The Men Who Really Built Singapore

Friday, 8 July 1887 - Singapore

Rickshaws only came to Singapore recently, but they are everywhere. There are hundreds of them. Soon there will be thousands. All the tourists want to ride in them for they are so exotic. Locals use them because they are so cheap. For three cents per half mile, a rickshaw will take you anywhere in town at five miles an hour. That’s about a fifth of what a hackney cab costs.

Ricjkshaws seem very quaint until you take a closer look at the poor chap who is pulling you. Not only are they dragging a small carriage with one or two passengers, they are obliged to do this at a fast trot in sweltering heat.. Most rickshaw runners cover 20 to 30 miles a day. That’s the average endurance for a horse!

At night the runners go to a dark crowded tenements, eat a bowl of rice and try to get some sleep. Some just sleep in their rickshaws. Opium use is common to deaden the pain as the labor takes it’s toll on their bodies and souls. They look old beyond their years, dieing before their time.

Who would want a job like this? Only someone desperate enough. Almost all the rickshaw runners are Chinese coolies. These are poor peasants coming to Singapore to escape crushing poverty, only to find it has followed them. Many are indentured, having to pay back, with high interest, the recruiters that paid for their passage. Coolies work the hard jobs no one else wants. Besides pulling rickshaws, they work on plantations, carry bags on their backs to load ships, toll in mines or dig ditches.

The Chinese are the largest minority group in Singapore. In fact they are so large, they make up 70% of the population. I know, mathematically they are the majority, but socially they are treated as a minority. Some lucky ones are doing well, a few are quite wealthy with high standing in the city. Most are very poor.

For much of its history, China has been a wealthy and powerful nation. However the nineteenth century probably marked its lowest ebb. It is now a poor country racked with famine, plague, wars and rebellions. Things are so bad, it’s hard to believe it will be a world power again in a hundred years.

Singpore's Chinatown
(much nicer than the one currently in San Francisco)
And so the Chinese come to Singapore’s Chinatown and try to find people from their own districts. We think of China as a country, but it is really an Empire made up of many cultures, each with its own language. Looks can be deceiving. Chinese immigrants all look the same, because they are forced by the Qing Dynasty to wear the Manchu queue and dress in Manchu fashion. While the system of writing has been generalized, language has not. Right now Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese are the most common languages in Singapore. English is often a second language, not only so they can speak with the British in charge, but so they can talk with each other.

Add to this mix the Peranakan, the first Chinese to Singapore. They have been in this area since late 1400s. They intermarried with the native Malay and have a culture that mixes the two groups. Most of these are merchants and are doing well. They do try to help their brethren from a country they have long forgotten, but the need is too great for simple acts of charity.

William Pickering
Ten years ago the British Colonists set up William A. Pickering as the Chinese Protectorate in an effort to help these people. He has been fighting to stop the human rights violations of the coolie trade and to help the Chinese community. There are also missionaries trying to give aid to the poor. Even so, it’s not enough.

To their credit, the British have treated the Chinese workers better than most countries. The Chinese are allowed to manage affairs in Chinatown for the most part. Unlike San Francisco, that has confined thousands of Chinese into just a few blocks, this Chinatown is allowed to expand. And unlike Seattle, Singapore officials will not drive the Chinese out of town. Even in the next century when Singapore begins to chafe under Colonial Rule, Britain will be looked upon not as an evil tyrant, but more like an over-bearing patriarch who insists on running everything and is getting too senile to do so.

Soon the children’s children of these coolies will be the middle-class backbone of one of the wealthiest nations in the world. But that is not the reality now. Now life is one of unending drudgery and suffering for these people as they build Singapore.

I decided I would ride in the rickshaws. The runners beg passersby to allow them to drag them about, for no passengers means no dinner. I wish I could toss them a guinea, but I’m not allowed to give charity without risking losing my Time Travel License. Even a shilling could possibly change the life of a coolie and somehow change history. (Like some poor chap getting a foot up would set time on its ear.)

I was warned at the hotel to be careful that the rickshaw runners didn’t cheat me. They try to tell you it’s seven cents a mile instead of six, or tell you they took you over mile when it was only three-quarters. Like I’m going to worry about being cheated out of a couple of pennies.

So when I ride a rickshaw I try to act just haughty enough that they feel obligated to take the snooty elitist for a few cents, but not mean enough to ruin their day. It’s the least I’m allowed to do for these men treated as beasts of burden.

And more importantly I want to be able to show their descendants what their ancestors went through so their children could have a better life.

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