Researching the Eu Yan Sang Collection
Grace Teo & Jeremy Goh
Graduate students, Nanyang Technological University
As part of our research assistance work with Professor Koh Keng We from the Nanyang Technological University, we have been visiting the National Museum to access the Eu Yan Sang Collection since late 2018. The primary materials in this collection are relevant to our interests – in Jeremy’s case, these sources enable him to understand the daily operations of Eu Tong Sen’s regional concerns, which is useful towards his ongoing research in Chinese business history, while Grace was drawn to this project because of her personal interest in family businesses.
Eu Tong Sen (1877–1941) was the proprietor of the Eu Yan Sang–Sang Woh–Yan Woh conglomerate, which engaged in tin mining, rubber planting, medicine retailing, banking, remittances and property development during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Singapore and British Malaya, with links to places including Hong Kong and Canton. The National Museum of Singapore holds a collection of documents derived from the varied business interests and engagements that the Eu Yan Sang office in Singapore was involved in during the 1930s, known as the Eu Tong Sen & Eu Yan Sang Collection.
While browsing the collection, we chanced upon both familiar and unfamiliar items of interest related to our research into business history. Bearing receipts, invoices and salary slips that were handled by appointed cashiers and bookkeepers – often signed off under jingshouren (经手人) and shouyinren (收银人), these expense transactions present a certain familiarity to our conception of what running a business entails. Business letters, as well as telegram and postage receipts, for example, are a tangible reminder of the material means employed in the coordinating of a business, or more specifically, the communication routes and mediums – in this case, paper – used between branch offices and individuals across geographical space. For the different business interests, this meant the circulation of paper documents between Singapore and different places in Malaya such as Malacca, Ipoh and Seremban. Notably, the names of these places were indicated prominently in remittance receipts and official letters, on which print text and ink stamps in standardized locations mention the sending office in other parts of Malaya from which documents were received. Other documents, such as parcel cash receipts and freight charges from the Federated Malay States Railways, are also evidence of the transfer, handling of and payment for goods between places in Malaya, which the documents of this collection seem to indicate, were directed by the Eu Yan Sang head office in Singapore and other offices. The scale of operations, at first glance, seems to be rather impressive, as is the systematicity of the circulation, which we hope can encourage further imaginations of the transnational reach of Chinese business beyond our shores.
We also find the materials useful in illuminating aspects of Eu Tong Sen’s family lifestyle. Receipts and invoices addressed to the Eu Villa at Adis Road, be it the purchase of construction materials for repair, motor parts or newspaper subscriptions, offer hints at the expenses incurred by Eu Tong Sen’s family. Other distinctive primary source material that is not related to the conducting of businesses include licenses permitting the keeping of dogs and annual subscriptions to associations. It is also possible to infer from these materials the nature of services consulted at the local level within Singapore. Compiling a list of regularly-consulted services rendered by certain businesses may go a small way towards reconstructing the social patterns of a wealthy Chinese family in 1930s Singapore, while highlighting the names of lesser-known sundries stores and pharmacies, and bigger “multinational” companies alike. The familiar names of General Electric Limited, United Engineers Limited, and Oriental Telephone and Electric Co. Limited, for example, can be found frequently among other expenses contained in the collection. An understanding of the interlinks present in the mercantile community of 1930s Singapore could, perhaps, also be enriched by future forays exploring the commercial activity and business relations between local and/or family-owned companies, approached from the perspective of business history and more. The opportunity to see these receipts that are primary artefacts left over from a particular historical process or activity is a novel experience, with the materiality of “doing” history as compared to reading history. We think that writing histories based on these tangible sources from the museum could be a modest contribution to the knowledge in textbook and published sources.
While the existing scholarship on the Eu Tong Sen business empire, historical newspapers and business directories provides context of certain institutions and connections that are found in these primary source materials, the process of transcribing various documents in the collection may also lead to discoveries of newfound or lesser-known connections or involvements that the Eu Yan Sang business had. During the process of our cataloguing, we realized that translations of non-English language documents occasionally unearths a new commercial partner and the nature of the commercial ties in new places. For instance, our translations of orders appearing to be for Chinese medicine indicate the purchase of various medicinal supplies from areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Johore. Thus, adding to what secondary sources might have already accounted for, we believe there is potential in this collection to point out the network of suppliers used by the department that handled medicine. By going through more records and looking at the frequency at which orders were sent out or received, we can determine which were consistent supplies of medicine and other raw materials. This could, for example, suggest the rates at which certain stocks were replenished. The recording of orders, received sums and expenses incurred from different places affords a glimpse into the different transactions tabulated on a daily basis, resulting in a vantage point into the recurrence of business activity by the week or month as compared to yearly tabulations present in account books or other macro-level sources such as English-language financial reports and balance sheets.
As history scholars with interests in Southeast Asian histories and historical narratives of Singapore, our recent exposure to the technicalities of cataloging this collection has been an eye-opening experience, and we look forward to improving how we categorize primary material and write descriptive captions. At the same time, it has been rewarding to grapple with how cataloguing and deriving common themes in this collection answers historical questions that we have about the Southeast Asian business scene, a process that will continue as we add more items to our catalogue. As we progress in our cataloguing and analysis of more business documents and receipts, new conclusions might be formed about the linkages found within the Eu Yan Sang business network and its various modes of operation, and it is exciting to see how these may promote a better understanding of early 20th-century Chinese business histories in Singapore and Asia.
About the Authors
Grace Teo is a graduate student in Nanyang Technological University’s MA in Global and Interdisciplinary History programme. She holds an interest in historicizing temporal relations and time standardization in colonial Malaya, and is currently writing her thesis on the progression of time policing and street illumination in pre-1900 Singapore.
Jeremy Goh is a graduate student in Nanyang Technological University’s Master of Arts in Global and Interdisciplinary History programme. He is currently exploring the pre-war history of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and its role in colonial Singapore and Malaya’s changing business environment during the late 19th and early 20th century.