©Lin Yangchen

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The genesis of the coconut definitive was triggered by the formation of the Malayan Postal Union in 1934, which required new stamps carrying the inscription MALAYA in Roman characters in accordance with Universal Postal Union regulations. The coconut definitives were among the very first stamps to herald a new era and foretell the future administrative unification of a culturally heterogeneous peninsula that would in turn kindle their astonishing diversification.

The design evolved from numerous essays prepared sometime between 1933 and 1935 by the Survey Department of the Federated Malay States and Straits Settlements in Kuala Lumpur. See Dewey (1963), Mekie (1977) and Norris (1985, 1988, 1995, 2003, 2010) for details.

Norris Type V (Norris 2003), one of the several subtle variations on the coconut theme, printed by zinc-plate photolithography (Wood 1948) on thin glazed paper, in a section of the Survey Department whose primary task was to reproduce maps (Norris 1985). The Straits Times (28 March 1934) said "the draftsmen of the photo-lithography section showed unsuspected ability in the, to them novel, work of making the line drawings".

The portrait of the king follows a photograph by the Vandyk studio of London, which was also used in essays for Britain’s Silver Jubilee issue of 1935. But the king, himself a philatelic connoisseur, preferred the Nyasaland profile and chose it for the final designs. Indeed, West & Muir (1994) observe that there was a general disapproval of three-quarter portraits during George V's reign, profile heads being more acceptable. In the author’s opinion, the flamboyant, almost funky look of the Vandyk-based portrait in the coconut essays, exacerbated by the complicated but unsophisticated cross-contour rendering, matched neither the simplicity nor the cultural flavour of the rest of the design.

The typography of STRAITS SETTLEMENTS differs subtly from the issued version, such as in the arched diagonal leg of the R. More noteworthy is an apparent attempt to refine the letterspacing of SETTLEMENTS by kerning the ET closer together by shortening the top horizontal stroke of the E. But it seems to have done more harm than good, as the rest of the word could not be similarly compressed.

Meanwhile, MALAYA had yet to undergo its transformation from the thin and uniform metallic strokes seen here to the woodcrafted letters of timeless vintage.

Two other essays. The one on the left is similar to Norris Type V shown earlier but has negative lettering at the top and solid black in the left half of the vignette background. The one on the right has a number of subtle differences, including the lengths and positions of the palm fronds. The designers played around with the coconut trees in yet other essays. One had on each side a pair of coconut trees with criss-crossing trunks, while another showed three coconut trees on each side in a landscape format.

Although the exact method of printing is unclear, the design was probably transferred to the zinc plate via photographic projection on a light-sensitive coating on the plate. The areas of coating not cured by light were then washed away, followed by chemical etching of the exposed zinc in those areas (Norris 1985). The design could now be printed using an ink with differential adherence to the cured and etched areas.

These ‘protostamps’, presented in some ten different colours, may have been meant to demonstrate the department's stamp-printing capabilities (Reeves 1988), or as a matter of expediency given spare manpower in the department during the Great Depression (Norris 1985). Security printers Thomas De La Rue were eventually invited to print the actual stamps while the Survey Department handled the rubber tokens used at the time to control the rubber supply (Cockburn 2017).

The birthplace of the universal coconut duty plate.
Survey Department in Kuala Lumpur, a Mughal-Gothic building constructed in 1910.

The author's pilgrimage 85 years later.

Compared with the issued stamp, the essays look more cluttered (see two-dimensional Fourier analysis), and the background shading fills the entire sky behind the palm trees from ground up, lacking the sunset lighting that would eventually impart the magical atmosphere to the issued stamp. De La Rue also made a subtle yet significant improvement: they increased the contrast between the coconut palms and the background, transforming the palms into architectural monuments.

Some have commented to the author that the issued stamp is simpler and more 'enduring to the eye' than the essay. On the other hand, a fellow philatelist prefers the essays over the issued stamp, on account of the more three-dimensional look of the king in the former. Some of the changes made by De La Rue, especially the replacement of fine lines and dots with coarser patterns, were necessitated by the practical requirements of cost-effective letterpress printing, as noted by Len Stanway (comm.) with reference to historical correspondence.

An interesting detail that De La Rue retained from the essays is the "fluctuating asymmetry" of the coconut palms, to borrow a concept from biology. Structures like human faces deviate slightly from perfect bilateral symmetry due to environmental factors, but retain their overall symmetry and attractiveness. Similarly, the palms in the coconut definitive are not perfect reflections of each other, having fronds in non-mirroring positions. The designer clearly favoured realism, and De La Rue took the hint.

But it was also what De La Rue changed that would make the stamp "pop". While the essay depicted the king in a photographic style, De La Rue turned him into a sculpted relief. The two may look similar, but the legendary Arnold Machin explained the difference. When asked why he thought his Machin definitive (below) was so successful, he said it was because the queen's head was not a photograph but a relief. This, he said, made it a symbol and gave it a timeless quality (Myall 1999).

De La Rue made other finishing touches that readied the stamp for debut on the world stage. In the production version of the coconut definitive, the medallion touches and indeed overlaps slightly with the rest of the graphic, perhaps to minimize the occurrence of white gaps, but leaving little room for misregistration.

Furthermore, reduction of clutter in the design apparently took precedence over regal formalities, with the omission of the crown. Even King George V himself must have understood, since he vetted every stamp design. Jeffrey (2006) described an "intensification of imperial imagery" on the stamps of King Edward VII to King George VI, whose designs "consistently" incorporated the crown, but Malaya apparently didn't follow the trend. The coconut definitive is one of the very few stamps on which the British monarch goes crownless.

See the Malay states for post-war coconut essays.


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