Singapore’s transformation from a sleepy backwater to a global metropolis in 50 years is a remarkable feat. As we celebrate our Golden Jubilee this year, it’s time to take stock of where we are and reflect on where we came from.
Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world today. But it was a very different picture in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and right up to the pre-independence period when people were constantly exposed to riots, unrest and all sorts of vices imaginable. This issue of BiblioAsia, based on the theme “Crime, Vice & Punishment”, uncovers the seedy and less glamorous side of early Singapore.
The Chinatown of yesteryear was a hotbed of crime, gambling, prostitution and myriad illegal activities, with powerful Chinese secret societies like the Ghee Hin and Ghee Hok pulling the strings. Newly arrived and penniless Chinese migrants were subject to the mercy of these ruthless triads. Lim Tin Seng recounts Chinatown’s dark history in “Coolies, Triads and Pimps”.
The oldest profession in the world had an early start in Singapore, according to guest writer Farish Noor in his essay, “Money-making Bodies”. Out of practical considerations, the British and Dutch legalised prostitution and set up brothels to cater to its predominantly male colonial officers as well as migrant workers – from India and China – who arrived in the new colonies in droves.
In the pre-television era, gambling was another means of distraction for the people. Chap ji kee, dubbed the “housewives opium”, was very popular among low-wage Chinese workers and housewives in Singapore. Janice Loo traces the rise of chap ji kee in the late 19th century to its peak in the post-war decade, before its eventual decline in the 1970s.
Along with prostitution and gambling, opium consumption was another social ill that plagued Singapore in the colonial era. Many Chinese migrant workers took to smoking opium as a distraction from the hard grind of everyday life. Gracie Lee examines the effects of opium on Singapore and the misery it wreaked on people’s lives in her essay, “Chasing the Dragon”.
The fledgling police force in 19th-century Singapore had its hands full as it battled Chinese triads, hardened gamblers and opium smokers, and perpetrators of crime. The police force has since grown from a skeletal 12-man team in 1819 to the large and formidable organisation it is today. Ang Seow Leng pays tribute to our “Men in Blue” in her essay.
Singapore’s reputation as a former penal colony for convicts from India may have been obscured by the passage of time. These hard-working men cleared jungles, laid roads and helped build some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, and many stayed on to build a life of their own after the practice of shipping in convicts was outlawed in 1873. Bonny Tan shares this slice of history in “Convict Labour in Colonial Singapore”.
The young Singaporeans who throng Bugis Junction today are likely unaware that the complex was built on the site of a former red light district comprising the long-gone Bugis, Malay, Hylam and Malabar streets. Lee Meiyu reminisces about the area’s colourful history in “Bugis Street: From Sleazy to Sanitised”.
Sex and sexuality are topics that are seldom broached openly in traditional societies. But this has not stopped noted Malay authors such as Ahmad Lutfi and Isa Kamari from exploring this subject in their literary works. Juffri Bin Supa’at examines this controversial topic in his feature “Di Balik Pintu” (literally “Behind Closed Doors”).
This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. As part of the propaganda campaign to win over the hearts of the people and demoralise the enemy, the Allied Forces air-dropped leaflets all over Japanese-occupied territories in Southeast Asia between 1941 and 1945. Benjamin Seet shares highlights from his private collection of propaganda leaflets amassed over the years.