The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter vii

Beauties of the Tropics — Singapore Hospitality — An Equatorial Metropolis — An Aimless Existence — The Growth of Singapore — “Farms” and “Farmers” — The Staple of Conversation — The Glitter of “Barbaric Gold” — A Polyglot Population — A Mediocre People — Female Grace and Beauty — The “Asian Mystery” — Oriental Picturesqueness — The Metamorphosis of Singapore

SINGAPORE, January 19, 1879.

It is hot — so hot! — but not stifling, and all the rich-flavored, colored fruits of the tropics are here — fruits whose generous juices are drawn from the moist and heated earth, and whose flavors are the imprisoned rays of the fierce sun of the tropics. Such cartloads and piles of bananas and pine-apples, such heaps of custard-apples and “bullocks’ hearts,” such a wealth of gold and green giving off fragrance! Here, too, are treasures of the heated, crystal seas — things that one has dreamed of after reading Jules Verne’s romances. Big canoes, manned by dark-skinned men in white turbans and loin-cloths, floated round our ship, or lay poised on the clear depths of aquamarine water, with fairy freights — forests of coral white as snow, or red, pink, violet, in massive branches or fern-like sprays, fresh from their warm homes beneath the clear warm waves, where fish as bright-tinted as themselves flash through them like “living light.” There were displays of wonderful shells, too, of pale rose-pink, and others with rainbow tints which, like rainbows, came and went — nothing scanty, feeble, or pale!

It is a drive of two miles from the pier to Singapore, and to eyes which have only seen the yellow skins and non-vividness of the Far East, a world of wonders opens at every step. It is intensely tropical; there are mangrove swamps, and fringes of cocoa-palms, and banana-groves, date, sago, and travelers’ palms, tree-ferns, india-rubber, mango, custard-apple, jack-fruit, durion, lime, pomegranate, pine-apples, and orchids, and all kinds of strangling and parrot-blossomed trailers. Vegetation rich, profuse, endless, rapid, smothering, in all shades of vivid green, from the pea-green of spring and the dark velvety green of endless summer to the yellow-green of the plumage of the palm, riots in a heavy shower every night and the heat of a perennial sun-blaze every day, while monkeys of various kinds and bright-winged birds skip and flit through the jungle shades. There is a perpetual battle between man and the jungle, and the latter, in fact, is only brought to bay within a short distance of Singapore.

I had scarcely finished breakfast at the hotel, a shady, straggling building, much infested by ants, when Mr. Cecil Smith, the Colonial Secretary, and his wife called, full of kind thoughts and plans of furtherance; and a little later a resident, to whom I had not even a letter of introduction, took me and my luggage to his bungalow. All the European houses seem to have very deep verandas, large, lofty rooms, punkahs everywhere, windows without glass, brick floors, and jalousies and “tatties” (blinds made of grass or finely-split bamboo) to keep out the light and the flies. This equatorial heat is neither as exhausting or depressing as the damp summer heat of Japan, though one does long “to take off one’s flesh and sit in one’s bones.”

I wonder how this unexpected and hastily planned expedition into the Malay States will turn out? It is so unlikely that the different arrangements will fit in. It seemed an event in the dim future; but yesterday my host sent up a “chit” from his office to say that a Chinese steamer is to sail for Malacca in a day or two, and would I like to go? I was only allowed five minutes for decision, but I have no difficulty in making up my mind when an escape from civilization is possible. So I wrote back that if I could get my money and letters of introduction in time I would go, and returned to dine at Mr. Cecil Smith’s, where a delightfully cultured and intellectual atmosphere made civilization more than tolerable. The needed letters were written, various hints for my guidance were thrown out, and I drove back at half-past ten under heavens which were one blaze of stars amidst a dust of nebulae, like the inlaid gold spots amidst a dust of gold on old Japanese lacquer, and through a moist, warm atmosphere laden with the heavy fragrance of innumerable night-blossoming flowers.

Singapore, as the capital of the Straits Settlements and the residence of the Governor, has a garrison, defensive works, ships of war hanging about, and a great deal of military as well as commercial importance, and “the roll of the British drum” is a reassuring sound in the midst of the unquiet Chinese population. The Governor is assisted by lieutenant-governors at Malacca and Pinang, and his actual rule extends to the three “protected” States of the Malay Peninsula — Sungei Ujong, Selangor, and Perak — the affairs of which are administered by British Residents, who are more or less responsible to him.

If I fail in making you realize Singapore it is partly because I do not care to go into much detail about so well known a city, and partly because my own notions of it are mainly of overpowering greenery, a kaleidoscopic arrangement of colors, Chinese predominance, and abounding hospitality. I almost fail to realize that it is an island; one of many; all, like itself, covered with vegetation down to the water’s edge; about twenty-seven miles long by fourteen broad, with the city at its southern end. It is only seventy miles from the equator, but it is neither unhealthy nor overpoweringly hot! It is low and undulating, its highest point, Bukit Timor, or the Hill of Tin, being only five hundred and twenty feet high. The greatest curse here used to be tigers, which carried off about three hundred people yearly. They were supposed to have been extirpated, but they have reappeared, swimming across from the mainland State of Johore it is conjectured; and as various lonely Chinese laborers have been victimized, there is something of a “scare,” in the papers at least. Turtles are so abundant that turtle-soup is anything but a luxury, and turtle flesh is ordinarily sold in the meat shops.

Rain is officially said to fall on two hundred days of the year, but popularly every day! The rainfall is only eighty-seven inches, however, and the glorious vegetation owes its redundancy to the dampness of the climate. Of course Singapore has no seasons. The variety is only in the intensity of the heat, the mercury being tolerably steady between 80 degrees and 84 degrees, the extreme range of temperature being from 71 degrees to 92 degrees. People sleep on Malay mats spread over their mattresses for coolness, some dispense with upper sheets, and others are fanned all night by punkahs. The soft and tepid land and sea breezes mitigate the heat to a slight extent, but I should soon long for a blustering north-easter to break in upon the oppressive and vapor-bath stillness.

As Singapore is a military station, and ships of war hang about constantly, there is a great deal of fluctuating society, and the officials of the Straits Settlements Government are numerous enough to form a large society of their own. Then there is the merchant class, English, German, French, and American; and there is the usual round of gayety, and of the amusements which make life intolerable. I think that in most of these tropical colonies the ladies exist only on the hope of going “home!” It is a dreary, aimless life for them — scarcely life, only existence. The greatest sign of vitality in Singapore Europeans that I can see is the furious hurry in writing for the mail. To all sorts of claims and invitations, the reply is, “But it’s mail day, you know,” or, “I’m writing for the mail,” or, “I’m awfully behind hand with my letters,” or, “I can’t stir till the mail’s gone!” The hurry is desperate, and even the feeble Englishwomen exert themselves for “friends at home.” To judge from the flurry and excitement, and the driving down to the post-office at the last moment, and the commotion in the parboiled community, one would suppose the mail to be an uncertain event occurring once in a year or two, rather than the most regular of weekly fixtures! The incoming mail is also a great event, though its public and commercial news is anticipated by four weeks by the telegraph.

The Americans boast of the rapid progress of San Francisco, with which the Victorians boast that Melbourne is running a neck and neck race; but, if boasting is allowable, Singapore may boast, for in 1818 the island was covered with dense primeval forest, and only a few miserable fishermen and pirates inhabited its creeks and rivers. The prescience of Sir Stamford Raffles marked it out in 1819 as the site of the first free port in the Malayan Seas, but it was not till 1824 that it was formally ceded to the East India Company by the Sultan of Johore, and it only became a Crown colony in 1867, when it was erected into the capital of the Straits Settlements, which include Malacca and Pinang.

Like Victoria, Singapore is a free port, and the vexatiousness of a custom-house is unknown. The only tax which shipping pays is 1–1/2 per cent. for the support of sundry lighthouses. The list of its exports suggests heat. They are chiefly sugar, pepper, tin, nutmegs, mace, sago, tapioca, rice, buffalo hides and horns, rattans, gutta, india rubber, gambier, gums, coffee, dye-stuffs, and tobacco, but the island itself, though its soil looks rich from its redness, only produces pepper and gambier. It is a great entrepot, a gigantic distributing point.*

[*The exports and imports of Singapore amounted in 1823 to 2,120,000 pounds, in 1859–60 to 10,371,000 pounds, and in 1880, to 23,050,000 pounds! In the latter year, tonnage to the amount of three millions of tons arrived in its harbor. It must be observed that the imports, to a very large extent, are exported to other places.]

The problem of raising a revenue without customs duties is solved by a stamp-tax, land-revenue, and (by far the most important), the sale of the monopolies of the preparation and retailing of opium for smoking, and of spirits and other excisable commodities, these monopolies being “farmed” to private individuals, mostly Chinamen. It is rather puzzling to hear “farmers” spoken of so near the equator. A revenue of nearly half a million annually and a public debt of one hundred thousand pounds is not bad for so young a colony. The prosperity of the Straits Settlements ports is a great triumph for free traders, and a traveler, even if, like myself, he has nothing but a canvas roll and a “Gladstone bag,” congratulates himself on being saved from the bother of unstrapping and restrapping stiffened and refractory straps, and from the tiresome delays of even the most courteous custom-house officers.

The official circle is large, as I before remarked. A Crown colony where the Government has it all its own way must be the paradise of officials, and the high sense of honor and the righteous esprit de corps which characterize our civil servants in the Far East, and a conscientious sense of responsibilities for the good government and well-being of the heterogeneous populations over which they rule, seem as good a check as the general run of colonial parliaments.

The Governor, Sir William Robinson (now Sir F. A. Weld), is assisted by an Executive Council of eight members, and a Legislative Council consisting of nine official and six non-official members, including Mr. Whampoa, C.M.G., a Chinaman of great wealth and enlightened public spirit, who is one of the foremost men in the colony. Then on the Civil Establishment there are a legion of departments, the Colonial Secretary’s office with a branch office and Chinese Protectorate, a Land Office, Printing Office, Treasury, Audit Office, Post Office, Public Works and Survey Department, Marine Department, Judicial Department, Attorney–General’s Department, Sheriff’s Department, Police Court and Police Department, and Ecclesiastical, Educational, Medical, and Prison Staffs.

It is natural that when the mail has been worn threadbare and no stirring incidents present themselves, such as the arrival of a new ship of war or a touring foreign prince, and the receptions of Mr. Whampoa and the Maharajah of Johore have grown insipid, that much of local conversation should consist of speculations as to when or whether Mr. —— will get promotion, when Mr. —— will go home, or how much he has saved out of his salary; what influence has procured the appointment of Mr. —— to Selangor or Perak, instead of Mr. —— whose qualifications are higher; whether Mr. ——‘s acting appointment will be confirmed; whether Mr. —— will get one or two years’ leave; whether some vacant appointment is to be filled up or abolished, and so on ad infinitum. Such talk girdles the colonial world as completely as the telegraph, which has revolutionized European business here as elsewhere.

The island is far less interesting than the city. Its dense, dark jungle is broken up mainly by pepper and gambier plantations, the latter specially in new clearings. The laborers on these are Chinese, and so are the wood-cutters and sawyers, who frequent the round-topped wooded undulations. The climate is hotter and damper, to one’s sensations at least, than the hottest and dampest of the tropical houses at Kew, and heat-loving insects riot. The ants are a pest of the second magnitude, mosquitoes being of the first, the palm-trees and the piles of decaying leaves and bark being excellent nurseries for larvae. The vegetation is luxuriant, and in the dim, green twilight which is created by enormous forest trees there are endless varieties of ferns, calladiums, and parasitic plants; but except where a road has been cut and is kept open by continual labor, the climbing rattan palms make it impossible to explore.

My short visit has been mainly occupied with the day at the Colonial Secretary’s Lodge, and in walking and driving through the streets. The city is ablaze with color and motley with costume. The ruling race does not show to advantage. A pale-skinned man or woman, costumed in our ugly, graceless clothes, reminds one not pleasingly, artistically at least, of our dim, pale islands. Every Oriental costume from the Levant to China floats through the streets — robes of silk, satin, brocade, and white muslin, emphasized by the glitter of “barbaric gold;” and Parsees in spotless white, Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in great white turbans, full trousers, and draperies, all white, with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs, Sikhs in pure white Madras muslin, their great height rendered nearly colossal by the classic arrangement of their draperies; and Chinamen of all classes, from the coolie in his blue or brown cotton, to the wealthy merchant in his frothy silk crepe and rich brocade, make up an irresistibly fascinating medley.

The English, though powerful as the ruling race, are numerically nowhere, and certainly make no impression on the eye. The Chinese, who number eighty-six thousand out of a population of one hundred and thirty-nine thousand, are not only numerous enough, but rich and important enough to give Singapore the air of a Chinese town with a foreign settlement. Then there are the native Malays, who have crowded into the island since we acquired it, till they number twenty-two thousand, and who, besides being tolerably industrious as boatmen and fishermen, form the main body of the police. The Parsee merchants, who like our rule, form a respectable class of merchants here, as in all the great trading cities of the East. The Javanese are numerous, and make good servants and sailors. Some of the small merchants and many of the clerks are Portuguese immigrants from Malacca; and traders from Borneo, Sumatra, Celebes, Bali, and other islands of the Malay Archipelago are scattered among the throng. The washermen and grooms are nearly all Bengalees. Jews and Arabs make money and keep it, and are, as everywhere, shrewd and keen, and only meet their equals among the Chinese. Among the twelve thousand natives of India who have been attracted to Singapore, and among all the mingled foreign nationalities, the Klings from the Coromandel coast, besides being the most numerous of all next to the Chinese, are the most attractive in appearance, and as there is no check on the immigration of their women, one sees the unveiled Kling beauties in great numbers.*

[*The Singapore census returns for 1881 are by no means “dry reading,” and they give a very imposing idea of the importance of the island. It is interesting to note that of the 434 enumerators employed only seven were Europeans!

The number of houses on the island is 20,462; the total population is 139,208 souls, viz., 105,423 males and 33,785 females. The total increase in ten years is divided as follows:—

Europeans and Americans 823
Eurasians 930
Chinese 32,194
Malays and other natives of the Archipelago 6,954
Tamils and other natives of India 637
Other nationalities 559

Among these “other nationalities” the great increase has been among the Arabs, who have nearly doubled their numbers. Among the “Malays and other natives of the Archipelago” are included, Achinese, Boyanese, Bugis, Dyaks, Jawi–Pekans, and Manilamen.

The European resident population, exclusive of the soldiers, is only 1,283. The Chinese population is 86,766; the Malay, 22,114; the Tamil, 10,475; the Javanese, 5,881; and the Eurasian, 3,091. In the very small European population 19 nationalities are included, the Germans numerically following the British. Of 15,368 domestic servants, only 844 are women.]

These Klings are active and industrious, but they lack fibre apparently, and that quick-sightedness for opportunities which makes the Chinese the most successful of all emigrants. Not a Malay or a Kling has raised himself either as a merchant or in any other capacity to wealth or distinction in the colony. The Klings make splendid boatmen, they drive gharries, run as syces, lend small sums of money at usurious interest, sell fruit, keep small shops, carry “chit books,” and make themselves as generally useful as their mediocre abilities allow. They are said to be a harmless people so far as deeds go. They neither fight, organize, nor get into police rows, but they quarrel loudly and vociferously, and their vocabulary of abuse is said to be inexhaustible. The Kling men are very fine-looking, lithe and active, and, as they clothe but little, their forms are seen to great advantage. The women are, I think, beautiful — not so much in face as in form and carriage. I am never weary of watching and admiring their inimitable grace of movement. Their faces are oval, their foreheads low, their eyes dark and liquid, their noses shapely, but disfigured by the universal adoption of jewelled nose-rings; their lips full, but not thick or coarse; their heads small, and exquisitely set on long, slender throats; their ears small, but much dragged out of shape by the wearing of two or three hoop-earrings in each; and their glossy, wavy, black hair, which grows classically low on the forehead, is gathered into a Grecian knot at the back. Their clothing, or rather drapery, is a mystery, for it covers and drapes perfectly, yet has no make, far less fit, and leaves every graceful movement unimpeded. It seems to consist of ten wide yards of soft white muslin or soft red material, so ingeniously disposed as to drape the bust and lower limbs, and form a girdle at the same time. One shoulder and arm are usually left bare. The part which may be called a petticoat — though the word is a slur upon the graceful drapery — is short, and shows the finely turned ankles, high insteps, and small feet. These women are tall, and straight as arrows; their limbs are long and rounded; their appearance is timid, one might almost say modest, and their walk is the poetry of movement. A tall, graceful Kling woman, draped as I have described, gliding along the pavement, her statuesque figure the perfection of graceful ease, a dark pitcher on her head, just touched by the beautiful hand, showing the finely moulded arm, is a beautiful object, classical in form, exquisite in movement, and artistic in coloring, a creation of the tropic sun. What thinks she, I wonder, if she thinks at all, of the pale European, paler for want of exercise and engrossing occupation, who steps out of her carriage in front of her, an ungraceful heap of poufs and frills, tottering painfully on high heels, in tight boots, her figure distorted into the shape of a Japanese sake bottle, every movement a struggle or a jerk, the clothing utterly unsuited to this or any climate, impeding motion, and affecting health, comfort, and beauty alike?

It is all fascinating. Here is none of the indolence and apathy which one associates with Oriental life, and which I have seen in Polynesia. These yellow, brown, tawny, swarthy, olive-tinted men are all intent on gain; busy, industrious, frugal, striving, and, no matter what their creed is, all paying homage to Daikoku. In spite of the activity, rapidity, and earnestness, the movements of all but the Chinese are graceful, gliding, stealthy, the swarthy faces have no expression that I can read, and the dark, liquid eyes are no more intelligible to me than the eyes of oxen. It is the “Asian mystery” all over.

It is only the European part of Singapore which is dull and sleepy looking. No life and movement congregate round the shops. The merchants, hidden away behind jalousies in their offices, or dashing down the streets in covered buggies, make but a poor show. Their houses are mostly pale, roomy, detached bungalows, almost altogether hidden by the bountiful vegetation of the climate. In these their wives, growing paler every week, lead half-expiring lives, kept alive by the efforts of ubiquitous “punkah-wallahs;” writing for the mail, the one active occupation. At a given hour they emerge, and drive in given directions, specially round the esplanade, where for two hours at a time a double row of handsome and showy equipages moves continuously in opposite directions. The number of carriages and the style of dress of their occupants are surprising, and yet people say that large fortunes are not made now-a-days in Singapore! Besides the daily drive, the ladies, the officers, and any men who may be described as of “no occupation,” divert themselves with kettle-drums, dances, lawn tennis, and various other devices for killing time, and this with the mercury at 80 degrees! Just now the Maharajah of Johore, sovereign of a small state on the nearest part of the mainland, a man much petted and decorated by the British Government for unswerving fidelity to British interests, has a house here, and his receptions and dinner parties vary the monotonous round of gayeties.

The native streets monopolize the picturesqueness of Singapore with their bizarre crowds, but more interesting still are the bazaars or continuous rows of open shops which create for themselves a perpetual twilight by hanging tatties or other screens outside the sidewalks, forming long shady alleys, in which crowds of buyers and sellers chaffer over their goods, the Chinese shopkeepers asking a little more than they mean to take, and the Klings always asking double. The bustle and noise of this quarter are considerable, and the vociferation mingles with the ringing of bells and the rapid beating of drums and tom-toms — an intensely heathenish sound. And heathenish this great city is. Chinese joss-houses, Hindu temples, and Mohammedan mosques almost jostle each other, and the indescribable clamor of the temples and the din of the joss-houses are faintly pierced by the shrill cry from the minarets calling the faithful to prayer, and proclaiming the divine unity and the mission of Mahomet in one breath.

How I wish I could convey an idea, however faint, of this huge, mingled, colored, busy, Oriental population; of the old Kling and Chinese bazaars; of the itinerant sellers of seaweed jelly, water, vegetables, soup, fruit, and cooked fish, whose unintelligible street cries are heard above the din of the crowds of coolies, boatmen, and gharriemen waiting for hire; of the far-stretching suburbs of Malay and Chinese cottages; of the sheet of water, by no means clean, round which hundreds of Bengalis are to be seen at all hours of daylight unmercifully beating on great stones the delicate laces, gauzy silks, and elaborate flouncings of the European ladies; of the ceaseless rush and hum of industry, and of the resistless, overpowering, astonishing Chinese element, which is gradually turning Singapore into a Chinese city! I must conclude abruptly, or lose the mail.

I. L. B.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/golden/chapter9.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31