Letter writers made a living out of writing letters. Their services were sought after by those who were semi-literate as well as illiterate.1 The letters that they wrote were in calligraphic Chinese script and were used by the Chinese migrants living in Singapore to communicate with their family members in China.2 Letter writers were usually Chinese men who set up stalls along the busy lanes of Chinatown or the five-foot-ways of old shophouses. They could be found on North Bridge Road, Mosque Street, Pagoda Street, Spring Street, Sago Street and Middle Road, and later in the 1980s, in Chinatown Complex.3
The emergence of professional Chinese letter writers was attributed to the overwhelming rate of illiteracy, especially among Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore in search of greener pastures. Although these immigrants settled in Singapore and some with even families in tow, ties with their homeland China were still strong. Groups of literate Chinese immigrants began to help pen the thoughts and feelings of their compatriots such as the older folks, coolies (labourers), samsui women and the amah (majie or domestic helper).4
The letter writers also read out letters sent by the migrants’ families in China. This established a form of communication for the immigrants in Singapore, enabling them to write and receive letters through these learned men.5
A professional Chinese letter writer was usually exclusively male and older than 55 years. Female letter writers were non-existent because traditional Chinese families considered it indecorous and a waste of time to educate daughters.6
Business for letter writers reached its peak after World War II (1942–45), when people flocked to them to establish communication with their families in their homeland after years of isolation.7 The writers also made good money in the early 1960s when the Chinese economy was bad. Long queues would form as the people waited patiently for their turn to write to their loved ones back home or send them food, clothing and money during those difficult times.8
The letter writer equipped himself with brushes, ink, paper, abacus, a small table, and a chair or two to operate his business. Some writers began the day from as early as 8 am. Others would end only around 8 pm at night.9
It was extremely important for writers to be accurate while reading or writing the letters. Apart from letters, people also approached the writers to compose spring couplets, invitation cards, leases and marriage certificates. Marriage certificates were known as “three generation cards”, as couples were required to indicate the names of their families spanning three generations on the marriage certificates.10
Some letter writers also wrote ancestral tablets for people, a necessary artefact in ancestral worship. In early Singapore, it was common practice to display one’s ancestral tablets whenever an immigrant moved into his or her own residence. The writer also had to know how to use the abacus, and be familiar with the foreign exchange rates.11 He usually maintained an aloof and disinterested demeanour regarding his clients’ affairs, even when asked to write suicide notes. As the writer’s customers were evidently not wealthy, he would charge them a nominal fee. In the 1930s, of the 50 letter writers scattered all over Singapore, more than 75 percent were categorised as “unsuccessful”. Back then, the rate was 20 cents per letter.12 In the 1960s, the charges were between fifty cents and a dollar per letter, depending on the length.13
Some 40 years later after World War II, the number of letter writers dwindled, as the demand for these composers declined, with many of their customers having either passed away or were too old to maintain communication with their families in China. With increasing literacy, the younger generation could compose their own letters or rely on their literate offspring to do so. Technological developments, such as the telephone, invariably put an end to the letter-writing business. Today, existing letter writers continue to write ancestral tablets for many modern Chinese. Tourists also approach these writers to have their names translated and written in Chinese.14
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. Lo-Ang Siew Ghim and Chua Chee Huan, eds., Vanishing Trades of Singapore (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1992), 35. (Call no. RSING 338.642095957 VAN)
2. “The Letterwriter,” Goodwood Journal 2nd Qtr (1980): 26. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
3. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 35–36; Leong Weng Kam, “He Writes Love Letters, Angry Letters,” Straits Times, 13 May 1997, 12 (From NewspaperSG); “Letterwriter,” 26.
4. “Letterwriter,” 26; Leong, Writes Love Letters, Angry Letters”; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 35.
5. “These Men Listen to Tales of Happiness and Sorrow,” Straits Times, 30 May 1937, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Letterwriter,” 27.
7. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 37.
8. Leong, “Writes Love Letters, Angry Letters.”
9. “Letterwriter,” 26; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 36.
10. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 36.
11. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 37.
12. “Men Listen to Tales of Happiness and Sorrow.”
13. Leong, Writes Love Letters, Angry Letters”; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 36.
14. Leong, “Writes Love Letters, Angry Letters”; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 37.
The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.