A Great Emporium

Malcolm Koh

First placed in Singapore: 2002

along the Singapore River, outside the Asian Civilisations Museum

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Patron: ExxonMobil, in collaboration with the Singapore Tourism Board, National Heritage Board, and Singapore Land Authority

This work, and its neighbor From Chettiars to Financiers, were officially unveiled by Mr Khaw Boon Wan, Senior Minister of State (Transport and MITA) on 27 August 2002. Mr Khaw made the following statement:"Singapore's history began with the Singapore River. It did not merely mark a physical venue. It was also the lifeline which made Singapore economically relevant to the region. The forefathers of many Singaporeans began their career here. Some made it big; many others toiled to bring up their children and offered them opportunities which they themselves never enjoyed."The story of Singapore, as the great emporium, and the story of many Singaporeans, from chettiars to financiers, should be told and re-told and re-told, lest modern Singaporeans forget their humble but proud history."These are no ordinary stories. They are our common heritage. They help to define our roots."According to the STB press release announcing the works, "A Great Emporium re-creates the typical scene [sic] at the Singapore River during its heyday as a bustling trading port. It depicts two merchants of different nationalities negotiating prices over a wide array of goods. They are assisted by two labourers or coolies holding up a traditional weighing scale, known as the daching, measuring the weight of the goods transacted."

Text of the Label:

[text in English and Chinese] A Great Emporium Malcolm Koh Sculptor Sir Stamford Raffles wrote in 1819, 'Our object is not territory but trade; a great commercial emporium.' At the heart of the settlement's trade was the Singapore River. Lighter craft crowded the banks of the River along Boat Quay, and merchants had offices and godowns either here or at Commercial Square (Raffles Place). Early trade was in the cotton, spices and other exotic commodities; in the 19th century this shifted to rubber, tin and copra. European traders, like those here, profited from Singapore's trade but it was the Chinese traders, like the towkay holding an abacus, who generated the most wealth. Providing much needed labour to the trading industry were Chinese and Indian coolies. Chinese coolies came from the southeastern provinces of China, while Indian coolies hailed from South India. The Chinese coolie and towkay in the sculpture are identified by their queue, or pigtail, which the Qing authorities required all Chinese men to wear. When the Qing dynasty ended in 1912, queues were done away with. The Indian coolie wears the customary turban. Life as a coolie was difficult. Coolies lived in cramped and squalid conditions, often with no proper ventilation or [?]. Many a coolie ended his days in Singapore, alone and penniless, plying the trading boats that crowded the Singapore River. Growing hand-in-hand with trade was the finance industry. The sculpture to the right encapsulates the dramatic changes that the finance industry has undergone: from traditional moneylenders to today's stock market dealers. A Community Project Proudly Sponsored by [logo of ExxonMobil] in collaboration with [logo of Singapore Tourism Board] [logo of National Heritage Board] [logo of Singapore Land Authority]

Last updated: Dec-5-2020

A Great Emporium

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