©Lin Yangchen

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I bought this stamp in the early hours of the morning via a mouse click, which sent a signal from my computer down the ethernet cable, through the optical fibre network of suburban Singapore, connnecting to the Internet cables to Europe and finally to a computer at the Royal Philatelic Society London where the Spink auction of the Dato’ Professor Cheah Jin Seng collection of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia was under way. My bid made the 10,000 km journey to London almost instantaneously; I was amazed as the auctioneer responded to it as if I were right in front of him in the room.

Spink classifies this cover as “extremely rare”. A fine example of vernacular chinese calligraphy accompanied by an upside-down stamp affixed in the style of an oriental seal.


呈交 submit
本坡 local
大日本 Great Japan
皇家 imperial [representative?]
收啓 for the information of
纳闽 Labuan
陈芝祥 Chen Zhixiang (name of sender)
 letter [from]

“Submission of information to the local Great Japan imperial representative—letter from Chen Zhixiang in Labuan”. The sender could not know that his envelope would one day become legend.

Labuan, an insular offshoot from the great landmass of Borneo and now an offshore tax haven, was the easternmost point in the “coconut empire”, far from the shores of Malaya. As Labuan had been under the Straits Settlements before the war, it held stocks of coconut definitives (see Norris 1988c) which now ended up under the control of a different Japanese administration from the rest of Malaya (Coulter 1965). This gave yet another boost to the diversity of the coconut definitive, for the marooned stamps were decorated with the so-called single-line overprint. The Kanji characters of Dai Nippon Teikoku Seifu (Great Japan Imperial Government) reading from right to left also appeared on stamps of Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei (Tsuchiya 1999). The overprint was first reported on the coconut definitive by an army captain by the name of Nagase (Tsuchiya 1999).

While Proud & Rowell (1992) thought the stamps had been overprinted in Kuching and Sandakan, Tsuchiya (1999) suggests they were done in the Labuan post office. Anyway, the stamps were released for about three months starting from 2 October 1942 (Proud & Rowell 1992, Tsuchiya 1999). These stamps are rare and highly elusive (Carpenter 1990); less than 100 were sold and the remainder were thrown away, deemed unusable after Labuan was transferred to North Bornean jurisdiction (Tsuchiya 1999). The specialized catalogue (Tan 1999) didn't even assign any prices, attesting to the stamps' near-supernatural status.

The overprint appears in violet, red, vermilion and black on the coconut definitive, in diagonal or horizontal orientation (Tsuchiya 1999). The use of three or four different inks for overprinting a relatively small quantity of coconut stamps in a single place, and the occurrence of overprints in different orientations, suggests that the work was uncoordinated and haphazard.

The diagonal overprints have an unplanned, makeshift look about them as they imply that the overprint is too long for the stamp. The single-line overprint also appears diagonally on some Sarawak stamps, and diagonal overprints were used elsewhere in the past, such as in Sarawak (see Lardner 2016) and the French colonies (see Taylor 2015).

The majority of stamps carrying the single-line overprint are larger pictorial designs, some of which are in landscape format. The overprint usually avoided the pictorial part. Its single-line format worked well where the purpose wasn’t to obliterate the monarch’s head. The overprint could have been designed with these considerations. Or was it even meant for stamps in the first place?

The characters are barely readable. The handstamp, said to have been of rubber (Tsuchiya 1999), was of insufficient quality to resolve the characters. Furthermore, kaishu script was a bad choice for such small type. Kerning is inconsistent, such as of the third–fourth and last–second last characters compared with the rest.

Under the microscope, the regions of overlap of the grey and vermilion inks resemble ‘A‘ā lava, a highly viscous volcanic lava that when solidified has a surface riddled with razor-sharp protrusions that are extremely difficult and dangerous to walk on. Perhaps the name, pronounced ah-ah, comes from the sound one makes when one falls down on the lava.

The overprint ink was absorbed readily by the surface of chalky paper.

The characters in this forged overprint are slightly smaller than those in the real overprint shown earlier. The forged datestamp isn't circular and seems to have been artificially distressed to make it look worn (compare with the real datestamp shown earlier). Taiwanese forgeries are known (Tsuchiya 1999), but I don't know whether this is one of them.

The inks of the fake datestamp, stamp and fake overprint. The overprint ink isn't absorbed well by the surface of chalky paper, unlike the ink of the real overprint shown earlier.

I thank Chua Kain Chai, Mok Kiat Ping and Quickus Beamus for transcribing the handwritten chinese characters on the envelope.


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