Early postcards of Malaya - Lin Yangchen
  • Early postcards of Malaya



VISIONS OF THE MALAY PENINSULA

A cyber-exhibition of early postcards
with notes on geography, anthropology, philately, fashion,
ethnobotany, musicology, natural history, architecture, photography et al.


Lin Yangchen




Village market in a towering amphitheatre of coconut palms (c. 1900). Two types of roofing can be seen: the indigenous attap and Chinese ceramic tiles. A Chinese shopkeeper poses for pictures with his Malay colleague while rickshaw pullers enjoy a brief but welcome respite from backbreaking work. Published by Max H. Hilckes. This card was posted in faraway Quillota, Chile, and journeyed across the Andean mountains to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1922. The stamp, printed by the Chilean Mint, features Chilean independence leader Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme.


The Johore Market (built in 1894) on Sungei Segget, Johore Bahru's own romantic incarnation of the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris. The market sits on an island, evident from the bridge on either side. Sadly, Sungei Segget became one of the dirtiest rivers in the peninsula and was covered up in 2005 in an attempt to reduce the stench of sewage and rubbish. Published by G. R. Lambert & Co. Ltd. Affixed with stamps of Sultan Ibrahim and sent from JOHORE to Osaka, Japan, via SINGAPORE and KOBE (near Osaka) in 1910 (see datestamps). This postcard witnessed the last years of the Meiji period that saw the modernization of Japan, and the emergence of Japan as a major military power following victory in the Russo-Japanese War.

Railway bridge (c. 1900) over Sungei Kerian at Nibong Tebal. The bridge was demolished in the 2000s. Published by T. N. Shaik Ismail. The sender tried to play punk using a Straits Settlements stamp for postage in Britain, provoking a 'Contrary to regulations' marking and a 1d surcharge. None of the three different 1904 datestamps cancels the stamp. The force with which they were applied is evident on the front of the card.

The bersanding (enthronement) ceremony at the wedding of the young Tengku Abu Bakar (1904—1974), future Sultan of Pahang, to Raja Fatimah, daughter of Sultan Iskandar of Perak, in Pekan in 1925. The couple sit on a raised pelamin, decked out in their songket finery of handwoven gold thread. To the Tengku's right is a bunga pahar, a decoration of flowers and eggs that signifies fertility. Abu Bakar married eight times in his life (Corfield & Corfield 2012). The scene reminds the author of the magnificently intricate chambers of the Potala Palace in Tibet.

Like a scene from a science fiction movie, the imam meditates from the lofty pulpit or minbar in Johore's Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque (c. 1900). Designed by architect Tuan Haji Mohamed Arif bin Punak in the Victorian style, it was one of several buildings in Johore that accommodated the Anglophilic sentiments of Sultan Ibrahim. Published by G. R. Lambert & Co. Ltd. as part of a series of postcards separated by perforations. It appears from the handwriting on the front that the postcard's owner was on a visit to the tin mining town of Sungei Lembing up north, near Kuantan. An fascinating juxtaposition of islam and christianity is offered by way of reference to Whitsuntide 1912 alongside the scribbled 'Note: the Man at Prayers'.

A bullock cart, an ancient form of transport used in many parts of the world, on a jungle track flanked by the towering trees characteristic of the evergreen dipterocarp forests of southeast Asia. This card is one of the rarer sepia-toned ones (Cheah 2011). Published by Gustave Richard Lambert & Co. Ltd., Singapore, said to have had the finest collection of images of southeast Asia at the time (Toh 2009). In 1896, Lambert was appointed the official photographer of King Chulalongkorn of Siam and the Sultanate of Johore. The photographic studio sold about 250,000 postcards a year in the period before World War I. It folded in 1918.

A vastness and wildness that can only be articulated by the proclamations of the offstage horns in Mahler's Symphony No. 2, seemingly calling from distant mountains. Published by Houghton Butcher (Eastern) Ltd. for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924.

The Orang Asli ('aboriginal people'), incorrectly referred to by the derogatory term Sakai ('inferior' in Malay), hunting along the river in the tropical jungles of Malaya using blowpipes made of bamboo. The sap of the Ipoh tree (Antiaris toxicaria), after which the state capital of Perak was named, is mixed and heated with that of plants of the genus Strychnos, which contain indole alkaloids, to make the poison for the blowpipe darts.

The Orang Asli are by no means inferior to latter-day urban dwellers in their ability to live off the jungle without destroying it. Ulu Selangor, c. 1910.

Orang Asli girl wearing leaf skirt. Skirts fashioned out of unprocessed leaves date from Neolithic times and have been worn by indigenous peoples in remote areas of southeast Asia from Burma to New Guinea (Maxwell 2014). Published by Max H. Hilckes, Singapore.

Baines (1961) posits that flutes in traditional cultures around the world are 'very strongly associated with magical ideas'. Shown here (c. 1890) are two of four documented ways (Werner 1973) of blowing the indigenous nose flute of Malaya. The instrument is usually made of bamboo but occasionally of bone (Werner 1973). Click here for sound recording. The method demonstrated by the player on the left involves the occlusion and deformation of both nostrils, while that on the right leaves one nostril open and does not deform the nose. Published by Max H. Hilckes.

A rustic kampong (village) in Ipoh, Perak. An elephant can be seen bathing in the river. Taking in the scene is what appears to be a member of elite society wearing a pith helmet. Published by the german photographer August E. Kaulfuss at Farquhar Street in Penang. Printed in Germany before World War I.

Kampong Telok Saga, a sleepy kelong or fishing village of the Orang Laut ('sea people') off the island of Pulau Brani, as seen from Mount Faber on Singapore island (c. 1900). Pulau Brani subsequently became a naval base, and is now a huge container terminal. In the distance is Pulau Blakang Mati (literally 'island behind death'), now a large-scale casino and tourist resort called Sentosa. Published by Max H. Hilckes.

Archipelagic Voyager

The idyllic coconut palms (c. 1900) that inspired one of the most iconic and timeless stamp designs of Malaya as seen on the affixed stamp with bull's-eye cancellation from 1936, the first year of its issue. On the reverse, an impression of the contrasting Dutch-style datestamp from Semarang, Java.

Bumboats of two varieties at Boat Quay on the Singapore River: the larger inter-island tongkang (Gibson-Hill 1952), and the smaller twakow ferrying goods to ships anchored off the coast. Russian publisher.

Rickshaws languishing along the grimy Sago Lane in Chinatown (c. 1920), fermenting under the oppressive humidity of wet laundry. Rickshaw pullers had a hard life and meagre earnings.

Tanned and hardworking coolies getting haircuts outside what appears to be the shop of a Japanese merchant with the words 大日本 ('great Japan') on the pillar and the presence of a kimono-clad lady with bunned-up hair. A selection of chairs and stools of the period can be seen. Published by The Federal Rubber Stamp Company. The photographic paper for this silver bromide print was manufactured by Thomas Illingworth & Company in London sometime between 1919 and 1930.

Laksa seller (c. 1930), from an annotated postcard series by The Federal Rubber Stamp Company. The text was letterpressed (as can be discerned in the protruding impressions on the reverse) with runny ink. On the reverse is further annotated in handwriting, 'notice the hat worn by nearly all mohamadans. the malays call it sonko(k) or kopia(k). notice also the squatting position with heels flat on the ground. a posture common among all orientals.'

The reference to 'priest doctor' suggests a fusion of medicine and religious ritual, accompanied by a makeshift art gallery of Chinese paintings and diagrams including portraits of what may be early 'priest doctors' to whose school of thought the present practitioner is allied. It is possible that these paintings were for sale as well as the medicinal herbs and ingredients laid out on the ground. Published by the Federal Photographic Store, Kuala Lumpur, and printed in Britain. Sent to Turin in 1929.

Chinese opera singer (c. 1900) dressed in the opulence of a military general wearing the trademark helmet bearing two long pheasant feathers (lingzi), against an ornate backdrop of Chinese furnishings and calligraphy that enriches the atmosphere. Feathers are among the most remarkable structural designs of nature. The lingzi, thought to have originated during the Qing Dynasty, are worn by both male and female characters and are skilfully manipulated during acting as an integral element of emotional expression. Postcard above published by Max H. Hilckes; the photograph also appears on a postcard published by G. R. Lambert & Co. Ltd.

Straits Chinese funeral procession (c. 1900) against a backdrop of Straits Chinese shophouses. The elaborate human-carried hearse is led by priests shaded under ornate parasols and accompanied by offerings to the deceased in the hope of bestowing upon him or her a wealthy afterlife. Published by Max H. Hilckes. Posted domestically from Connecticut to Virginia in the United States, with a stamp showing George Washington, in 1951 during the nuclear race with the Soviet Union—a very late use of the postcard.

A rare instance of a postcard showing its own publisher, Kong Hing Chiong & Company (104 North Bridge Road, c. 1906), which vacated this unit in the Adelphi Hotel building in 1927 according to a notice in The Straits Times on Valentine's Day that year. The shop's banner carries the advertisement 'PICTURE POST CARDS OF SINGAPORE, JOHORE & F.M.S.' The western gate of St. Andrew's Cathedral along with the majestic trees of the church compound are visible on the left. The hotel building was torn down in 1980. Curiously, this postcard carries the words 'printed in England' on the reverse.

Nam Thean Tong Temple ('cave of the southern sky') in the limestone hills of Ipoh, c. 1907. The temple was founded in 1867 by a Taoist priest by the name of Kuong San Teik, whose descendants run the temple to this day (Cheah 2009). The upper floors are made of timber and supported by trusses. A wooden toilet greets visitors to the left of the entrance. On the reverse of the card, a couple write about their enjoyable road trip from Singapore to Penang and back.

Venomous serpents in the Snake Temple (built c. 1850) in Penang, previously known as the Temple of the Azure Cloud. The snakes are of the species Tropidolaemus wagleri, a pit viper native to southeast Asia. The photograph (c. 1950) was taken at about ten past eight in the morning, according to the pendulum clock in the picture. Today, the branches in the porcelain vases have been replaced with artificial radiating supports made of cane and rattan.

Samsu is a wine made from fermented rice, with a very high alcohol content of about 60%. Due to its popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, illegal temporary distilleries were rampant, some deep in the jungle with tripwires and sentries to guard against the authorities (Mackay 2005). The postcard shows a legal distillery (c. 1900), much larger compared to the thatched huts hidden in the bush. Sometimes the wine contained excessive copper leached from the distilling apparatus, as reported by Cowap (1931). Published as part of the British Empire Series. The handwriting on the border of the photograph reads, 'Haven't heard for a long time. Hope you are in the best of health.' Altogether not inappropriate, since samsu is often steeped with reptiles, insects and fruit to produce a medicated wine (Mackay 2005). This card carries three addresses written by two people with different pens and handwriting. It traveled from the quaint English village of Fladbury to the Roman city of Bath the next day as attempts were made to trace the recipient's current address. Cheltenham, where the card was finally delivered, lies between the two.

Traditional water wheel with bamboo tubes for delivering water to padi (rice) fields. The river flows from right to left in the photograph, as indicated by the triangular eddies, and the wheel rotates clockwise. Published by Houghton Butcher (Eastern) Ltd., Singapore, on behalf of the Malayan government for the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924.

A gigantic shadoof or well sweep for drawing water (c. 1900), invented in ancient Mesopotamia and the Nile. Such devices remain in use across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Rubber tapping (c. 1930), with helpful hand-drawn diagrams on the reverse showing both English and Dutch methods. The halterneck worn by the tapper indicates that the backless fashion style first popularized by French designer Madeleine Vionnet in the 1930s may have had earlier and more cosmopolitan origins. From aircraft tyres to the rubber tubing and gaskets found in almost all machines, rubber remains indispensable to modern society. Unfortunately, the global demand for rubber has brought about widespread transformation of diverse tropical rainforests in southeast Asia into vast rubber monocultures highly vulnerable to disease and ecological collapse (Mann 2016).

Minimalism in tree climbing. Resin, or damar penak, from the forest tree Balanocarpus heimii of the family Dipterocarpaceae is tapped for use as varnish (Meinwald & Messer 1990). Other kinds of damar from other species of dipterocarp are used for various purposes like sealant for burial jars and fuel for lamps (Meinwald & Messer 1990, Mahdi 2007). Silver bromide print.

Skeat (1900, pp. 293—302) describes in detail the elaborate Malay rituals for capturing crocodiles, including strategies for finding them and the construction of baiting devices. Chants are recited at various stages of the process, including one at the end: 'Was it you who caught So-and-so?' In this photograph (c. 1920), the boy perched atop the crocodile is holding a length of rattan tied to a chicken skewed with a pointed length of hardwood that has lodged in the reptile's throat.

The Orang Utan, or 'forest person', to which one of the Simpsons bears an uncanny resemblance with his coconut lips, are tree-dwelling great apes endemic to Sumatra and Borneo. This apparently traumatized youngster in chains (c. 1900) would by no means be an unknown sight today as the species are threatened with extinction by incessant deforestation and wildlife trade. Silver bromide print, slightly overexposed. The handwritten French on the back is dated 1929.


Elephas maximus, the largest animal in Asia, was domesticated in Malaya for myriad tasks ranging from lumber haulage to human transport. Here they appear (1904) in regal splendour, tusks gleaming in the sun, in the company of their human minders against a backdrop of tropical paradise. Published by Max H. Hilckes and posted to Paris in 1906 during the so-called undivided back era. The crania of the pachyderm and of King Edward VII (on the stamp) bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.

Passenger transport in rural Malaya (c. 1900), showing how the elephant 'squats' down for the rider to climb on. Published by G. R. Lambert & Co. Ltd. The card bears two different 1910 datestamps from Muar, Johore; the one cancelling Sultan Ibrahim's definitive on the front has the town's alternate names, BANDAR MAHARANI and MUAR. Declared a Royal Town by the sultan of Johor [sic] in 2012, Muar has a rich architectural and culinary heritage.

A 'tin shed' (in vernacular language) made of wood and thatch. A mound of recovered ore concentrate (centre) is washed in a small sloping wooden structure called a lanchute. The ground falls away into the huge mine in the background. Tin mining began during the Bronze Age, most probably elsewhere. Penrose (1903) surveyed the tin deposits in the Malay peninsula. Published by A. Kaulfuss; sent to London in 1907.

One of the simplest forms of transport on shallow and slow-flowing watercourses in Malaya, the traditional bamboo raft driven with a pole. This overloaded, half-sinking one even has a roofed cabin, highly unusual for such ephemeral vessels and rarely captured in photographs. On the reverse are more watercraft: Chinese junks as depicted on the iconic early definitive design of the young Republic of China. The stamps appear at first to be in the kind of bilateral symmetry that imparts balance and majesty to Chinese architecture, but they are more properly in rotational symmetry owing to one of them having been stuck upside down. Despatched from the ancient city of Ningpo to England in 1928, instructed by the sender to go via Siberia, possibly on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

A rare cyanotype print of a floating cathedral of slumbering dragons, their mighty serrated dorsal fins stowed away until the next trade winds beckon (c. 1911). These sailing ships have ancient origins going back to the Song dynasty. The postcard is apparently of Russian vintage, the expression открытое письмо translating to 'open letter'. Cyanotyping was a cheap and simple printing process used mostly for engineering blueprints. Sent to The Hague in 1919. It seemed fashionable in the past to strip the stamps from used postcards, stemming perhaps from the compartmentalized treatment of deltiology and philately as separate disciplines. Many beautiful and historically informative postcards have been ruined in this way, including the one shown here.

We now come to the Queen Elizabeth-class battleship H.M.S. Malaya of the Royal Navy, calibrating her guns. She fought in both world wars. Published by Abrahams, Devonport, England. This specimen would not normally be in a collection of postcards of Malaya, but it does qualify literally as a 'postcard of Malaya', adding spice as an outlier to the nostalgic vistas of its geographical namesake.


high-resolution photographic reproductions ©Lin Yangchen
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References and additional reading

Baines, A. 1961. Musical Instruments through the Ages. Penguin Books, Middlesex.

Barber, N. 1971. The War of the Running Dogs. Collins, London.

British Empire Exhibition 1924. Malaya in Monochrome. Houghton Butcher (Eastern) Ltd., Singapore.

Cheah, J. S. 2006. Singapore: 500 Early Postcards. Editions Didier Millet, Singapore.

Cheah, J. S. 2008. Malaya: 500 Early Postcards. Editions Didier Millet, Singapore.

Cheah, J. S. 2009. Perak: 300 Early Postcards. Editions Didier Millet, Kuala Lumpur.

Cheah, J. S. 2011. Selangor: 300 Early Postcards. Editions Didier Millet, Kuala Lumpur.

Cheah, J. S. 2012. Penang: 500 Early Postcards. Editions Didier Millet, Kuala Lumpur.

Corfield, J. & Corfield, R. 2012. The Fall of Singapore: 90 Days: November 1941—February 1942. Talisman Publishing, Singapore.

Cowap, J. C. 1931. Straits Settlements. Report of the Government Analyst for the year 1930. Analyst 669:812—813.

Gibson-Hill, C. A. 1952. Tongkang and lighter matters. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 25(1):84—110.

Mackay, D. 2005. Eastern Customs: the Customs Service in British Malaya and the Opium Trade. Radcliffe Press, London.

Mahdi, W. 2007. Malay Words and Malay Things: Lexical Souvenirs from an Exotic Archipelago in German Publications before 1700. Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden.

Mann, C. C. 2016. Riding the rubber boom. National Geographic 229(1):118—137.

Maxwell, R. 2014. Textiles of Southeast Asia: Tradition, Trade and Transformation. Tuttle Publishing, Tokyo.

Meinwald, J. & Messer, A. 1990. Anti-Insectan Compounds from the Tropical Tree Family Dipterocarpaceae. United States Agency for International Development.

Penrose, R. A. F. Jr. 1903. The tin deposits of the Malay peninsula with special reference to those of the Kinta district. The Journal of Geology 11(2):135—154.

Shuttleworth, C. 1981. Malaysia's Green and Timeless World. Heinemann Asia, Kuala Lumpur.

Skeat, W. W. 1900. Malay Magic: being an Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsula. Macmillan, London.

Toh, J. 2009. Singapore Through 19th Century Photographs. Editions Didier Millet, Singapore.

Werner, R. 1973. Nose flute blowers of the Malayan aborigines (Orang Asli). Anthropos 68:181—191.
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