The Chettiars are a subgroup of the Tamil community who originate from an area known as Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state. During the 18th century the Chettiars were local merchants and it wasn’t until the 19th century that they started to travel to South East Asia. Here they developed a money lending business alongside their business in trade. The expansion of their money lending business was supported by the British colonial rule. The British did not have the resources to penetrate remote areas of South East Asia, or the inclination to risk money lending there.
It is believed the Chettiars first arrived in Singapore in the 1820s, setting up premises by the Singapore River, around Market Street and Chulia Street. They were one of the few communities arriving in Singapore at this time with capital ready to invest.
They ran their business and lived within a kittingi, a shophouse divided into small rooms. These buildings were exclusively male, most chettiar businessmen left their families in India, although their sons would join them to learn the business when old enough. The kittingis also developed as a community, with a house cook and a visiting barber and laundry man. Gambling, alcohol and women were banned and they lived a simple life outside of work, playing cards or board games and praying at the local temple.
The Asian Civilisations Museum has a number of artefacts that capture the life of a chettiar financier. These include simple pieces of furniture and the use of a recycled biscuit tin to store client record cards. By living simply and cheaply they were able to send the majority of their money home to their families. They were known as meticulous record keepers and would often visit the home of a business man before agreeing to lend to him. This was for a number of reasons, one of which was to ensure the wife knew of the money lending, if she did not there was fear the money would not be repaid. The chettiar financiers introduced the concept of debit, credit, expenditure, profit and loss. The introduction of these terms has led to them being referred to as the founders of modern banking. In addition, they are thought to be the first in the region to introduce the balance sheet and use it to evaluate the viability of a business which they were lending to.
One artefact of particular interest is a father and son photograph taken in the mid 1920’s. It highlights the differences between the generations of chettiars. The younger man has not shaved his head and he does not wear the white stripe caste marks, he is also wearing a watch. However, it is not until we look closer that we see something even more surprising. The photograph appears to be altered, the shadows falling beneath the two men do not come from the same light source and in fact they are somewhat misaligned in their vertical position. Interestingly in the early 20th century it was common for commercial photographers to bring together family members into the same photograph that were not in the same studio session. This technique would have been carried out in the dark room during processing, nowadays it is achieved using computer software.
The Chettiars continued to thrive in the money lending business right up until the 1960s. In addition to developing many of the techniques still used in modern banking they are credited with helping Singapore and other areas of South East Asia develop economically during the colonial period.