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Contested Colonial Metrological Sovereignty: The daching riot and the regulation of weights and measures in British Malaya

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2021

School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia Email:
Department of History, University of Malaya Email:


Drawing on materials from the National Archives of Malaysia, newspapers, literature on historical metrology, and the colonial history of Malaya, this article weaves a social history of Malaya's colonial metrological reform by taking into account the roles of both European and Asian historical actors. Prior to the 1894 reform, people in Malaya used customary scales and weight units, which varied across districts, for commercial transactions. Initiated by colonial administrators, the reform was both welcomed and resisted. In 1897, a riot against the Sanitary Board broke out in Kuala Lumpur for its attempt to mandate that previously exempted traders use only government-verified and -stamped scales. The colonial government managed to maintain order and restore its authority at the end of the riot, but four types of merchants—goldsmiths, silversmiths, opium dealers, and drug sellers—managed to remain exempted. Metrological reform continued to be contested in the following century, but the central concerns of the regulation moved from easing taxation, facilitating cross-district trade, and taming Chinese traders to protecting consumers. More emphasis was placed on educating the public to be able to read scales, in addition to using police force to raid businesses. The enforcement was, however, compromised due to inadequate funds. The reality on the ground contradicts the image of an omnipresent colonial authority and reveals the fragility of colonial administration.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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We express our gratitude to the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which sponsored a project entitled ‘Chamber and the State’ (Project no.: PV002A-2018), for partly funding our archival research, and the project's assistant Tung Wan Qing. We are particularly grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable insights and for drawing our attention to works that were extremely helpful in strengthening our argument. Last but not least, this article would not have been possible without the encouragement of the project's leader, Professor Danny Wong.


1 Kula, Witold, Measures and Men (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 The National Archives in Kuala Lumpur. Materials from the Arkib Negara will be labelled ‘AN’ followed by the accession number.

3 Kula, Measures and Men, pp. 90–93.

4 Duncan, Otis Dudley, Notes on Social Measurement: Historical and Critical (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1984), pp. 1238Google Scholar.

5 Vera, Hector, ‘Weights and Measures’, in A Companion to the History of Science, (ed.) Bernard Lightman (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2016), pp. 459471CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 O'Connell, Joseph, ‘Metrology: The Creation of Universality by the Circulation of Particulars’, Social Studies of Science, 23(1), 1993, pp. 29173CrossRefGoogle Scholar, emphases in original.

7 Kula, Measures and Men, pp. 18–23.

8 Curtis, Bruce, ‘From the Moral Thermometer to Money: Metrological Reform in Pre-Confederation Canada’, Social Studies of Science, 28(4), 1998, pp. 547570CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Duncan, Notes on Social Measurement, pp. 12–38; Vera, ‘Weights and Measures’, pp. 459–471; Gordin, Michael D., ‘Measure of All the Russias: Metrology and Governance in the Russian Empire’, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 4(4), 2003, pp. 783815CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schaffer, Simon, ‘Metrology, Metrication and Victorian Values’, in Victorian Science in Context, (ed.) Lightman, Bernard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), pp. 438473Google Scholar; Scott, James C., Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; Timmermans, Stefan and Epstein, Steven, ‘A World of Standards but not a Standard World: Towards a Sociology of Standards and Standardization’, Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 2010, pp. 6989CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 The existing Malaysian literature begins with the implication of the Weights and Measures Act 1972 on the practice of Islamic tithing in the country, and literature from before this time is absent. See Azman, A. R., Said, D. N. A., Hafidzi, H., and Sa'dan, A. A., ‘Calibration of Gantang (Sa’) Based on Metric System for Agricultural Zakat in Malaysia’, ASM Science Journal, 9(2), 2015, pp. 1728Google Scholar.

11 For the ‘scientists as pioneers’ narratives of metrological reform in Europe and North America, see Gordin, ‘Measure of All the Russias’; O'Connell, ‘Metrology: The Creation of Universality’, pp. 29–173; Schaffer, ‘Metrology, Metrication and Victorian Values’, pp. 438–473; Moreau, Henri, ‘The Genesis of the Metric System and the Work of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures’, Journal of Chemical Education, 30(1), 1953, pp. 320CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Both are balance scales or equivalents of the English steelyard. Daching(大 秤)are big counterweight balance scales, which usually come in different capacities, and liteng(厘戥)are small scales measuring weights of under one tahil (equivalent to 33.33 grammes) and were widely used in the transaction of precious stones, gold, silver, medicine, and opium.

13 Commonly found in the literature of policy studies that are usually written by policy consultants, such as the work of V. M. Ogryzkov, ‘National Standardization and Metrology in Developing Countries’, Izmeritel'naya Tekhnika, 4, 1970, pp. 16–21; and Zuikov, V. V., ‘Problems and Prospects of Metrology in Developing Countries’, Izmeritel'naya Tekhnika, 10, 1970, pp. 7981Google Scholar.

14 Scott, Seeing Like a State, p. 13.

15 Ghosh, Anjan, ‘The Role of Rumour in History Writing’, History Compass, 6(5), 2008, pp. 12351243CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Formed in 1826 and consisted of Penang, Malacca, and Singapore. Other administrative units, such as the Dindings, were added or removed over time.

17 Chupa and gantang are among the native units of measurement for capacity and pikul, catty (or kati), and tahil for weight.

18 ‘[1892] Asks for a decision on the regulation of the daching for mercantile business’ (AN: 1957/0030113); ‘[1892] Enquires what daching should be used in weighing gulla and rottans for the collection of export duty’ (AN: 1957/0033557); ‘[1892] Regarding the use of false dachings in the markets and shops in KL’ (AN: 1957/0035681).

19 ‘[1883] Forwards a “Daching Kechil” and B/L’ (AN: 1957/0002106).

20 ‘[1892] Reports on weights and measures’ (AN: 1957/0032053).

21 See J. G. Butcher, The British in Malaya, 18801941: The Social History of A European Community in Colonial Southeast Asia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Butcher, J. G., ‘The Demise of the Revenue Farm System in the Federated Malay States’, Modern Asian Studies, 17(3), 1983, pp. 387412CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 ‘[1894] Requests to procure from a licensed dealer certain stamped daching and measures’ (AN: 1957/0425562).

23 ‘[1883] Requisitions for standard dachings, gantangs, chupas, 1/2 chupa measures and yard measures’ (AN: 1957/0002695); ‘[1884:] Report that a Chinaman was brought up for using false weight. Requisition for standard dachings and measures’ (AN: 1957/0003751); ‘[1887] Applies for a supplementary vote of $25 to meet payment of 500 dachings’ (AN: 1957/0008475).

24 ‘[1891] Standard government datchings [sic] to be kept at the central police station for the use of petty traders’ (AN: 1957/0028270).

25 ‘[1894] Asks that tin be weighed with Fairbank's scale instead of dachings’ (AN: 1957/0052084).

26 This is stated in Section Eleven of the regulation.

27 ‘The Selangor Riots’, The Straits Times, 8 March 1897, p. 2; ‘The strike in Kuala Lumpur (original title: 吉隆罷市續聞)’, Lat Pao, 10 March 1897; ‘[1915] Law regarding weights and measures’ (AN: 1957/0185005).

28 The strait between Singapore and Malaysia, also referred to as the Strait of Johor.

29 ‘[1894] License to Vong Sam to sell dachings asks to grant’ (AN: 1957/0048575).

30 ‘[1892] Reports on weights and measures’ (AN: 1957/0032053).

31 Edward Nicholson, Men and Measures: A History of Weights and Measures—Ancient and Modern (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1912).

32 Two historians, J. G. Butcher and J. M. Gullick, mentioned the riot in their works, but only in passing. Butcher, J. G., ‘Towards the History of Malayan Society: Kuala Lumpur District, 1885–1912’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 10(1), 1979, pp. 104118CrossRefGoogle Scholar; J. M. Gullick, A History of Selangor 17661939 (Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1998), pp. 199–200.

33 ‘[1897] Closing of Chinese shops at KL in connection with some action taken by the Sanitary Board under weights and measures regulation’ (AN: 1957/0069232). The following account is primarily synthesized from Hare's report, unless otherwise indicated.

34 It is known as Jalan Tun H. S. Lee today.

35 G. T. Hare was FMS Secretary for Chinese Affairs from 1897 to 1906.

36 A headman of Chinese community recognized by the colonial authority. Yap Kwan Seng, of Hakka descent, was the fifth and the last Kapitan Cina of Kuala Lumpur from 1889 to 1902.

37 ‘Strike (original title: 罷市)’, Penang Sinpoe, 9 March 1897. This is the only source that mentions the number of rioters.

38 The revenue-farm system was a tax system that ensured a stable tax revenue for infrastructure construction while permitting the Chinese to run and expand the wheel of commerce. It also allowed the Chinese community to practise self-governance while saving British resources, since they did not need to create a police force. See Butcher, ‘The Demise of the Revenue Farm System in the Federated Malay States’; F. A. Swettenham, British Malaya (London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1907).

39 White, Luise, ‘Between Gluckman and Foucault: Historicizing Rumour and Gossip’, Social Dynamics, 21(1), 1994, pp. 7592CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Cited in Ghosh, ‘The Role of Rumour in History Writing’, p. 1236.

41 White, ‘Between Gluckman and Foucault’, p. 76.

42 Laura Ann Stoler, ‘“In Cold Blood”: Hierarchies of Credibility and the Politics of Colonial Narratives’, Representations, 37, Special Issue, Winter 1992, pp. 151–189.

43 See commentary in ‘Untitled’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 16 March 1897, p. 3.

44 ‘The Origin of the Strike (original title: 罷市顛末)’, Penang Sinpoe, 16 March 1897.

45 ‘Banished from Selangor’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 28 May 1897, p. 2.

46 ‘Opium and Weight’, The Straits Times, 12 December 1898, p. 3.

47 ‘Weights and Measures’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 4 June 1908, p. 354.

48 See ‘Our Scales and Weights’, Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 13 December 1907, p. 2. Later in the 1930s, some Malay consumers too complained against the illegibility of Chinese markings and asked to replace them with Arabic numerals instead. See ‘Daching Markings’, The Straits Times, 9 February 1936, p. 4.

49 ‘Untitled’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 13 December 1911, p. 6.

50 ‘[1914] Daching weights-marking characters other than Chinese’ (AN: 1957/0177664); ‘[1920] Dachings-figures other than Chinese-marking of’(AN: 1957/0212134); ‘[1921] Rules under the Weights and Measures Bill’ (AN: 1957/0215825).

51 Rachel Leow, Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

52 ‘Untitled’, The Straits Times, 24 June 1922, p. 8.

53 The discussion on the shortcomings of spring scales was not uncommon. For example, see ‘[1921] Rules under the Weights and Measures Bill’ (AN: 1957/0215825) and a commentary in ‘Week and Topics’, Singapore Free Press, 3 September 1923, p. 6.

54 ‘[1949–1959] Weighing scales—weights and measures enactment’ (AN: 1957/0297738); ‘[1953] Request from UMNO working committee to use the English weighing machine in place of daching (local weighing device)’ (AN: 1973/0000856).

55 ‘[1907] Regarding weights and measures, Kuala Pilah’ (AN: 1957/0435822); ‘[1946] Proposal to transfer Inspectorate of Weights and Measures to municipalities and town boards’ (AN: 1957/0291347).

56 Leow, Taming Babel, p. 38.

57 See ‘Scales to Be Placed in Every Market (original title: 市場秤物機將設立矣)’, Nanyang Siangpau, 10 April 1924, p. 16; ‘Pasar Punya Daching’, Kabar Slalu, 14 April 1924, p. 14.

58 ‘[1940] Controlling Chinese dachings in Negeri Sembilan’ (AN: 1957/0711847).

59 ‘[1949] Weighing scales in Penang’ (AN: 1957/0475302); ‘[1949–1959] Weighing scales—weights and measures enactment’ (AN: 1957/0297738).

60 Nicholson, Men and Measures.

61 ‘Untitled’, The Straits Times, 1 April 1907, p. 6; John Hill Twigg, Summary of British Official Reports on the Metric System (London: 1911).

62 Aashish Velkar, ‘Rethinking Metrology, Nationalism and Development in India, 1833–1956’, Past and Present, 239(1), May 2018, pp. 143–179.

63 ‘[1909] Adoption of a universal pattern of daching throughout the FMS’ (AN: 1957/0147225).

64 ‘[1915] Federating the law relating to weights and measures’ (AN: 1957/0185249); ‘[1915] Law regarding weights and measures’ (AN: 1957/0185005).

65 ‘[1925] Transfer of the carrying out of the provisions of the Weights and Measures Enactment from Museum to Survey Department’ (AN: 1957/0239071).

66 ‘[1921] Enactment to provide for the use of uniform weights and measures throughout the FMS’ (AN: 1957/0216293); ‘[1921:] Amendments to the draft Weights and Measures Bill’ (AN: 1957/0447692).

67 ‘The metric system’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 19 May 1898, p. 6; ‘Decimal Coinage’, The Straits Times, 29 September 1916, p. 3.

68 A collective name that refers to five of the Malay states—Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, and Johor—which had become British protectorates by the early twentieth century.

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