This is a guest post by Julia Lossau, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Bremen in Germany. In March 2018, Julia spent four weeks as a visiting academic at ARI’s Asian Urbanism Cluster. If you are interested in learning more about Bremen and how the city relates to Singapore, you are welcome to contact Julia by email .
Bremen is a port city located in the North of Germany, with a population of around 566,000. Compared to Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart, Bremen is relatively unknown outside of Germany. Few Singaporeans will have heard of Bremen – perhaps with the exceptions of football lovers familiar with Bundesliga’s Werder Bremen, and of fairy tale lovers familiar with the Grimm Brothers’ Town Musicians. This void is more than understandable given the Bremen’s distance from, and seeming insignificance for, everyday life in contemporary Singapore. But in reality, Bremen has a tradition of global exchange connecting it to this Southeast Asian city in many ways. Bremen’s port played a significant role in the globalisation process during the nineteenth century, with the city’s merchants and trading houses operating profitable ventures within the expanding network of intercontinental relations at the time.
Against such a background, this post aims at uncovering some of the imprints that Bremish engagement has left, and continues to leave, on the making of Singapore as a cultural and economic hub in Southeast Asia. In so doing, both Bremen and Singapore are conceptualized as translocal cities, i.e. as places whose history, present and future are defined by and through relations to other places, cities, and regions. In order to understand how Singapore’s development from a former colony to a global city is influenced by relations rather unlikely at first sight, it sheds exemplary light on the economic activities of two firms headquartered in Bremen: shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd (NDL) and trading company C. Melchers GmbH & Co. KG (Melchers).
Founded by Hermann Heinrich Meier and Eduard Crüsemann in Bremen in 1857, the NDL developed into the world’s second largest steam ship company in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. While the NDL’s initial focus was on transatlantic routes, not least in the context of German mass emigration to the US, the company secured the commission to operate the Imperial Mail Steamer Services in 1885 between the German Empire, East Asia, and Australia. The presence of the NDL threatened the British shipping companies who ‘found it difficult to compete with German shipping’ in the Far East (Khoo 2006, 66).
In an essay on ‘How Germany made Malaya British’, Kennedy Gordon Tregonning (1964, 185) vividly depicts the dominance of German over British shipping in the light of what he reads as ‘a general German penetration of the Far East and South-East Asian and Pacific areas’. By 1900, according to Tregonning, the ‘German shipping firm of German Llyod [sic] had eliminated the British Holts Shipping Co. from the Bangkok-Singapore trade. It had eliminated the old established Butterfield and Swire from the Hong Kong and Swatow-Bangkok trade, and had taken complete control of the Singapore-Borneo trade’ (Tregonning 1964, 185).
While it would be interesting to further elaborate on the geopolitical dimensions of Imperial Germany’s trade and shipping endeavors prior to WWI, I would like to highlight a different aspect of Tregonning’s account. In his depiction of the NDL as the ‘German shipping firm of German Llyod’ [emphasis JL], Bremen is rendered invisible and subsumed under the discursive umbrella of Germany on a national level. It can be argued that such a subsumption is quite symptomatic. In addition, it prevents insight into how the expansion – and the later decline – of the NDL was made possible and experienced ‘on the ground’ in Bremen. What is further made invisible is how Bremen contributed to the making of Singapore in economic terms by adding to the significance of Singapore ‘as one of the most important emporia of the world trade’ (Lindemann 1892, 411; transl. JL).
For Singapore, however, being related to – and being affected by – Bremen is not a thing of the past. In order to shed light on more recent entanglements, the remainder of this post focuses on C. Melchers GmbH & Co KG (Melchers). Melchers was founded in 1806 in Bremen, where it is headquartered up until today, as a trading house and shipping company. In 1954, Melchers established a branch office in Singapore. On the company’s website, Melchers Singapore is described as ‘a service-oriented company that exists to identify, source and supply quality products and services to selected market segments’ . In the early 1970s, the branch was instrumental in bringing Rollei, the (then) Braunschweig based manufacturer of optical instruments, to Singapore. According to Singapore’s Economic Development Board, ‘Rollei did more than just bring German production excellence to Singapore. Through its factories and the Rollei-Government Training Centre, Rollei had also helped to train about 5,000 Singaporeans in precision engineering skills, many of whom went on to join new SMEs or started their own companies‘ (Economic Development Board 2015, Annex A).
More recently, Melchers was instrumental in conceiving and developing the Singapore Flyer, which represents, according to Singapore’s Tourism Board (2018), one of Singapore’s ‘most iconic landmarks’:
‘Launched in 2008, the wheel is a favourite tourist attraction due to its vantage point offering stunning panoramic views of Marina Bay and the city. Over the years, the Singapore Flyer has also become a significant feature in the backdrop of the FORMULA ONE Singapore Grand Prix Marina Bay Street Circuit’ (Singapore Tourism Board 2018, n.d.).
Despite their limited success in financial terms, both Rollei and the Flyer mark important moments in Singapore’s development. While it can be argued that Rollei has been crucial in the making of Singapore as an industrial city with high-skilled employment, the Flyer is prominent in the making of Singapore as a spectacular global destination. What remains hidden, in both cases, is their relation to Bremen, a small Hanseatic city in the North of Germany.
Economic Development Board (2015): Transforming Landscapes, Improving Lives. EDB presents exhibition to chart 50 years of economic development in Singapore. www.edb.gov.sg/content/dam/edb/en/news%20and%20events/News/2011/Downloads/edb-exhibition-press-release.pdf (accessed May 1, 2018).
Khoo, Salma Nasution (2006): More than merchants. A History of the Germany-Speaking Community in Penang, 1800s-1940s. Penang: Areca Books.
Lindeman, Moritz (1892): Der Norddeutsche Lloyd – Geschichte und Handbuch. Bremen: Schünemann.
Singapore Tourism Board (2018): Singapore’s most iconic landmarks. www.visitsingapore.com/en_my/editorials/singapore-most-iconic-landmarks/ (accessed May 1, 2018).
Tregonning, Kennedy Gordon (1964): How Germany made Malaya British. In: Asian Studies 2, 2, 180-187.