Resurrection of the coconuts - Lin Yangchen

by Lin Yangchen
   Coconut Correspondent

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The coconut design is so iconic that it has been reproduced and adapted several times over the decades.

On 22 September 1952, the Students Saving Scheme was launched across Malaya. Cards were printed with a modified coconut definitive, showing three students standing in the vignette holding a sign saying success | security | sufficiency (see Newman 2019). The thin outer frame and wide denomination tablets indicate that the design was lifted from one of the Malay state variants. But an Arabic script appears at the bottom that does not seem to match any of the states or even any of the characters of the Jawi alphabet. Students had to fill up the printed boxes with 10-cent stamps. Once complete they could hand the card over to the bank as deposit.

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The coconut design has been reincarnated several times on commemorative stamps issued by Singapore in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These ones are in what Singapore Post calls the “stamp-on-stamp design concept”. In the two larger reproductions shown here, care seems to have been taken to select coconut examples with almost perfectly centered BMA overprints. The postal authorities seemed to have a soft spot for the green-and-red $2, BMA purple-and-orange and 15-cent blues among many possible colour choices.

Interestingly, Malaysia has never reproduced the coconut definitive on its stamps (catalogues inspected until March 2019), although it has reproduced some of its colonial stamps on several occasions. This may have something to do with the coconut definitive being the design for the very first stamps inscribed Singapore but not for Malaysia.

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This is the earliest (1980) and so far largest official reproduction of the coconut definitive on another stamp. At first glance it seems no more than another straight copy of the $2, but the more you look at it the odder it becomes. The denomination is slightly distorted, different enough from the actual that it’s not a direct photographic reproduction, yet similar enough that it’s somehow lifted from the original or at least trying hard to be faithful to it. And there’s a uniform gap between the vignette and the surrounding design, where there should instead be overlapping lines for the double-plated $2. The lines are smooth and clean throughout with somewhat uneven spacing, as if drawn by a fine pen rather than engraved. I have a theory for the strange appearance: it could be an artifact of the printing method, which was probably offset lithography. One might be seeing a combination of deliberate “refinement” and “spontaneous distortion” of the details when the coconut design was being reproduced on the lithographic plate.

In 2008 the coconut definitive concept became the inspiration for a commemorative set marking 150 years of postal services in Singapore. It was redrawn with raster gradients and pictorial vignettes by designer Sylvia Tan. The colour schemes appear to be based on a selection of issued and unissued colour schemes of the original definitive. One of the values is mounted in this panel (above) that I presented at the 36th Asian International Stamp Exhibition in 2019. The backdrop shows skyscrapers in Singapore's Central Business District, photographed with the world's widest rectilinear SLR lens.

The commemorative is a very different stamp from the coconut definitive. It is larger and more densely packed with pictures and small text, which deprives it of a strong focal point to catch the eye. Small ornaments have replaced the distinctive fascia corners; the ornaments are harder to make out and do not arouse in the author a vernacular atmosphere in the way the original fascia evoke traditional Malay houses. The coconut trees are no longer architectural columns but thin “flag poles”. An unexplained clump of leaves a third of the way up—perhaps a space filler—disrupts the sensation of height.

The other vital ingredient is typography. Like many modern stamps of Singapore and other countries, this issue uses, or gives the impression that it uses, off-the-shelf fonts in computer word processors. The main inscriptions are in Copperplate Gothic, an all-uppercase font widely used in the branding and stationery of highly paid professionals such as lawyers, doctors and bankers. This gives the stamp a somewhat aristocratic look, in contrast to the artisanal handcrafted MALAYA on the original coconut definitive. But even more important than what font it is is whether the font goes well with the rest of the design. The Copperplate isn’t perfectly at home because the subject matter depicted on the stamp is quite a different industry from law, medicine or finance. In the original coconut definitive, on the other hand, the text and imagery feel as if they are one organism.

In 2016 the coconut design was used as an invitation card and event banner for a “Philately Night” organized by Singapore Post. It appeared to have been derived from a 20-cent blue KGVI stamp with some digital touch-up. The MALAYA at the top was changed to PHILATELY NIGHT (banner) and “8 JULY 2016” (invitation card) in computer-generated sans serif font. The banner, as tall as a man, was probably the biggest coconut print ever made.

In 2019 the coconut definitive was the predominant element in a bus advertisement for the 36th Asian International Stamp Exhibition (SINGPEX).


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