PM Lee Hsien Loong at People's Association Kopi Talk held at Ci Yuan Community Club.

PM says Chinese immigrants came to seek fortunes but many were fleeing from poverty due to opium menace

This Monday (4 Feb), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sent a Chinese New Year greeting message to all Singaporeans.

“This year, we are commemorating the Singapore Bicentennial,” he said. “200 years ago, Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore. That marked a crucial turning point in our history, including for our Chinese community. While Chinese junks had traded in Singapore as far back as the 14th century, large-scale immigration started only after Raffles established a free port here.”

He wrote that the Chinese immigrants came from as far away as Canton, Swatow and Amoy to seek their fortunes in Singapore and also to support their family back in China. Some eventually returned home but others stayed in Singapore, he said.

“Most immigrants arrived in Singapore in debt, and did back-breaking work here as plantation workers and coolies. When Chinese New Year came, they were too poor to travel back home. Instead, they celebrated with fellow labourers and clan members in Chinatown, and re-created whatever traditions they could (in Singapore),” PM Lee added.

British trafficking of opium in China was one of the causes of Chinese miseries

It is interesting that PM Lee mentioned the British founding modern Singapore and attracting large-scale immigration of Chinese to come here. In reality, many were fleeing from abject poverty rampaging China then. As what PM Lee had mentioned, many had to borrow money to buy their way coming to Singapore so as to work as coolies, supporting their family back home.

In part, many in China became poor due to the rampant addiction and proliferation of opium in the Chinese society then – thanks to the British East India Company, the company that Raffles worked for. In an article published by SCMP last year, it described the situation in China at that time:

By the early 18th century, the British had so taken to drinking tea that some in the British government called it a “necessity of life”. The tea came from the southern Chinese city of Canton, designated by the Qing government as the only place where trading with foreigners was allowed. By 1725, the British East India Company was importing 250,000 pounds of tea per year. This ballooned to 24 million pounds per year by 1805. Unfortunately for the British, the Chinese bought few British products, and worse, they wanted to be paid only in silver. Thus, between 1710 and 1760, Britain paid 26 million pounds of the precious metal for its tea.

Britain soon ran out of silver and ideas of how to pay for its tea until it stumbled on the one item the Chinese liked and became addicted to – opium. In 1773, the East India Company secured a monopoly on the production and sale of opium grown in India. And so, through subterfuge and underhanded tactics such as using smugglers, the British flooded the Chinese market with opium – paid for in silver, of course – even though it was banned by the Qing government. In the last decade of the 18th century, 200 chests of opium, each weighing 64kg, went from India to China. By 1838, this grew to 40,000 chests, and the trade deficit had reversed in Britain’s favour.

Opium addicts selling wives and kids

In those days, few knew the addictive nature of the substance until its effects became apparent. Some looked thin and pale; they shook convulsively when their dependency attacked. Some would beg, steal, and even sell their wives and children in order to sustain the habit. Whatever meager money a family earned had to be used to feed the opium addiction of family members, making the family poorer. Some deteriorated quickly and missionaries wrote about “the rapid career of the opium-smoker, from health and affluence to decrepitude and beggary“.

Some died openly on the street when they were too poisoned by opium. What was alarming for the Qing government was that the Manchu military machine was being reduced to its former shadow, as “seven out of ten” soldiers smoked opium. As the habit of smoking opium spread from the idle rich to ninety per cent of all Chinese males under the age of forty in the country’s coastal regions, business activity was much reduced, the civil service ground to a halt, and the standard of living fell. Millions of Chinese became addicts, including women too.

More imports of opium also meant an increasing outflow of silver out of China to the British. For example, in 1839, it was calculated that Chinese opium smokers consumed 100 million taels’ worth of opium while the entire spending by the imperial Qing government that year was only 40 million taels. That is too say, the national consumption of opium had reached epic proportion of 2.5 times of government’s spending.

The decreasing circulation of silver reduced tax income; it sent many local governments into financial difficulties as they found it hard to run their departments and pay salaries, which in turn, increased corruption. Between 1821 and 1837 the illegal importation of opium (theoretically a capital offence) increased five fold. Social problems mounted.

Hence, it was under such social circumstances in China that many were forced to seek opportunities outside China. And to add insult to injury, Raffles founded Singapore essentially because the British wanted a new port in the Straits of Malacca to protect its India-China trade.

In his letter to Lord Hastings on 8 Jan 1819, Raffles clearly feared that the Dutch “will extend their influences over the whole of the ancient territories of Johor” and stated his belief that the island of Singapore would be a better place for a port settlement as it is more conveniently located “for the protection of our China Trade and for commanding the Straits than Rhio (Riau)“. And of course, a large part of its China trade involved trafficking opium to China.