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The early 1800s saw waves of new Chinese immigrants to Singapore’s shores. These immigrants were often recruited into secret societies, where they were offered kinship, assistance and protection. At that time, the colonial government utilised these secret societies to keep law and order amongst the Chinese immigrants. However, as time went by, the secret societies began to clash with each other, leading to public riots, including the Hokkien Teochew riot of 1854.

Enter William Pickering, appointed the first Protector of the Chinese in 1877. His role was to eradicate coolie abuse, regulate secret society activities and arbitrate their conflicts. In order to keep tabs on the new Chinese immigrants, Pickering would interview them and alert them to the presence of the Protectorate, where they could turn to for help instead. After an attack on Pickering in 1887 that wounded him, secret societies were made illegal. Much later on in the early 1900s, the Old Hill Street Police Station was built to deal with increasing Chinese secret society activities.

Early role of secret societies

In the years following 1819, Singapore saw waves of new immigrants arrive at its shores, seeking new opportunities and a better future.

Many were Chinese coolies who came from Fujian and Guangdong. In these places, the Triad (a political secret society dedicated to the overthrow of Manchu imperial rule in China) managed the coolie trade from China to Singapore. They performed many useful roles such as protect young immigrants, settle disputes, arrange for their employment and admit them to a brotherhood, which gave a sense of belonging in a faraway land.

Image: Chinese coolies were employed as rickshaw pullers, amongst other occupations. (Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

Upon arrival, the secret societies in Singapore attempted to recruit the Chinese coolies into their fold. These secret societies offered coolies financial support when they were ill, assured their livelihoods and promised to organise funeral rites. Seeking kinship in a land away from home, the new Chinese coolies would join these secret societies. In the early years, when there was no government regulation for new immigrants, secret societies helped to give some semblance of order to Singapore’s society.

Image: Seized secret society paraphernalia for initiation ritual, Police Heritage Centre. (Courtesy of Singapore Police Force)

Lawlessness, riots and abuse

However, from 1850 onwards, there was a spike in immigration to Singapore, and an increased number of secret societies. The balance of power shifted. The years between 1845 and 1885 saw intense rivalry within and between these secret societies. Some of these rivalries led to public riots, including the Hokkien Teochew riot of 1854, which lasted for more than 10 days. Unfortunately, at the time, the Singapore Police Force was still a small and nascent unit, formed only in 1820.

Image: Examples of weapons seized from secret societies [circa 1950s]. (Courtesy of Singapore Police Force)

During this period, instances of coolie abuse were also more rampant. The huge demand for coolies meant that kidnapping coolies in China for the coolie trade was common. Some others who wanted to come to Singapore but were unable to fund their journeys depended on coolie brokers (often senior secret society members in Singapore) to pay for their passage up front. Coolies would often be at the mercy of these brokers once they arrived.

Image: Acid-filled light bulbs used as weapons by secret societies [circa, 1950s]. (Courtesy of Singapore Police Force)

Pickering establishes law and order

To cope with these issues, the Chinese Protectorate was set up in 1877. William Pickering, a British officer who could speak and write Chinese, and was fluent in various dialects, was appointed the first Protector of the Chinese. He was given an office space along North Canal Road.

To regulate secret societies, Pickering channelled government regulation down through the headman of the secret societies, and had them punish their members who committed offences. He also acted as a mediator for disputes between secret societies. Any headman who refused to cooperate with the Chinese Protectorate was banished from Singapore.

Image: William Pickering arrived in Singapore in March 1872. (Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

To eradicate coolie abuse, he licensed agents and boarded incoming ships to ensure coolies were not mistreated on board and when they arrived. He also interviewed all new immigrants. During the interview, he encouraged them to seek out the Chinese Protectorate should they need help, hence providing an alternative to the secret societies.

Pickering also established the Office for the Preservation of Virtue in 1878, to stop forced prostitution. It was also a refuge for women who had fallen victim to prostitution.

Over time, the secret societies perceived Pickering’s regulatory measures as infringement on their turf. In 1887, a secret society member hurled an axe at Pickering. He never recovered from the attack and finally retired in 1890. He died in Italy in 1907.

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