Chettiars – The Bankers of Old

The Chettiar Moneylender is one of our newest Singapore Heritage figurines. Like the rest of the professions we’ve already created, money-lending by Chettiars is a lost trade that used to exist in olden Singapore.

Looking at the modern banking sector in Singapore today, many of us may not be aware that Chettiars actually played an integral part in the history of banking. Here’s a quick backstory for your reading pleasure.


The Origins of Chettiars

Chettiars are a subgroup of Tamils from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu India, who settled in Singapore as early as the 1820s. They are more formally referred to as the Nattukottai Chettiars or Nagarathars. Nattukottai means “people with palatial houses in the countryside” while Nagarathars refer to “city dwellers, traders and temple-based people” in Tamil.

As deeply religious men, they were usually shirtless and dressed in a white dhoti and had vibuthi, a sacred ash, smeared on their foreheads.

Chettiars usually dressed in a white dhoti and had sacred ash applied on their foreheads
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From Merchants to Bankers

Chettiars were traditionally precious stone merchants, but later became more associated with money lending as a profession.

Back in the day, big international banks catered mainly to commercial trading houses. Therefore it was difficult for small local businessmen to obtain credit from them to fund their businesses.

Enter the Chettiars.

For more than a century, they filled an important niche in the financial sector as moneylenders to sundry merchants and budding businessmen. Compared to the large colonial banks of the day, Chettiars were far more accessible and less bureaucratic. Thus their services offered much-needed liquidity, consequently driving trade in the region.

Throughout the 19th century and much of the early 20th, Chettiars across Southeast Asia acted as full service bankers. They provided working capital loans, syndicated loans, investment capital and demand drafts.

A Chettiar working at his desk (likely from the 1950s or 60s)
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Chettiars in Singapore

In Singapore, they operated mainly along Market Street, in offices called kittangi (derived from “warehouse” in Tamil). These offices also served as their living and sleeping quarters. Several Chettiars would share a kittangi, each of them with their own designated spots. These spots were just big enough for a cupboard, safe and chest that also served as a writing table.

An 1890s photograph taken by G.R. Lambert of Market Street in Singapore
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In the evening after closing for the day, a cook would dish out meals from a kitchen at the rear. After eating, the Chettiars would turn in by simply rolling out their mattresses and going to sleep. Thus was the spartan life of these hardworking men. Like all other immigrants in those days, they toiled with hopes for a better life for their families back home.

Chettiars working in their designated spots inside a “kittangi”
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Despite their humble establishments, Chettiars played an important role in driving Singapore’s economy during those developing years. In fact it was often said that “many a successful Chinese towkay began his climb on a loan from a Chettiar.”


Our Miniature Chettiar Figurine

We depicted our Chettiar miniature at work with the furniture that they typically used back in the day. These consist of a “pettagam” and a “kaipeti” – a storage chest and hand-held box which stored business documents, cash, accounts and personal belongings. There is also a miniature “mejai peti,” which is a slanted-top table on which the Chettiar worked.

An actual Chettiar’s pettagam on top of a kaipeti
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An actual Chettiar’s mejai peti
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Our Chettiar 1/26 figurine, depicted with the furniture they worked with

Our Chettiar Moneylender 1/26 collectible figurine is now available here.

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