The Malacca Chop - Lin Yangchen
©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. Whether there were one or two forms of the seal remains unresolved (Khoo 1966).

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.

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.

Stamps bearing the Malacca Chop are particularly 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 achromatic upper half paired with a lower half of 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 here appears different from the traditional thick red paste used for oriental seals, the print being patchier and less opaque. It possibly contains fuchsin or one of a number of closely related dyes. Fuchsin is still commonly used today for textiles, ballpoint pen ink and biological stains.

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.

Rhodochrosite. ©Eric Hunt (Creative Commons)

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 less sophisticated forgeries where the frame of the seal is too thick or thin or has excessively rounded corners, where inking is too even, where fuzzy edges betray the use of a rubber stamp, where characters deviate from the genuine, and/or where the seal is simply too small. The forgery shown above exhibits most of these giveaways.

Imitations of this mystic seal have gone as far as modern-day digitally printed reproductions of both the stamp and overprint.


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