Kedah small heads issue - Lin Yangchen
  • Kedah small heads issue

©Lin Yangchen

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Sultan Sir Badlishah ibni Al-marhum Sultan Sir Abdul Hamid Halim Shah (1894–1958), postmarked in Alor Star, where the author's father was born and raised in a kampong (village) during the Japanese occupation. Kedah was the nucleus of southeast asia's oldest civilisation, a hindu-buddhist kingdom as long ago as 110 AD. The sultanate was thought to have begun in 1136 AD, which would make it the oldest in the Malay peninsula. In more recent centuries Kedah became a confluence of Thai and Malay culture (Falarti 2013).

The shoot of the sultan’s tengkolok penetrates the medallion rim (left), giving the portrait a subtle three-dimensional 'pop'. Notice the radial gradation of the thickness of the background lines in the sultans' medallions, different from the bilateral gradation in medallions of the British monarchs, a perceptive bit of design to suit the forward-facing portraits of the former. Right: the photograph, of unknown creator, from which the engraving was derived. The sultan is wearing the neck badge of the Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George awarded in 1948, with its seven-armed Maltese asterisk.

Rice is the most important food crop in southeast Asia, and Kedah was the most important rice-producing state (Falarti 2013) due to its flat coastal plains (Holley 1995), sacrificing economic development and retaining more of the rustic charm of rural Malaya as a result. Accordingly, the low denominations showcase a sheaf of seeded rice stems (padi), which has on occasion been mislabelled as a tree. Being the only design incorporating both coconut and rice, it is christened the nasi lemak issue by the author, after the traditional Malay breakfast dish of rice infused with coconut milk, served with sambal, fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, egg and slices of fresh cucumber.

The sheaf of rice was originally engraved by De La Rue for the first-ever definitive stamp design of Kedah, based on photographs supplied by the British Advisor to the Kedah government in 1911 to the Crown Agents (Holley 1995). He requested that the artist improve on the nine photographs, as one was out of focus, another had leaves sticking out at the top making it look too “wild”, and the rest looked too “lumpy”. He even included six photographs of single ears of padi to help the artist. Here it appears in the finely extruded golden tones of the glorious three-dimensional recess-printed 5c of 1922.

So important was rice and so iconic was the sheaf-of-rice design that it earned a place alongside monarchs and coats of arms in the coconut definitive. Because in letterpress (right) the inked parts protrude from the plate instead of being recessed into it (left), they need to be thicker to resist wear and damage.

Traditional water wheel with bamboo tubes for collecting and delivering water to padi fields. The river flows from right to left in the photograph, as indicated by the triangular eddies, and the wheel rotates clockwise (along with the current). These contraptions required frequent maintenance (Hill 1977). Postcard published by Houghton Butcher (Eastern) Ltd., Singapore, on behalf of the Malayan government for the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924.

The use of a serif typeface (KEDAH) is unusual in the coconut definitive and enriches its typographical palette. This typeface resembles those designed for newsprint and advertising at the time, combining authority with simplicity and legibility. The slab serifs were good for printing with wood type in the old days because the serifs were easy to cut in wood, and indeed give the typeface a woody character.

Prior to issue, there was some deliberation as to the denomination at which to switch from rice to sultan, as evidenced by alternative die proofs in the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive. This happened despite the 25c being widely considered to be the start of the high values. Later on, when the colour of the 20c was being updated to blue, a proof was made in which the rice medallion of that denomination was changed to the sultan's portrait, but it was not approved by the Crown Agents. This was even less surprising given that monochromes were so far the exclusive domain of the rice medallion.


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