Coconut definitive postage stamps of Malaya - Lin Yangchen
  • Coconut definitive postage stamps of Malaya

©Lin Yangchen

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The universal coconut duty plate

There is one stamp design in British Malaya that witnessed the territory’s convoluted transition from a British colony during the Great Depression, through the Japanese Occupation in World War II and post-surrender British military rule, to the height of the Cold War and the Malayan Emergency. It is the only design to ever encompass the whole of the Malay peninsula including Singapore. It saw action far beyond Malaya's shores in World War II, survived plane crashes, and served a tour of duty on a remote coral atoll in the Indian Ocean.

circa 1900

It features, as an abstraction of Corinthian columns, a pair of the coconut palms that grew prolifically throughout southeast Asia. Their crowns shaped like spandrils in classical architecture, they frame a sculpted bust of stately marble and stone, an art form whose origins can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece.

Yet it is framed in the upper corners by motifs resembling the wooden roof fascia of traditional Malay houses, or the flat tapered roof tiles sometimes seen, or the roof thatching of even more primeval attap dwellings. The white horizontal beam under MALAYA provides structural support to the 'roof' of the stamp. The design evokes the idyllic kampong (village) life of bygone days in tropical paradise, and serves as a window to the world before our time.

Stirring up the nostalgia of a bygone era is the light of the setting sun visualized through the use of white space near the ground, giving way to dots and increasingly closely spaced lines in the upper part of the darkening sky.

No great design comes without its critics; the great philatelist John Easton took a dislike to the ‘two feeble palm trees’ (Halewood 2007).

In this line-engraved bust of the king, which originated in the stamps of Nyasaland (now Malawi) in 1913, background lines of gradated thickness enhance the effect of light shining on the king's forehead. The background lines are slightly slanted downwards from the back of the head towards the front of it. The origin of this tilt is unknown to the author but, as far as he is concerned, it adds to the handcrafted appeal of the stamp. To make it even better, the bottom-left portion of the medallion frame is ever so slightly flattened, as if it suffered a blunt impact.

The oval is a significant visual element, and is a near-perfect mathematical ellipse in the coconut definitive. The height-width ratio of the ellipse is about 1.24 (eccentricity 0.59), same as the European portrait miniatures of previous centuries, and very close to the traditional and intimate photographic portrait ratio of 10 × 8. Quadrilaterals have also been used in definitive portrait frames, such as the diamond-shaped frame in the 1867 issue of the Argentine Republic.

The aspect ratio of the duty plate is about 1.19, which has been the case for most small definitives of Britain and her empire since the Penny Black. There may be some biological basis to this ratio, as Winne et al. (2015) have found that even rats prefer a ratio of 1.2—similar to the animals’ body dimensions—to the overhyped golden ratio of 1.618.

George VI (1895–1952) ascended the throne in 1936 after the death of King George V and abdication of Edward VIII. The king's bust was based on a photograph taken on 15 December 1936 by Bertram Park (Barker 1978a). A French-American artist experienced with line art has expressed his opinion that this design is very well-balanced, but another individual finds the two colours of this stamp jarring and the pairing of the king with coconut trees incongruent. Regardless, a work of miniature art served on a bite-sized piece of perforated paper. Actual height 25 mm.

Coconut trees tower above a Malay kampong in the midday sun.

The coconut definitive would, over its many years of service, traverse a panoramic colour palette and a typographic landscape encompassing the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Japonic and Austronesian language families, and present an extravaganza of portrait miniatures of Malay sultans that encapsulates the cultural heritage of the peninsula.


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