Julia Stephens (Rutgers University)

Asking and Listening: Economic Histories Outside the Archives

I was only in Singapore for a few weeks in February 2017. To acquaint myself in an unfamiliar city for my new book project on diasporic Indian families, I had planned a packed schedule of archival research and meetings with the local heritage community and scholars at the National University of Singapore. I intended to spend Friday, February 24th in the National Archives of Singapore, poring over the records of the Coroner’s Court, which, despite their morbid subject matter, include a treasure trove of information about the social and economic lives of everyday Singaporeans, including diasporic Indians. But then Ishvinder Singh called my phone. Could I immediately go over to Naranjan Singh Brahmpura’s electronics store to interview him? I frantically scrawled the address of the store in Little India on a piece of paper and entered streets of pouring rain to hail a taxi.

Sopping wet and a bit nervous about whether I had arrived in the correct place, I hopped out of the cab in front of an electronics store fifteen minutes later. As a trained historian, I am more used to navigating the bureaucratic channels of government archives or the dusty shelves of used book stores than aisles lined with the latest models of mobile phones and digital cameras. Luckily, the owner of the shop kindly directed me next door, where he indicated that I could find Naranjan Singh and his family, who operated a similar business.

A few days earlier, over a mound of fresh seafood cooked in the Peranakan style and icy fruit drinks, the caller Ishvinder Singh and I had discussed my interest in researching Sikh watchmen, many of whom had run side businesses as moneylenders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Ishvinder is the co-developer of the Singapore Heritage Trail App ( and facilitated my orientation to the rich local history of Singapore’s Indian diaspora. After hearing about my interests, Ishvinder set upon the task of getting me in touch with Naranjan Singh Brahmpura, a family friend and elder pillar of the local Sikh community. Naranjan Singh had combined work as a watchman with moneylending, and he had also been a leading member of the Sikh Moneylenders Association.

Naranjan’s father was one of numerous Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims who migrated to Singapore and other cities in coastal Southeast and East Asia to work as government policemen and private watchmen. In many cases they redeployed skills that they had originally gained as soldiers in the British Indian Army. Many also combined their official duties with moneylending in order to augment their incomes. While the British Empire relied on these men to impose order and protect capital in its Indian Ocean hubs, its officials attempted to stifle their secondary trade in moneylending. As far as officials were concerned, these men were laborers, who had no business dabbling in activities better reserved for “capitalist” classes. However, as I tried to piece together the activities of these watchmen-moneylenders from the records of those who had attempted to suppress them, I had become increasingly convinced that they were absolutely crucial to the economic vitality of these port cities, and the wider global economies that they fueled. Watchmen-moneylenders provided short-term credit to low-level government officials struggling to make ends meet between paychecks, lent start-up capital to family businesses who could not secure loans from banks, and financed the celebrations of weddings and funerals, which allowed diasporic communities to forge new cultures that straddled continents.

After navigating through aisles of electronics, I found Mr. Singh in an office at the back of the shop, eager to share his story with me. Over the course of the next hour he related to me how he had left school at the age of sixteen to follow his father into the family trade of combining work as a private watchman with moneylending. Although the latter was the more lucrative of the two, both professions worked in tandem—a job as a watchman at a government office, bank, or warehouse, provided unique access to the employees who worked there. Mr. Singh explained that he himself lent primarily to government employees, particularly Malays, from whom he collected interest payments as they left the office on their regular paydays.

Author with Naranjan Singh, February 2017.Mr. Singh did not consign himself to merely describing the technicalities of his practice. He was equally determined to convey his pride in his former work. I sensed this was to dispel the stigma which had accrued during decades of efforts to suppress such activities. He emphasized that his family had moved up the economic ladder through their extreme frugality—as a child the family’s only luxury was purchasing a chicken for dinner every Sunday, which they slaughtered themselves. This sense of economic morality and sentiment were also part of his work; while he regularly filed legal cases against debtors who defaulted on their loans, he tried to avoid situations in which families lost their homes because of outstanding debts. He also emphasized that he had worked and saved to ensure that his own children could pursue other careers. Singh took pride in noting that one of his sons and two of his grandsons had become lawyers, and he had helped finance their education.

I sensed Mr. Singh growing tired and wrapped up our conversation. He directed me next door to talk with his daughter. She reminisced about how as a child she had aided her father by writing out court summons. Now, she helped run the family’s electronics store. Fearing I had already taken up too much of the family’s time, I made a mental note to return to speak again with Mr. Singh on a future research trip. About eight months later, Ishvinder Singh emailed me that Naranjan Singh Brahmpura had passed away. Since then I have been haunted by the thought of how lucky I was to have had this initial conversation with him, and how much I wished we could have continued.

For me, this truncated exchange remains a potent reminder of the unique role that oral interviews can play in documenting the history of Indian business, both in South Asia itself and in its sprawling diasporic communities. Only a few large corporations, often associated with elite families like the Tatas, have kept systematic records. Access to these records is often limited. By contrast, the small-scale traders, artisans, moneylenders, and laborers—who form the vast bulk of economic actors—often leave little paper trail. We can find traces of their activities in government archives and corporate records. And yet these documents rarely tell us about their inner lives and informal expertise. We often find ourselves being led to more and more questions with fewer and fewer answers. What were the tricks of their trade? What aspirations did they cherish for their children and grandchildren? But by turning to individuals anxious to share their stories, by asking our questions and listening to them, we can begin to shed some light upon economic lives which initially seem hidden from the historian’s view.

March 2019