I was looking at some dispatches from US consulates in Southeast Asia in the early twentieth century when I came across a couple of letters, one from Singapore and the other from Batavia, that discussed the employment in the consulates of non-whites.
To some extent the two letters provide different perspectives as one is negative and the other is positive, but when one stops to think about them, they end up being very similar. Taken together they open a window onto the complex world of race and power in colonial societies.
In 1905, the American consul-general in Singapore was David F. Wilber, a former Republican congressman from the state of New York. On 15 June 1905, having only recently arrived in Singapore to take up the post of consul-general, Wilber wrote a letter to Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis in which he complained about the condition of the consulate office.
Wilber stated that the consulate office “was one of the most mixed up messes, so to speak, in the way of a business place,” that he had ever encountered. “Irregularities” were “coming to light in every direction,” and Wilber was “hustling trying to bring order out of chaos.”
While many of these “irregularities” had to do with procedures and paperwork, the greatest “irregularity” to Wilber appears to have been the presence of two “native” employees, Mr. Davidson and his son. To quote:
“The two principle employees at this office Mr. Davidson and son are as good as any natives to be had here. While I consider them honest I do not consider them competent to do the work required and shall continue them only until which time as I can get some young American to take the place of both.”
“Without intending any disrespect, Mr. Davidson, who is an Eurasian, I do not think adds any prestige to the office as Vice Deputy.”
“No other consulate has a native for that office.”
Wilber then goes on to make a case for hiring a young man from the state of New York.
A few years before this, on 11 March 1901, the American consul-general in Batavia, Bradstreet S. Rairden of New Orleans, sent a letter to Assistant Secretary of State David J. Hill in which he requested permission to hire a certain Mr. Lie Teng Poo as a consular clerk. This is what Rairden had to say about Mr. Lie:
“This young man is born of Chinese parents at Batavia and is nearly 23 years old. He has received a fair English education at Singapore and speaks and writes the English language perfectly, he is also a first class Malay scholar and has a fair knowledge of the Dutch language.”
“Under the circumstances, there being no American or foreigner here who could accept the position of Consular clerk, I consider Mr. Lie Teng Poo a suitable person for said position.”
From these two letters we have no way to determine how competent Mr. Davidson and Mr. Lie Teng Poo might have been. What we can see from these letters, however, is a racist filter that these two consul-generals expressed their ideas through.
Rairden had high praise for Lie Teng Poo, but this was praise for someone who was “suitable” for the position of clerk, in a situation where there were supposedly not any “more suitable” people (i.e., Americans or other foreigners) who could accept the position.
And Wilber felt that Mr. Davidson was “honest,” but not “competent” and that as a Eurasian he harmed the “prestige” of the US consulate.
So was Mr. Davidson really not competent? Or was the issue simply that he was Eurasian, and Consul-General Wilber did not want such a “native” harming American prestige?
And was Mr. Lie Teng Poo really only suitable to be clerk in the absence of a white person, or was he actually competent enough to take on more senior tasks? From Rairden’s description, it looks like Mr. Lie had the potential to do much more than clerical work.
Two simple letters, but so much going on in the background. . .