The building housed the Chinese Protectorate which supervised and protected Chinese immigrants. It formed a link between the Chinese masses and the Colonial government.

Large scale Chinese migration to Singapore from South China occurred during the 1830s. The early British officials were unable to control and protect the migrants. In 1867 the control of the Straits Settlements was transferred from the India Office to the Colonial Office and a Straits Settlements Legislative Council was established to pass laws for the Straits Settlements. Though various laws were passed, their implementation was not effective largely because there were no colonial officials who could speak the different Chinese dialects.

William Pickering was a Chinese Interpreter in Singapore in 1872. He spoke several Chinese dialects. He was appointed as the first Chinese Protector in 1877 and he established the Chinese Protectorate. The early Chinese immigrants called Pickering, 'Mr Pinkiling'.

The Chinese Protectorate was first set up in a shop-house in North Canal Road. It moved to Havelock Road in 1886 to larger premises. These were demolished in 1930 and the present building was erected.

The officials of the Chinese Protectorate had very responsible duties; they had to deal with in-coming immigrants, check abuse in the coolie traffic, licence the vessels and go on board in-coming Chinese junks and ships. They had also to register societies, prevent forced prostitution and protect Chinese woman and girls. In the 1870s, 80% of the women were sold to the brothels. The population of Chinese in 1884 was 60,000 Chinese men and 6,600 women. Chinese immigration by 1873 was 103,000 when there was great demand in the tin mines in the Malay States for Chinese labour.

Responsibilities of the Chinese Protectorate increased when its officials had to keep surveillance over Chinese political parties like the Communist Party of Malaya and the Kuomintang branches.

The Chinese Protectorate no longer served its purpose after World War II. Its various functions were taken over by the Immigration, Labour, Social Welfare and Education Departments. In 1955 the Labour Front Government established the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. In 1959 the People's Action Party Government formed the Ministry of Labour and Law.

Today when Singaporeans pass by the massive building of the Ministry of Labour in Havelock Road they are reminded of the difficult tasks undertaken by the Chinese Protectorate. William Pickering is remembered in two streets: Pickering Street and Upper Pickering Street.