The Chettiars of Market Street


As a boy, Lakshmanan Subbiah recalls walking down a street in the heart of the city, a stroll that began by a riverside mosque, where the regular cry of the muezzin would herald a throng of men in sarongs and skullcaps rushing to prayer. Across the road, entrenched in the corner of a stately colonial building, a moneychanger would holler, “US Dollars, Pounds, US Dollars…”, and as one forded a small crossing, the scene changed to rows of shophouses—not the teahouses, peddlers of traditional medicine and clan associations of Chinatown, but a quite different blend of sights, smells and sounds: the fragrance of cinnamon and cardamom; the pungent bite of garlic and onions; aisles of silk sarees that spilled onto the five-foot way; freshly roasted notes and whiffs of sweetened tea; curries on banana leaves; and the dust of urban mills as grains, grams and raw spices were ground into flour and finer mixtures.

Amid these louder establishments were half a dozen other, more austere, premises. “There, you would see some shaven Indian men, sitting on the floor by low desks, bent over and writing on open ledgers with total concentration,” recounts Subbiah. These men were Chettiars, a caste of Tamil moneylenders, nay merchant bankers, devotees of Siva who served as vital links in the entrepreneurial food chain during past times when capital and credit were scarce and big banks catered largely to commercial houses of similar pedigree, leaving little to local businessmen and migrant traders. Among the first financiers to arrive in modern Singapore, the Chettiars operated in communal offices called kittangis, where they provided sundry merchants and middlemen with the funds to fuel the port’s early development as a node in the opium route between Bengal and China, and later, as a global emporium for tin, rubber and other tropical commodities.

Though still vivid in Subbiah’s memory, this world of kittangis, along with an entire community of associated South Asian businesses centred around Market Street just behind Raffles Place, vanished in 1977, when the shophouses were redeveloped into a multi-storey complex named after the Golden Shoe—an old, no doubt propitious, label for the financial district. Today, the only clue that Market Street, which once spanned Boat Quay to Cecil Street, was the main artery of Micro India (a moniker coined by Subbiah as a nod to the Singapore Tourism Board’s branding of Serangoon Road as ‘Little India’) is Masjid Moulana Mohamed Ali, a mosque of Indian Muslim origin sited in the basement of UOB Plaza. The muezzin no longer calls, but a bargain struck with the bankers ensured that room for prayer remains, in a zone dedicated to worldly gains.

“That was the Market Street I grew up in,” says Subbiah. Just as the streets of Telok Ayer used to be named after Chinese terms of reference, with no regard for municipal sensibilities, locals dubbed this thoroughfare Chetty Street or chetty theruvu, after the Chettiars who once dominated commercial life far beyond the Straits. By Subbiah’s reckoning, Market Street had in its heyday as many as sevenkittangis, which together housed some 300-400 Chettiar firms. Even in the 1970s, when the Chettiars were losing ground to homegrown banks, Market Street still had six kittangis as well as 30-40 Indian-owned businesses. About 400-500 people (about half of whom were Chettiars) called the road home, for the kittangis doubled as dorms; each proprietor leased a few square feet of floorspace by a narrow hall, just enough to store a safe and chest that also served as a table where the Chettiar met customers and balanced his books. Come evening, a cook dished out meals from a kitchen at the rear, and before turning in, the bankers unrolled mattresses for a spartan sleep-in before the next trading day.

In their homeland of Tamil Nadu, the Chettiars were known as Nagarathars, “people with palatial houses in the countryside”. Though few now have the means and mind to maintain them, many of these mansions still survive in inland villages, a geographical anomaly Subbiah traces to a probable tsunami that destroyed the Chettiars’ original maritime bases about 700 years ago, leading the community to avoid coastal settlements thereafter. Oral records suggest that the Chettiars were already trading with Southeast Asia 2,000 years ago. Much later, when the British established a foothold in Madras (now Chennai) in the 1640s, they found willing and more-than-able business partners in the Chettiars, who followed in the wake of the East India Company as new ports were created in Burma, Ceylon, Penang, Batavia and Indochina.

In the Wild West economic environment of early modern Singapore, when few European banks risked malaria and pirates to set up shop by Commercial Square (now Raffles Place), the Chettiars offered much-needed liquidity to native merchants, opium farmers, planters and petty traders. The Chettiars, thanks to their long-standing commercial ties with the British in India, were among the few non-Europeans with the standing to obtain credit, and at favourable rates, from the financial establishment. “They would borrow the money, come to Market Street and give it out as small loans,” explains Subbiah, a fourth-generation Chettiar who grew up in one of Market Street’s spacious kittangis. Little or no collateral was sought, so interest rates of 15-30% (up to 40% during the Second World War), were commanded, and the Chettiar took pains to personally appraise each potential borrower and his credit-worthiness. “It was a simple, non-bureaucratic process,” remarks Subbiah. Visiting a kittangi, where you were greeted and served by a (usually) shirtless man in a dhoti, conversant in Tamil and Malay, was no doubt a far less intimidating, and more fruitful, experience for the average towkay than braving the stiff regard of colonial banks. Throughout the 19th century and much of the early 20th, Chettiars throughout Southeast Asia acted as full service bankers, providing working capital loans, syndicated loans, investment capital, fund transfers and demand drafts that drove trade wherever they settled: coconut, rubber, coffee and tea in Ceylon; rice, gems and  teak in Burma; tin, rubber, palm oil and rice in Malaya; rice in Indochina; and to a lesser extent, sugar in South Africa and Mauritius.

As a community, the Chettiars punched far above their demographic weight. In the 1920s, the Chettiars were reported to have amassed about 1.2 billion rupees in wealth, despite numbering no more than 30,000 worldwide. They were never numerous in their regional outposts; the typical Chettiar undertook a series of three-year sojourns in a Southeast Asian port before returning to his ancestral village with the funds to build vast mansions for his extended family and assume the role of patron of culture and the culinary arts. (Chettinad food, notes Subbiah, gained its fame from the patronage of Chettiars). The Chettiar tour of duty was largely the province of bachelors; only in the 1960s did Chettiar womenfolk join their male kin abroad in the Malay Peninsula.

The close-knit, almost insular, nature of expatriate Chettiar communities, a source of mutual strength in colonial times, was to prove a liability in the mid-20th century, when the Great Depression and a growing wave of nationalism turned the tide against these pioneering bankers. “They were making huge amounts of money and sent it all back to India,” observed Subbiah. “They didn’t invest anything locally because they were sojourners.” Never populous and powerful, closely associated with British overlords, and perceived as ‘Shylocks’ who drained economies of their surpluses during the Great Depression and post-war years, the Chettiars were easy targets when widespread defaults saddled them with vast tracts of land formerly owned by their clients, especially in Burma. When nationalists assumed power, first in Rangoon, then in Colombo, Saigon and Jakarta, the Chettiars had their land and property nationalised and were given marching orders. “Some walked back across the border,” says Subbiah of this exodus.

Only in Malaya were these pillars of the colonial banking system unscathed. But even in Singapore, the tea leaves bode ill as the island embarked on a post-colonial trajectory. Greater regulation of banks and moneylenders in the 1950s reduced official interest rates to unprofitable margins, though some borrowers sweetened the deal with off-the-record mark-ups. Fearing a socialist regime similar to those in Indochina and Burma, many Chettiars called their options, selling off their properties and other assets before returning to India for good. For those who remained and found a nation that veered neither left nor right along the ideological scale, the advent of easy credit and new domestic players in the 1970s chipped away at their historical dominance of the banking sector for small-to-medium enterprises.

Thus, when the offer came in the late 1970s for the acquisition and redevelopment of Market Street, there was relatively little resistance. The kittangis were sold for a song and many older Chettiars called it a day, taking advantage of the then strength of the rupee vis-à-vis the Singapore dollar to carve a comfortable retirement in their homeland. Others moved to new premises in Cantonment Road, Serangoon Road and Tank Road, where a lone kittangi with one lender still holds fort in the shadow of the Sri Thendayuthapani or Chettiar’s Temple. Built in 1859, this shrine, with its 22-metre high raja gopuram or gateway tower, is probably the most significant local landmark associated with the Chettiars, who erected temples to Murugan wherever they went, and the destination of the annual Thaipusam procession, perhaps the only tangible manifestation of Chettiar religious culture in the psyche of post-modern Singaporeans.

“It was the end of an era.” Shorn of their downtown enclave and with surviving kittangis scattered at the margins, “the old communal life was over.” According to Subbiah, for a time, the local Chettiar community dwindled to as little as 30 families, before a new wave of migrants from Tamil Nadu, mostly engineers or IT professionals, bolstered their numbers to the present thousand or so. Subbiah himself is a financial controller in a multinational firm. In their homeland, some forward-looking Chettiars had long diversified, becoming industrialists, manufacturers, publishers and major owners of Tamil film studios. But others members of the community floundered in the post-colonial era, lacking both capital and formal education. To make ends meet, they sold their heirlooms, reducing their once-palatial homes and their lavish fittings to showrooms of artefacts collectors took apart, while younger Chettiars settled into new roles as professionals and small businessmen.

With the demise of Market Street’s kittangis and shophouses, the city lost what Subbiah called a neighbourhood “with a clear identity as an Indian area”. This Micro India of his childhood, he adds, consisted of Tamil Hindu as well as Muslim establishments as well as North Indian and Chinese businesses. “In that sense I think it was a real ‘Little India’—much more so than even Serangoon Road today,” he declares. In the early 1970s, Market Street was a one-stop shop where ethnic Indian families would spend a day out, settling accounts with their Chetty before visiting a barber or saree dealer, stocking up on provisions, lunching at a banana leaf restaurant or café, and spending the remaining daylight hours at the waterfront. “The waves used to come all the way,” recounts Subbiah of a time when the Singapore River emptied into the open sea. “People walked over to the Esplanade, they’d sell peanuts and balloons, lie down and relax, and then at sunset they’d go back.”

Other than the Chettiars, Market Street was the ‘incubator’ site of other, not only ethnic Indian, enterprises. Subbiah recalls being asked by his elders to buy tea from a young wallah named Mustaq Ahmad, who helped his father man a pushcart at a corner of Market Street and Battery Road before going on to helm the outfit now known as Mohamed Mustafa & Shamsudin. Textile retailer 2nd Chance occupied a shop lot along Chulia Street in the 1970s, while the headquarters of philanthropist P. Govindasamy Pillai’s chain of PGP provision stores was located on the upper reaches of Market Street. Tat Lee Bank had its headquarters, as well as an iron and steel rolling mill, between two kittangis, while various law firms and shipchandlers operated from Chulia (previously Kling) Street, now a mere laneway unlike its sprawling namesake in Georgetown, Penang. Along Malacca Street, the Portuguese Mission owned the neo-classical Nunes Building, a 1930s chip off the Nolli block, next to which stood the offices of the Lee & Lee legal firm from 1955-1969. On the opposite side of Malacca Street was the spice trading business of the Jumabhoys from Gujarat, which later expanded into Scotts Holdings.

For the young Subbiah, these luminaries were probably mere footnotes, scanty recollections preserved amid memories of playing football with friends on the green of Raffles Place when the city was deserted by its minions early in the evening. “The kittangi was a fun place to stay,” he muses. Market Street was also part of the route taken by traditional Chingay revellers before the parade took on a less pugilistic turn. To this day, a kavadi procession known as punar pusam, which begins at the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple at Keong Saik Road and ends at Tank Road on the evening before Thaipusam, still includes Market Street as part of its circuit. What sticks in Subbiah’s mind, though, is a different assembly that took place on the day of Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, when the street before thekittangi thronged with people all the way to the Bank of China building on Battery Road (then one of the few local conduits to the People’s Republic), prompting the curious boy to join the crowd and ink a note on a condolence book in the Chinese bank. “I was probably 10 or 12 years old; I can’t even remember what I wrote,” remarks Subbiah, “Everyone was signing and when it was my turn, I couldn’t even reach the book so the man behind me lifted me up.”   

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” observed Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s metafable of Invisible Cities. The act of telling, of tampering with recesses that lay dormant, defined by the moment they were created, imprinted, incised onto lines prone to distortion, embargoed from the present, exiled from their place of birth and expunged from maps made for fleeting streets, is one that risks decay, defeat, deconstruction—in this case a literal tearing-down of spaces to which incomes, and identity, were tethered. A carpark, a food centre, plazas by a park that is more clean than green, new money for old continuities: Singapore’s Micro India merged into modernity and found it wanting, a road cut short and wound up, a chamber of commerce without communality, a farewell to homes that doubled as offices in a city that still had time to sleep, to dream, to remember the scent of cloves and coriander as night fell on a street of sojourners, makers of markets and masters of their own fates who have left few signs of their presence in a country where the past makes haste to fade, to flee, to lose itself far from the margins of living memory. 

Words Marcus Ng

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