Chinese coolies, who were engaged mostly in unskilled, hard labour, formed the early backbone of Singapore’s labour force. They were mainly impoverished Chinese immigrants who came to Singapore in the latter half of the 19th century to seek fortune, but instead served as indentured labourers.1 Coolies were employed in almost every sector of work including construction, agriculture, shipping, mining and rickshaw pulling.2
It is believed that the word “coolie” was derived from the Hindi term kuli, which is also the name of a native tribe in the western Indian state of Gujarat. The Kulis were said to be among the first coolies to arrive in Singapore. The word kuli also means “hire” in Tamil.3
Chinese coolies were driven by poverty in China to seek a better life in Singapore. There were three peak periods of Chinese coolie emigration to Singapore: 1823 to 1891, after Singapore became a free port; 1910 to 1911, before World War I; and 1926 to 1927, after the war. The influx of immigrants decreased after 1927 because of the Great Depression and continued in the downward trend when World War II occurred. Coolie trade never peaked after this and most immigrants after World War II were skilled labour.4
Coolies were employed in mines, ports, plantations, construction sites and as rickshaw pullers.5 They did back-breaking tasks under the sun and for long hours, such as loading and unloading cargo as well as tin-ore mining.6 It was a common sight in early Singapore to see coolies carrying gunny sacks filled with commodities near the Singapore River.7
The newly arrived coolie recruit was called singkeh (also spelt sinkeh), meaning “new arrival” in Hokkien. Secret societies and clan associations (kongsi) were involved in controlling and regulating the emigration of Chinese coolies.8 Secret societies helped the peasants pay for their journey to Singapore and sought employment for them, and thus acted as agents for the emigrants.9 Upon arrival, the majority of the early coolies would be handed over to employers of the same dialect.10
Dialect associations had assumed some of the roles of the Chinese clans back home, which included mutual assistance. The kongsi was either an organisation of like-minded individuals speaking the same dialect or from the same locality in China. Kinship ties formed by these clan associations also facilitated early Chinese immigration to Southeast Asia, providing protection, lodging and economic opportunities in a land with foreign people and customs. These dialect and clan organisations were viewed as guilds that protected the occupational interests of the members.11
Coolies frequently faced abuse and ill treatment at the hands of the coolie brokers. In response to this, the Chinese Protectorate was established in 1877 to handle the immigration and official procedures for coolies. William Pickering became the first Protector of the Chinese.12
Secret societies recruited members among the sinkeh, who had to pay subscriptions as members. In return, the societies offered to support the coolies financially in times of illness, defend their livelihoods and organise funeral rites. The major secret societies at the time were Ghee Hin, Ghee Hok and Hai San. For much of the 19th century, the British government allowed the secret societies to function in order to keep the Chinese immigrant population in check.13 However, the growing scale of clashes and riots led to the clamping down of the societies, which eventually resulted in the enactment of the Societies Ordinance at the start of 1890.14
After secret societies were outlawed, voluntary associations that were organised around dialects, surnames or hometowns gained prominence as the immigrants looked to these groups for social support.15
Exploitation and hardship
The coolies were often exploited and abused by the coolie brokers. During the 1870s and 1880s, some coolies were unwillingly shipped to Sumatra, where the price for coolies was much higher than that in the Straits Settlements.16 The coolies who arrived in Singapore had to endure grim living conditions and earned very little.17 Many of the jobs taken by coolies involved hard labour, which took a toll on their bodies. In order to relieve their tired and sore bodies and to escape from their misery, many turned to smoking opium and gambling.18 Coolies who were not “sold” to prospective employers were confined to overcrowded and filthy coolie depots.19
Few Chinese coolies returned to China, and most settled down in Singapore doing other odd jobs.20
As Singapore developed economically in the postwar period, the need for coolies declined. Following Singapore’s independence in 1965, there were new laws and radical economic restructuring.21 Modern technology was developed and incorporated at a fast pace and coolies in the harbour were no longer needed.22
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. James Francis Warren, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore, 1880–1940 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), xii, 3–4. (Call no. RSING 388.341 WAR)
2. John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (London: Bloomsbury, 1990), 136. (Call no. R 422.03 AYT-[DIC]); Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (New York: Facts on File, 2004), 174–75. (Call no. R q422.03 HEN-[DIC])
3. Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins, 136; Hendrickson, Word and Phrase Origins, 174–75.
4. Thomas Tsu-Wee Tan, Your Chinese Roots: The Overseas Chinese Story (Singapore: Times books international, 1986), 58–59, 62. (Call no. RSING 301.451951 TAN); Yen Ching-Hwang, A Social History of the Chinese in Singapore and Malaya 1800–1911 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986), 40. (Call no. RSING 301.45195105957 YEN)
5. Yen, Chinese in Singapore and Malaya 1800–1911, 147, 293; Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819–2002 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2003), 64–66 (Call no. RSING 959.57 DOB-[HIS]); “Negotiations on Singapore Labour Demands Continue,”Straits Times, 28 May 1939, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Dobbs, Singapore River, 64–66.
7. “The Life and Death of Our Rivers,” Straits Times, 25 June 1987, 3; ”Untitled,” Straits Times, 7 July 1934, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 16–17; Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 113.
9. Hugh Baker, The Overseas Chinese (London: RJ Acford, 1987), 45. (Call no. RSING 301.451951059 BAK)
10. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 16.
11. Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 46–47, 78, 89, 118–19.
12. Ng Siew Yoong (1961, March). The Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900. Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 1 (March 1961): 79. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 8.
13. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 16–17.
14. Ng, “Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” 79.
15. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 17–18; Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 73–93.
16. Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 112–116.
17. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 319; Carl A. Trocki, Singapore: Wealth, Power and the Culture of Control (London; New York: Routledge, 2006), 28–29. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 TRO-[HIS])
18. Warren, Rickshaw Coolie, 239–241; Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 223.
19. Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 7.
20. Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 8–9.
21. Mark Ravinder Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet Ltd; National Museum of Singapore, 2009), 388. (Call no. RSING 959.57 FRO)
22. Dobbs, Singapore River, 64–66.
Augustine Low, “Sentosa Unveils the Coolies,” New Paper, 2 June 1989, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
“Coolies Galore,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 14 April 1921, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
“Coolie Immigrants,” Straits Times, 9 March 1872, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
Deborah Lee, “Coolie Currency Goes on Display,” Straits Times, 6 July 2015, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
Lim Tin Seng, “Triads, Coolies and Pimps: Chinatown in Former Times,” BiblioAsia 11, no. 3 (2015).
Persia Crawford Campbell, Chinese Coolie Emigration to Countries Within the British Empire (Taipei: Cheng Wen, 1970). (Call no. RSING 325.251 CAM)
Tan Kok Seng, Son of Singapore: The Autobiography of a Coolie (Singapore: Heinemann Educational, 1974). (Call no. RSING 920 TAN)
National Heritage Board, Daichi Media, and Radio Corporation of Singapore, The Vanishing Trades, compact discs (Singapore: Daichi Media, 1997). (Call no. RAV 338.642095957 VAN)
“Untitled,” Straits Times, 10 October 1937, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we can 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.