Chinese Protectorate was established in the Straits Settlements in 1877 to address matters concerning the Chinese community. Its main functions included establishing a pool of civil servants conversant in the Chinese language, managing newly arrived coolie labourers, regulating secret societies, rescuing female victims of prostitution, and containing venereal diseases. After World War II, the Chinese Protectorate (later known as Chinese Secretariat) was subsumed under the Ministry of Labour and Welfare.1

Office of the Chinese Protectorate
In 1877, the Chinese Protectorate was set up to address matters concerning the Chinese community in the Straits Settlements, and a Protector of Chinese was appointed to run the affairs of the office.2 William Pickering was appointed the first Protector of Chinese, and successive protectors included Francis Powell, George Crofton Wray and William Evans.3

The office of the Chinese Protectorate in Singapore was first located in a shophouse on North Canal Road.43 Pickering’s aides included an Assistant Protector of Chinese, a boarding officer, a Chinese interpreter, clerks and other employees.5 As the protectorate’s responsibilities and staff strength grew, its office was relocated to Upper Macao Street (present day Pickering Street), followed by a new shophouse at Boat Quay,6 and finally to a new building at the corner of New Bridge Road and Havelock Road in 1886 (demolished in 1930).7


The protectorate oversaw matters concerning the Chinese community.8 Its primary functions encompassed the establishment of a pool of civil servants conversant in the Chinese language, managing newly arrived coolie labourers (known as sinkeh), regulating secret societies, rescuing female victims of prostitution, and containing venereal diseases.9

The ability to speak Chinese was deemed an important skill for government officers. The colonial government believed that administration would improve if more officers were proficient in the Chinese language. It thus offered monetary incentives to encourage its officers to pursue such language courses, and the bonus scheme was later extended to include other European officers.10 Pickering was fluent in numerous Chinese dialects including Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, and Cantonese. His language proficiency contributed to his appointment as the first Protector of Chinese, as he was recognised as an effective mediator for the Chinese communities.11

Eradicating abuses in coolie trade
In the 19th century the increase in Chinese population in the colony was not by natural growth, but by the surplus immigration. Many of these immigrants were very poor and came to colony on the credit-system, which means upon their arrival they had to pay for their passage and other expenses to the khehtow or the coolie-broker who had given them credit advances.12

To eradicate such abuses, Pickering assigned an officer to get on board each newly arrived ship to inform sinkeh that the Chinese Protectorate would offer them assistance. The sinkeh were given handbills, and dissuaded from approaching secret societies for help.13

The protectorate also required each sinkeh and his employer to sign a contract. The contracts were numbered according to the registration books kept at the Chinese Protectorate.14 The terms of the contract were explained to the sinkeh in his dialect, and he was told to report complaints to the government. These measures were refined in subsequent years as the coolie trade sought ways to circumvent them.15

Regulating Chinese secret society activities
Concerned that abolishment of secret societies without an alternative system of controlling the Chinese would spell disaster, Pickering managed the societies through surveillance and control instead of complete suppression. One such measure was to register the societies. Pickering, who was proficient in the Chinese language, was appointed Registrar of Societies and kept the following records: society’s name and address; its president’s name, address and occupation; and information on its office bearers, members and subscriptions.16

To effectively control the secret societies, Pickering reorganised them into districts and liaised with the headman who represented the district. He also had to ensure that the Chinese were aware that a government official was there to protect and advise them.17

Pickering arbitrated disputes among the Chinese, positioning himself as non-partisan to the conflicting interests of the various Chinese community sectors. He soon won their trust, as the many pairs of red candles that adorned his office walls bore testimony to the Chinese’s acceptance of his authority. To the Chinese, Pickering and the Chinese Protectorate presented an alternative authority to the secret societies.18

Liberating women from prostitution
Pickering also dealt with the difficult problem of prostitution.19 Even though prostitution was permitted on the account of a woman’s free will, many were deceived or coerced into it. The Chinese Protectorate sought out victims of forced prostitution to free them from the control of brothels and secret societies. The protector was authorised to remove from the brothels any girl under 16 years whom he found was trained for immoral purposes.20

The protectorate also enforced the Contagious Disease Ordinance of 1870.21 In addition, it registered prostitutes and founded the Poh Leung Kuk or “office to protect virtue”. Managed by the protectorate with the advice of a committee of prominent Chinese, Poh Leung Kuk offered protection to girls who had been sold or unwillingly lured into prostitution.22

Irene Lim

1. The Chinese Protectorate, 1910s, photograph, National Museum of Singapore Collection, National Heritage Board.
2. Edwin Lee, The British as Rulers Governing Multi-Racial Singapore 1867–1914 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1991), 179. (Call no. RSING 959.57022 LEE-[HIS]); Ng Siew Yoong, “The Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 1 (March 1961): 79–80. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

3. “Gazette Notifications,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 6 May 1893, 2; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 1 June 1901, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 80.
4. Robert Nicholas Jackson, Pickering, Protector of Chinese (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1965), 65. (Call no. RCLOS 959.503 JAC-[JSB])
5. Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 81.
6. Ray Tyers, “Pickering’s Progress,” New Nation, 20 July 1973, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Tyers, “Pickering’s Progress.”
8. Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 79.
9. “Former Ministry of Labour Building,” National Heritage Board, accessed 10 November 2016.  
10. Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 82.
11. “Former Ministry of Labour Building (now Family Justice Courts),” National Heritage Board, accessed 10 December 2021.
12. Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 82.
13. Jackson, Pickering, Protector of Chinese, 68.
14. Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 83.
15. Jackson, Pickering, Protector of Chinese, 68–70.
16. Jackson, Pickering, Protector of Chinese, 72–73, 77, 80–81.
17. Gloria Chandy, “And Chaos Was Turned into Order,” New Nation, 14 May 1989, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Jackson, Pickering, Protector of Chinese, 79.
19. Allington Kennard, “The First Years of the Chinese Protectorate,” Straits Times, 3 January 1966, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Jackson, Pickering, Protector of Chinese, 93–95, 98.
21. Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 89.
22. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 101–2. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as of December 2021 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.




Heritage and Culture
Chinese--Singapore--Social conditions
Politics and Government
Chinese--Singapore--History--19th century