©Lin Yangchen

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The Malacca Chop was the emperor of overprints in the Japanese empire, covering a block of four stamps in a single impression. A large square design typical of Japanese corporate seals, it was carved out of wood, which was probably the most convenient substrate for such a large seal in wartime.

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Most of the characters are in Kanji script, with the exception of the word "Malacca" in Katakana script in the central column. Both are in kaishu, a calligraphic yet legible style of typeface that evolved in China around the time of Christ. Katakana, originally developed by monks in the 9th century as a form of shorthand, is often used to transcribe foreign words. Reading in the traditional manner in downward-parsing columns from right to left, one gets military department/Malacca state/government seal. The simpler and smaller Katakana characters may have been put in the centre in the interests of symmetry; it would have been more grammatical to have them on the right. In a seal with far fewer characters to play around with than prose, more care is needed to achieve a pleasing balance of typographical weight.

Taguchi (1964) said that wood gave "warmth" to a seal, but it could not match harder materials in "artistic value". Perhaps these qualities were due to wood grain, which imparted unevenness to the carving and a slight roughness to the printed edges. The character of wood is embodied in a woodcut print (above) by Brazilian artist Lygia Carvalho Pape, which I saw at the Tate Modern in London.

A village market in a towering amphitheatre of coconut trees (c. 1900). Two types of roofing can be seen: attap and 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 seal was applied on 1500 dollars' worth of stamps in April 1942 under the supervision of a senior officer of the State Secretary, Shiramoto. The stamps had been stranded in Malacca when a clerk failed to turn up at a roll call to surrender them to the Controller of Posts to be brought to Singapore (Khoo 1966).

The Japanese ink pads ran dry before the job was done. Malacca G.P.O. chief clerk Khoo Sian Eng, one of those who did the overprinting, was about to switch to the less customary black ink when he remembered and broke out old stocks of British vermilion ink pads to continue overprinting (Khoo 1966). Coulter (1967) reports three shades of ink, one transitional.

Khoo (1966) recorded the denominations and quantities overprinted. Since then, stamps bearing the Malacca Chop have become scarce, partly because collectors often discarded them after mistaking the overprint for an ugly cancellation (Coulter 1965). Others—presumably those who encountered only loose stamps off-envelope—believed the chop was fiscal, which was considered worthless by philatelists (Khoo 1966).

The Malacca Chop is arguably most alluring not on an intact block of four identical stamps, but in recombinant forms not unlike the colourful biological diversity partly brought about by Mendelian genetics, where it becomes the scaffold for a boisterous quartet of colouristic consonance and dissonance.

An upper half of achromatic base stamps paired with a lower half of base colours from opposite sides of the colour wheel. The stamp at upper left is worth a special note. Pink paired with white exudes innocence, while pink with black is considered erotic (Heller 2009). This stamp is both innocent and seductive.

Colours of the sea.

The number of possible tetrachromatic configurations is given by n!/(n − 4)! where n ≥ 4 is the total number of colours available. If one considers just the monochrome denominations that were overprinted (Tan 1999), there are at least seven colours to choose from, making 840 possible configurations. The assumption is that every colour is available for each quadrant of the seal.

The ink appears more watery and different in shade than the thick red paste used for oriental seals, and than the ink of the other Japanese occupation overprints. It possibly contains fuchsin or one of a number of closely related dyes. The Malacca chop might have been too big for the small circular pots in which traditional seal paste was usually dispensed.

Rhodochrosite. ©Eric Hunt (Creative Commons)

Although the ink of the seal is often described in the philatelic literature as fuchsia, it is actually closer to pink. Fuchsia is defined as containing equal proportions of red and blue, while pink mixes red and white. Based on this distinction, I propose a new class of philatelic shades, "rhodochrosite", named after the manganese carbonate mineral. In geology, rhodochrosite varies in colour from rose-red to pink with increasing substitution of manganese with calcium. Other impurities add subtle tints of brown and orange. This encompasses most of the shades of the Malacca Chop and distinguishes rhodochrosite from fuchsia or magenta.

A rarer variant of the Malacca Chop in what I think was the British vermilion.

One of the enduring mysteries of the Malacca Chop is the question of whether there were one or two forms of the chop. Khoo (1966) said two chops were used and returned to the state secretary after use, but gave no details. Philatelists by and large have settled on the opinion that only one chop existed, and that variations in the overprints are due to variations in ink and pressure. However, Coulter (1967) noted that Khoo's first-hand testimony on this matter should be trustworthy and that Milo Rowell himself believed that two forms existed. Both, however, said further research was needed. Kent (1972) reported what appeared to be a small version of the Malacca Chop measuring 25 mm by 25 mm on a document fragment and possibly on a block of 2-cent Straits Settlements stamps. Could this have been the second form of the chop?

Philatelic forgeries are rampant, including one by the notorious George Gee (Wells 2005, 2006). Tsuchiya (1999) describes a skilful fake. I have encountered a plethora of forgeries where the frame of the seal is too thick or thin or has excessively rounded corners, inking is too even, colour is wrong, fuzzy edges betray the use of a rubber stamp, characters deviate from the genuine, and/or the seal is simply too small. The hard-edged wear and tear of the wooden frame of the real chop is especially difficult to fake. The forgery above exhibits most of these giveaways. An expert on the Malacca chop has commented to me that because of its size, it is actually very difficult to forge.

The ancient tribal wood carvings of the Malay archipelago are another genre in which forgeries are rampant but can be exposed by a trained eye. As legendary art dealer Michael Palmieri once explained (Hoffman 2018), forgers can imitate natural ageing and weathering very closely by carefully treating fake sculptures with chemicals, but the result doesn't look quite the same as the real thing. Forgers might even cultivate lichens on the wood to make it look old, but there are subtle differences from natural lichen growth.

Forgers make mistakes too, like this rare sideways overprint. A few other chops by the same forger were upright.

There is one more sneaky trap most forgers fall into—they make the chop square. The author has personally measured several examples of the real chop. They are 39 mm wide and 38 mm tall.

Imitations of this mystic seal have gone as far as modern-day digitally printed reproductions of both the stamp and overprint by Taiwanese artist Scott Visnjic (Chen Chung Yuan).

I am grateful to Cheah Jin Seng for contributing his expertise to my study of the Malacca Chop.


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