( Originally Published 1904 )
WE have come from Sumatra to Singapore (sin-ga-por') in the Strait of Malacca. We are on a little island not far from the Equator, just off the southeastern end of the Asiatic continent, and so close to it that we could cross to the mainland in less than an hour. Singapore is so small that its size alone would hardly give it a place on the map, but its location is such that it has a greater trade than Sumatra and other islands several hundred times as large.
We have seen the value of our Samoan Islands, because they lie at just the place where ships can stop on their long voyage to and from Australia and North America, and also of the Hawaiian Islands, because they are at the crossing of the ocean highways between our continent and Australia and of those which connect us with Japan, China, and the Philippines. It is the same with Singapore. It is one of the great ocean stations on the route from Europe by the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean to China and Japan and the other countries on the east coast of Asia. It is the port of call for vessels bound for the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines, and a great transshipping place for goods destined for Burma, Siam, and the islands about. All vessels going from India to China call here, and also some from Australia and Africa.
Singapore belongs to the English. They have made it a free port, so that no duties are charged on any goods coming in. This fact, added to its location and its excel-lent harbor, has made it the business center of this part of the world.
When the English took possession of the island, early in the last century, it was a tropical jungle inhabited by savage Malays and infested with tigers and poisonous snakes. Now much of it is as well cultivated as Java. It has beautiful roads and many valuable pepper, sugar, coffee, and sago plantations. The jungle has been cut away and a city of more than three hundred thousand people has grown up about the harbor. Fifty lines of steam-ships now connect it with different parts of the world, more than one thousand vessels visit it every month, and several miles of wharves have been constructed for them.
The commerce of Singapore amounts to several hundred million dollars a year, and great hotels have grown up to accommodate the traffic. The city has large stores, banks, and fine public buildings. It has newspapers, telephones, and electric lights, and were it not for the tropical vegetation and the odd-looking Asiatic inhabitants, we might imagine ourselves in one of the great seaports of Europe.
The people of Singapore are stranger than any we have yet seen. They are of all races, classes, and conditions. There are about 6000 Europeans who are dressed as we are, and more than 250,000 people from Asia and Malaysia, clad in all sorts of outlandish costumes. There are 150,000 yellow Chinese, thousands of black East Indians, thousands of brown Malays much like the natives of Java and Sumatra, and a large number of yellow Siamese, Burmese, and dark-skinned Dyaks from Borneo. There are fierce-looking men from Arabia in turbans and gowns, sober-looking Parsees from Bombay with hats like inverted coal scuttles, dapper young Japanese, and also Armenians and Jews. Each race has its own costume, and we are lost in wonder at the strange sights of the streets.
Suppose we take a jinriksha and, starting at the wharves, drive about them and then go up to the city. What a curious way of riding ! We each have a little carriage on two wheels pulled by a barelegged, blue-gowned Chinese, who trots along inside the shafts. The carriage is just large enough for one or two persons. It has good springs, and we ride as easily as though it were drawn by a horse instead of a man. We touch our human steeds with our umbrellas when we want them to stop, and now and then poke them to make them go faster. The charge is only a few cents an hour, and we can ride all day for less than a dollar.
We pay a visit to the wharves, and spend some time watching the great steamers being loaded and unloaded by the Chinese and East Indian laborers. The East Indians have little more than one cloth about their heads and another about their loins, and we can see the sweat stand out upon their black skins as they work. The Chinese are almost as scantily clad. Some of them are bare to the waist.
Here is a ship taking on coal. It has come from Calcutta and is on its way to Hongkong. A platform has been built up from the wharf to the deck of the steamer, and a score of Chinese are working in couples. Each couple has a great bag of coal hung to the center of a pole which rests on their bare shoulders, and they trot along, without bending, from the warehouse to the steamer. That coal came from England. It has traveled thousands of miles from its home in the earth to this ocean station to feed that Indian steamer trading with China.
The vessel just beyond is unloading bars of iron from Belgium. - They are taken by black-skinned Klings in carts up the wharves to a ship bound for Sumatra. The carts are drawn by bullocks with straight horns and big humps on their backs. They are of the same breed as the sacred bulls of India, but in Singapore they must work for their living instead of being worshiped as in Hindustan. Their drivers have red turbans, and white cloths about the loins.
Notice, too, how commerce brings things from all parts of the world to its great exchanging stations. There are goods of all kinds scattered over these wharves. We see a box of electric arc lamps from New York marked Bangkok, Siam; sugar machinery from Germany marked Batavia, Java; and bales of cotton from Bombay for Deli, Sumatra; cases of goods from Paris for Cochin China; and porcelain from Japan for Rangoon, in Burma.
There are all sorts of merchandise from the islands and countries of the far East destined for Europe. There is a vessel unloading pearl shells to be transshipped to London. Those great bundles of rattan have come from Borneo; that coffee is from Sumatra, as are also those huge bags of black pepper. A boat full of rice from Siam is just coming to anchor, and a vessel behind it has the flag of Japan floating over it.
But see, there is Old Glory ! The stars and stripes, the red, white, and blue! They are at the mast of a magnificent gunboat. We wave our handkerchiefs and burst into cheers. That is one of our men-of-war on its way to the Philippines. It came from New York through the Strait of Gibraltar, crossed the Mediterranean, passed through the Suez Canal, and over the Indian Ocean to Singapore. It will stay but a day and will then steam on to Manila.
Let us tell our coolies to turn their jinrikshas and take us into the city. The roads are as hard and as smooth as stone floors, and the men go on the trot. They dart in and out of the throng of carts, drawn by humped Indian cattle and driven by Klings, carriages hauled by horses imported from Australia with coachmen in livery, English officers on foot and on horseback, and the many other strange characters which inhabit the city.
We pass Kling women, as black as our shoes, clad in white cottons and red calicoes, but blazing' with jewels. They have bracelets on their arms, rings about their ankles, and even rings on their toes. Many wear ear-rings, and some have buttons through the rims of their ears as well as plugs in the lobes. We see Malay women who half hide their faces as they pass, and rich Chinese girls dressed in silk, and loaded with jewels.
At every corner stands a tall Sikh policeman with a red turban on his head, which makes him look taller still. There are Indian merchants with caps embroidered with gold, Chinese merchants in gowns of fine silk, and rich Malays wearing skirts of red and caps of bright-colored velvet. There are children as queerly clad as their parents, and not a few little ones who have no clothes at all.
We stop at the post office to mail letters home. We go on to the stores and are glad to find that even the native clerks speak English. The most of the retail business is done by the -Chinese, who have many small shops. The Chinese are also large capitalists, doing business of every description.
Later on we drive out into the country, passing the great house of the governor who rules not only Singapore, but several other English colonies which make up what is known as the Straits Settlements. The governor is appointed by the king of England. He has a house finer than the White House at Washington, situated on a hill surrounded by magnificent grounds of a velvety green dotted with tropical trees and beautiful flowers.
Farther on are the barracks where the soldiers who keep the colony in order live. From there we go for a long drive into the country. Everywhere the roads are lined with great trees ; giant bamboos hang over them, there are palms of many kinds, and all together we seem to be in a tropical park save where the jungle is yet unreclaimed.
On the opposite side of the island from Singapore city we take a little boat and cross to Johore on the mainland, merely to say we have set foot upon Asia, and then return to drive back to our hotel. Our journey has taken all day, and it is dark long before we reach Singapore. We go rapidly, holding our guns on our knees for fear of the tigers which are so frequently found in the jungle that it is not at all safe to be out in the wilds after dark.
It takes us some time to decide where to go next. We might visit the Nicobar Islands, a little group belonging to Great Britain northwest of Sumatra, inhabited by Malays who devote themselves chiefly to raising cocoanuts. Or we might go on farther north to the Andamans, which are also under the British flag, where the natives are much the same as the Negritos we saw in the Philippines, and where the British have colonies of convicts. Neither group, however, is of much importance, and we shall proceed to Ceylon. There is a steamer in the harbor ready to start, and within a short time we are well on the way.