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A Murder in the Straits Colony—Life in Colonial Singapore

In the case of most diplomats, the investigation of crimes is an activity that is neither envied nor sought out; however, in the case of a few adventurous men in Colonial Singapore, this was not the case. Like most of the world, Singapore was once a European colony, namely a British one. And like most British colonies, there were several predominant divides in society: rich, poor, Anglo, and foreign.

Cairnhil, Singapore (1842) Charles Andrew Dyce | NUS Museum
Cairnhil, Singapore (1842) Charles Andrew Dyce | NUS Museum

This stratified society, combined with Singapore’s status as an international hub of trade and the many opium dens in the area, made the colony a hotbed of crime. Blackmail, prostitution, racketeering, conspiracies, and murder were all present. The emergence of “Secret Societies,” similar to street gangs or the Mafia, contributed further to these issues. While some Asian businessmen were able to amass fortunes, such as Aw Boon Haw (also known as the Tiger Balm King), most non-European people either had to live in perpetual poverty or risk it all by joining one of the secret societies. While increased crackdowns starting in the 1890s by police forces helped to suppress these societies, some have managed to survive until today.

In this “moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” we see that the memoirs of Don Carroll Bliss Jr. provide a first-hand account of a murder investigation that was connected to these secret societies. Bliss served as a commercial attaché in Singapore from 1924 until 1926, and later the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1957 until 1960.

Don Carroll Bliss Jr’s memoir was published in 2010 and archived with ADST.

Read Bliss’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Tristan Ruddy

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Excerpts:

“Only one homicide so far, a Chinese floating in the harbor…”

Reports from the police:
Tommy had just emerged from the guest room to join me on the balcony when Superintendent Lang of the Detective Branch dropped in, as he sometimes did when in the neighborhood at drink-time. He seemed to like Americans, perhaps because in our home he was treated as a human being and social equal, which was more than could be said for a class-conscious colonial society in which a policeman was respected as one of the lower orders. For me the big Yorkshireman was a valued friend and a mine of information about the seamy side of life in Singapore. He had even taken me with him more than once on his tours of inspection through the crowded lofts which housed in tiny cubicles the faceless multitudes of coolies, rickshaw-pullers, stevedores, food-hawkers and peddlers, complete with their wives and children—part of my education, he said. Tonight he had brought along Bobbie Fraser in his full uniform as Probationary Inspector of Police. Bobbie explained importantly that he was on duty, tomorrow being May Day when the Hylams were expected to put on a Communist demonstration. “Nothing serious, but they mustn’t be allowed to get out of hand, you know.” As for Lang, in wrinkled whites after a long day, he didn’t need to say that he was always on duty and that even then the Detective Branch knew exactly where he was.

The rattan armchair creaked under the big man’s weight as he leaned back, long drink in hand. “We’ve had a spot of luck this month,” he remarked. “Only one homicide so far, a Chinese floating in the harbor and we don’t know yet who he was or where he came from. Tommy pricked up his ears. Fresh from the States and pigging it with me while my wife was away, he was insatiably curious about the many strange sights and sounds and smells of this polyglot Oriental city, trade center for the tin and rubber and copra and spices of Malaya and the islands of Indonesia. A Crown Colony garrisoned by British troops, it was also a port through which twenty-five or more ships a day passed on their journeys between the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. The policemen were something new and exciting for him, and he was eager with questions. Lang was in a kindly mood, rather flattered by the attention, and happy to give us a notion of what it was like to keep the peace in a city of half a million people, mostly Chinese, with fringes of Malays from upcountry and Tamils from South India and a smattering of strays from every country in the world, all governed under the benign jurisdiction of the Colonial Office in the name of His Britannic Majesty.

“Actually,” Lang continued, “We have to deal with about five homicides a month, on the average. The records show exactly sixty cases in 1929 and sixty in 1930; if we keep the figure under that we’ll be doing well in 1931. We don’t solve all of them by a long shot, the way they do in detective stories. Who can identify a low-class Chinese coolie, beaten up and clubbed to death, much less point a finger at who did it or why? Maybe his friends can tell us something about a Malay taxi-driver found stabbed on a back road, but not much about the man who knifed him and dropped out of sight upcountry. One way we hold down the violence is by keeping guns out of the hands of all natives; they can’t buy one anywhere in the Straits Settlements and anyone caught with a gun on him gets an automatic jail sentence. Any weapon like that has necessarily been smuggled in from outside.”

Tommy wanted to know why he couldn’t find a single night-club in ‘29 Singapore, by which he meant a place where he could dance into the small hours and maybe pick up a girl. “There aren’t any, of course. Curfew at midnight, you know. This isn’t Shanghai. Some of the young people like you always want to go on after the dancing packs up at the Raffles, but you’d have to go to somebody’s house for a nightcap or else take a rickshaw to the Egg Club for fried eggs and a cup of coffee. The Egg Club is what they call it, but it’s nothing more than a collection of trestle tables and benches, charcoal stoves and Coleman lamps, set up in the open air in the middle of a back street. Illegal, of course, and we don’t let them stay in the same street more than one night, but the rickshaw coolies always know where it is when you go looking for it. We turn a blind eye; the neighborhood doesn’t often complain about the nuisance and the youngsters could get into a lot more trouble than that.

“Another headache for us is the so-called secret society imported from China. There may be as many as a hundred of them in Singapore right now and they give us no end of trouble. These secret societies are not really societies, more like what you Americans call mobs, but they certainly are secret and we don’t often get inside one. They may organize robberies or act as fences, but they live mainly on extortion. Practically every Chinese shopkeeper in Singapore has to pay squeeze to one of those societies, and a failure to come across means that a gang will wreck the shop or eating place one night, or beat up the proprietor or even murder him. He usually contributes meekly after the society has exhibited one of its gunmen and he has been given a glimpse of a weapon. It’s worse trouble for us when societies get into disputes over territory. That can mean bloodshed, and maybe a corpse or two, but there’s usually damned little we can take into court.” The telephone rang. “Is superintendent Lang there?” A few monosyllables and he hung up, turning to Bobbie. “Man shot in Victoria Street. Let’s get to it.” Bobbie started up and Lang glanced appraisingly at us. “Would you like to come along?”

“‘Nice clean murder,’ said Bobbie, looking at the body critically.”

           
Chong Ah Heng (1898) Photographer Unknown | The National Archives UK
Chong Ah Heng (1898) Photographer Unknown | The National Archives UK

A corpse on Victoria Street:
Most of the shops were closed and shuttered at this hour, and we headed for the lights of the lone coffee stand that was still open where the crowd was thickest. Lang shouldered his way to where a motionless figure lay face up on the sidewalk. There was no sign of violence—just a low-class Chinese lying there in his white cotton undershirt and black trousers, bare feet asprawl. A group of Malay constables kept the curious well away, and four or five Chinese detectives flitted back and forth, nosing through the crowd like hounds casting for a scent. A big shirt-sleeved Englishman was bending over the body—Williams of the Police, expert in matters Chinese. The coffee stand was deserted save for a single scullion squatting motionless on a stool; the proprietor was outside on the sidewalk explaining volubly to a detective. At one side a Chinese woman lay in a dead faint, her head supported on the shoulder of another. Lang bent over beside Williams, lightly touched the silent form. “Very dead,” he said, and turned the face to the light. “Ah, we’ve got him printed. He was up only a month ago.” He pulled up the undershirt and exposed a small crescent-shaped wound, exactly like the little cut a penknife would make, just over the solar plexus. Lang felt under the back. ‘‘Still inside. That’s a bit of luck. Small bullet. Must be a .32.”

“Nice clean murder,” said Bobbie, looking at the body critically.

Lang went swiftly through the clothing and garnered several bits of paper covered with Chinese characters. Williams looked them over under the gaslight. “Secret society pidgin,” he said. “He’s been collecting. Better have a look at his digs. He lives just up here beyond Rochor Road.”

A choked, bubbling wail rose above the buzz of the crowd. The woman had come to. “It’s his wife,” Williams said. “She won’t leave his body. They ought to get her out of here.” Lang talked in an undertone with Williams as detective after detective slid up, saluted, and reported briefly before merging into the crowd again. The woman broke into a crazy singsong, shrieked hysterically, and threw herself violently to the ground as a couple of policemen and her woman friend tried to get her away. Finally a stalwart Malay constable picked her up bodily and put her into a rickshaw, the other woman climbed in beside her, and they started off up the street, the half-crazed woman shrieking and moaning and struggling to get down.

Bobbie had been racing up and down the drain with a flashlight and dashed up to report that he hadn’t been able to find the gun. “There usually isn’t one,” he explained to us. “For a job like this they’ll rent a gun from someone who makes a living by hiring it out at five or ten dollars a time. The gun is hidden in a package and handed to the gunman usually by a woman, just before he goes into action, and he passes it back to her later. The conference broke up and we all climbed into the police cars, zigzagged a few blocks, and pulled up in front of another darkened row of shophouses. Lang jumped out and pushed through a little crowd of food-hawkers and idling rickshaw coolies to seize a Chinese by a shoulder—the only man in sight who looked like a local resident. Protesting volubly, the man led us through a shop piled high with gunny sacks, up a crazy flight of stairs, and along a narrow corridor lighted by a dim kerosene lamp. Lang pulled aside a flimsy curtain and the flashlights revealed the home of the deceased—a room about eight feet square, palatial for a low-class Chinese, furnished with a double bed, a wash-stand, a decrepit cabinet, cane chairs, a round table, two big spittoons. Williams went straight to the stand and picked up the tin washbowl. “Always the first place to look,” he said. In the little space below he found a sheaf of thin papers covered with Chinese characters and he glanced quickly through them while Bobbie held a flashlight. “Well, well, a list of the shops he’s been squeezing. Good enough.” He sorted through a heap of oddments in the cabinet and pulled out a bunch of slips. “Pawn tickets. Probably for stuff the gang has stolen.” The bed was turned back, the mattress poked. Nothing. The flashlights swung around the room and centered on a picture—a Chinese man and woman, dressed in their finest, sitting primly on either side of a round table. As we stared curiously that awful wailing broke out in the street below. The wife had come home.

“More questions and answers, all very quietly.”

The confession:
Off again in the cars, this time to the police station, where a British sergeant of police sat at a desk and native policemen and detectives sat or stood about in a large room on the ground floor. One wall consisted of highly polished steel bars, floor to ceiling and six or eight inches apart, arranged to form three cells. In one of them, seated on a stool under bright ceiling lights, was a young Chinese, perhaps in his early twenties, with unusually clean-cut features and alert eyes. Two Malay constables opened the door of the cell and led him out to stand before the desk. We could see that his cotton undershirt was torn half off his shoulders and there was a smear of dried blood on his chin. A Chinese interpreter stepped forward and question and answer alternated rapidly, Williams putting in a word occasionally on his own account. A linen coat was produced and held up before the prisoner. He touched it and his fingers ran rapidly over the pockets. His face seemed to sag and Williams pulled out a clip of cartridges. More questions and answers, all very quietly. It might have been any idle conversation in an unfamiliar language except for the alert constables standing by their prisoner, the bars on the cells, the knowledge that less than an hour ago this personable young man had fired a bullet into another man’s body, and in due course would be hanged by the neck till dead. “He’s confessed,” said Lang, and the tension eased. Handcuffs were produced, the prisoner manacled, and a police car drove away with Williams beside the driver, the prisoner in the back with a constable and a detective on either side. “They’ve gone to take his confession before a magistrate,” Lang explained. “It’s no good having a confession to the police—not admissible in evidence. They’ll rout out some magistrate who’ll probably curse us for disturbing his evening. Then he’s promised to show us where he threw away the gun, but it’ll be a miracle if we find it.”

“It used to cost only fifty dollars to have a man killed in Singapore.”

The price of murder:
Soon the four of us were back home, having a refresher after all that activity, and before going on to dinner Lang filled in the story for us. The corpse belonged to a bad hat, known to the police as head of a minor Hokkien secret society, and he was murdered because he had been poaching on the territory of another gang. That lot had a gunman on the payroll—the young man we saw at the police station—and they supported him upcountry when he wasn’t in town. He got a hundred and fifty Straits dollars for every job like this. (At 77 U.S. cents per dollar that would be $85.00 to us.) It used to cost only fifty dollars to have a man killed in Singapore but the price has gone up and the police take sore credit for that.

It was quite clear how it all went. When it was decided to murder the man he was followed for several days to establish that he often spent an evening in that little coffee-shop in Victoria Street. Probably used it as a kind of office. The gunman came down from Johore in the afternoon, the place was pointed out to him, and he was shown the target. As his victim sat there quietly sipping coffee he was just across the sidewalk, the gun under his coat, lurking behind a pillar and waiting for the next move. Completely unaware of all this, the man paid for his coffee, elbowed past a rickshaw-puller who was perched on a stool tucking into a bowl of bahmi, and strolled out the door only to be confronted by the gunman, who stepped out from behind the pillar and fired point blank at him. The shot missed, hitting the coolie in the leg, and he turned to run. A second shot caught his hip, knocking him down, and he rolled over on his back. The third shot was perfectly placed and he never moved again.

The gunman ran down the street, trying to lose himself in the crowd, throwing away the gun and later his coat, since he still had those damning cartridges in the pocket. But the hue and cry was on, a police constable was on point duty at the next corner, two Chinese detectives were just up the street, and he was caught between them. He surrendered after a brief struggle and was led back to the coffee-shop shop while a phone call was being put through to the Detective Branch and Williams was speeding to Victoria Street in a car full of detectives and constables. The detectives immediately pounced on everyone who might have been on the scene, and by good luck got two right away, a Chinese and a Malay who were eye-witnesses and could positively identify the murderer. Before we got there he had been rushed off to the lock-up, the wounded rickshaw-puller landed in General Hospital, and the witnesses were conducted to the Detective Branch to have their statements taken. The case was complete except for the weapon, but if it were found it would only be the cherry on top.

“Let me see,” mused Lang. “We can get him ready for the Assizes on the 12th, sentence will be passed on the 14th, and he’ll be for it on the 28th. Less than a month. We’ve had a bit of luck.”

“Nice clean murder case,” said Bobbie.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
Dartmouth, 1914–1918
Joined Foreign Service ~1923
Bombay, India—Assistant Trade Officer 1924–1926
Singapore, Singapore—Commercial Attaché 1929–1932
London, England—Economic Counselor 1941–1947
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—Chief of Mission 1957–1960