In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the strategic visions of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) — which together form the backbone of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Lim 2015, 2). The SREB and the MSR are based on the ancient overland and maritime trade networks connecting Imperial China with the kingdoms of Asia, Europe, and Africa. In his opening address to the 2017 Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, President Xi described how his vision for the BRI was inspired by these ancient Silk Roads:
“Over 2,000 years ago, our ancestors, trekking across vast steppes and deserts, opened the transcontinental passage connecting Asia, Europe and Africa, known today as the Silk Road. Our ancestors, navigating rough seas, created sea routes linking the East with the West, namely, the maritime Silk Road … The glory of the ancient silk routes shows that geographical distance is not insurmountable. If we take the first courageous step towards each other, we can embark on a path leading to friendship, shared development, peace, harmony and a better future” (Xi 2017).
The Ancient Maritime Silk Road
Singapore’s relations with China can be traced back to this precolonial period. Archeological excavations at Fort Canning Hill and along the Singapore River of sites associated with the fourteenth century Singaporean kingdom of Temasek — later known as Singapura — have uncovered “Chinese glass beads and vessels, as well as the fragment of a rare porcelain pillow and a unique compass bowl,” suggesting “an exceptionally close relationship with China.” A separate excavation at Empress Place unearthed “700-year-old Chinese coins, stoneware, and Buddhist figurines,” as well as “possible imperial-grade Chinese ceramics — physical evidence that China’s imperial court recognized Temasek.” The archeological findings show that fourteenth century Singapore was “a major trade hub … importing and exporting between India, Southeast Asia, and China.” Temasek’s status as a major trade hub along the ancient Maritime Silk Road lasted until “the fifteenth century, when the city was likely conquered and the trade hub moved to Melaka” (Miksic 2013, 147-150; Miksic and Goh 2017, 502; Chandrashekhar 2017).
The memoir of the fourteenth century Chinese merchant Wang Dayuan — the “only surviving eyewitness account of ancient Singapore” — identifies two settlements at Temasek: Longyamen and Banzu. Historians have since identified Keppel Harbor as the site of Longyamen, and Fort Canning Hill as the site of Banzu. The Yuan Shih, the official history of China’s Yuan dynasty, records a Chinese mission sent in 1320 to Longyamen and neighboring Southeast Asian kingdoms “asking for tame elephants,” as well as a subsequent diplomatic mission sent in 1325 from Longyamen to the Yuan court. Wang Dayuan’s memoir, however, records Longyamen’s inhabitants as being “addicted to piracy,” and describes how their victims, including those from captured Chinese junks, would be “butchered and the merchandise made off with in quick time.” Wang added the intriguing observation that at Longyamen “the natives and the Chinese dwell side by side.” Unlike the pirates of Longyamen, Wang described Banzu as a peaceful trading settlement. Wang observed that the people of Banzu wore “turbans with gold-brocaded satin”—clothing more luxurious than what is known of that is worn in neighboring settlements at the time — and that they produced “very fine hornbill casques, lankawood of moderate quality and cotton,” along with trade goods like “green cotton, lengths of iron, cotton prints … porcelain-ware, iron pots, and suchlike” (Miksic 2013, 169-179; Wheatley 1961, 82-83).
Wang Dayuan’s brief sketches of Longyamen and Banzu are challenging for those interested in fourteenth century Singapore because they raise more questions than they answer. For instance, why did the Chinese settlers at Longyamen tolerate their native neighbors’ pirate attacks on Chinese junks? John Miksic raises the possibility that Wang could have misidentified Banzu with Longyamen as the location of the Chinese settlement on the island, which could be the case given the archeological findings of Chinese artifacts at sites around Fort Canning Hill. Also, what were relations like between Longyamen and Banzu? Paul Wheatley suggests that “the rampart and ditch which formerly ran inland from the sea to the base of Fort Canning Hill … may have served to protect the city as much from these turbulent neighbors as from foreign raiders,” and that the boom which the Sejarah Melayu — the royal chronicles of the Melaka Sultanate — describes as closing the mouth of the Singapore River could have served this defensive purpose as well. However, an earlier Vietnamese chronicle records diplomatic missions sent from Temasek to the Vietnamese court in the late thirteenth century. Does this indicate that Longyamen and Banzu were ruled as a single polity? Unless further historical records of ancient Singapore are found, we may never know (Miksic 2013, 174-182; Wheatley 1961, 84-85; Wheatley 1964, 108-110).
By the 1850s there were “hundreds of settled families” in Singapore, and new British policies “which encouraged people to stay” saw the Chinese settling down “in larger numbers in the first half of the twentieth century.”
Likewise, it is unknown how large the Chinese settlement in fourteenth century Singapore was, or how it compared with Chinese settlements located elsewhere along the Maritime Silk Road during this period. In the city of Palembang in neighboring Sumatra, it is known that a large Chinese community had settled there by the late fourteenth century, especially after the overthrow of the Yuan by the Ming dynasty in China saw a change in imperial policy towards the overseas Chinese. The new Ming court imposed strict restrictions on overseas trade, and ordered the Chinese who had settled overseas to return to China. By 1400, up to 10,000 Chinese in Palembang, who suddenly found themselves criminalized by the imperial court, “chose to remain in Palembang rather than return to China … to avoid punishment.” However, the first of Admiral Zheng He’s voyages under the Yongle Emperor included a punitive mission against the illicit Chinese settlement in Palembang, which killed over 5,000 of the Chinese settlers and which also captured “their leader Chen Zuyi, who was taken back to Nanjing for execution.” John Miksic notes that “the fact that a Chinese community still existed after 5,000 were killed gives some idea of the size of Palembang’s Chinese population” (Miksic 2013, 189-193).
Singapore, in the meantime, had suffered a decline in its fortunes by the end of the fourteenth century. According to the Sejarah Melayu, political intrigue saw the royal court of Singapura fleeing a punitive expedition sent in 1396 by a foreign power — which some historians believe to be Patani, then a vassal of the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya — and the ousted ruler eventually founded the city of Melaka on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. Despite the departure of the court, Singapore continued to function as a port up until the beginning of the seventeenth century, when “an attack by the Acehnese shortly after 1600” left the island “almost completely depopulated.” By the time the British arrived in 1819, the population of Singapore had increased to just 1,000, including about 20-30 Chinese (Miksic 2013, 152-156, 208; Turnbull 2009, 25).
During the period of British rule, Chinese migrants were once again attracted to Singapore. Unlike the precolonial period when the Chinese migrants primarily consisted of merchants and artisans, those who came to Singapore and the new European colonies in Southeast Asia during the colonial period mainly consisted of coolie laborers, who were “normally men of peasant origin, landless laborers and the urban poor.” These laborers supplemented the merchants and artisans who were also attracted by the economic opportunities offered by the new colonial regimes in Southeast Asia (Wang 2003, 5-6).
The decades of turmoil in China triggered by the Opium Wars in the 1840s saw increasing numbers of Chinese “leaving China for Southeast Asia and elsewhere around the world.” With greater numbers of Chinese arriving with Singapore as their final destination or as “a base for relocation elsewhere in the Malay archipelago,” a “new trade in Chinese labor” emerged. European colonists in Southeast Asia opened up new plantations and mines, leading to “a rapid growth in the demand for cheap labor which the Chinese in the region were able to supply by bringing in their countrymen in increasingly large numbers.” In addition to these laborers, Singapore also became “the recipient of the largest number of new Chinese who … provided a new reservoir of entrepreneurial talent and the next generation of merchants for Singapore” (Wang 2003, 187-188).
While most of these Chinese merchants, artisans, and laborers eventually returned to China or “moved on to other places in Southeast Asia,” many chose to settle in Singapore. These included merchants and artisans who had managed to establish successful businesses in Singapore, and laborers who had “lifted themselves above their laboring status and turned successfully to trade.” Hence by the 1850s there were “hundreds of settled families” in Singapore, and new British policies “which encouraged people to stay” saw the Chinese settling down “in larger numbers in the first half of the twentieth century.” In 1911, for example, “a year of flood and famine in southern China,” Chinese immigration to Singapore numbered 270,000, up from 227,000 in 1907 and 152,000 in 1909 (Turnbull 2009, 119; Wang 2003, 195-196).
The growing Chinese communities in Singapore and the region attracted the attention of the Qing dynasty, the Kuomintang (KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party), and later the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The overseas Chinese hence became entangled in domestic Chinese politics. Qing officials, the KMT, and the CCP asserted the overseas Chinese to be huaqiao—a term which means overseas Chinese, but which has political connotations of allegiance to the Chinese nation, whatever that meant to the Qing court, the KMT, or the CCP. In Singapore, this politicization was intensified by the island’s position as a safe haven for Chinese rebels fighting against the Qing dynasty. Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen visited Singapore nine times between 1900-11, and “during his fourth visit in 1906, Sun set up the Singapore branch of Tongmenghui (Chinese Revolutionary Alliance).” From his Singapore base, Sun “planned the Huanggang Uprising of May 1907, the Zhennanguan Uprising of December 1907, and the Hekou Uprising of April 1908.” Singapore hence was an integral part of the movement which led to the Chinese Revolution of 1911, and the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, with Sun as the first President of China. The politicization of the overseas Chinese communities, especially after the Chinese Revolution of 1911, raised tensions with the colonial authorities, and later with the local nationalist movements in the countries they had settled in (Turnbull 2009, 122; Wang 2003, 7-9, 197; Mukunthan 1999; Koh 2016).
This article is an excerpt from “China and Singapore: From the Ancient to the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road,” in China and Southeast Asia in the Xi Jinping Era, edited by Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim and Frank Cibulka, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019. The author thanks Lexington Books for kindly granting permission for the publication of this excerpt.