Malaysian Photography. History and Beyond. Part 1

Date Published: 8/26/2012
Category: Malaysian Photography

This article contains copyrighted materials from the original authors Alex Moh and Li-en Chong. No part of this articles may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission.

1900-1919 (PART 1 of 2)

The Pangkor Treaty of 1874 did not ensue any radical change in the relationship between Britain and Malaya. In fact, it was a move that merely formalised policy that was already in place- the intention of increasing colonial power and holding sway over co-operative and amicable subjects. The subsequent installation of advisory and administrative figures that was to remain in place for the following fifty years formed the foundation of 'British Malaya'.

'Clock Tower, F.M.S. Railways, Penang', ca. 1900
Hand-Coloured Postcard
From the collection of Tan Yeow Wooi
This could be a scene of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, with the sampans elegantly lined up before a row of grand European styled buildings. Hand-painted and in postcard format, this is an impressive demonstration of economic potential.

Malaya’s geographical location between the Indian Ocean and South China Sea entailed its status as a strategic port, and meeting place for traders and travellers. The country was subject to a medley of cultural impressions from China, the Middle East and the West, particularly Britain. One of the characteristics of colonial government that has proved most valuable for us in the present day is the amassing of data surveys, maps, photographs and written accounts from the memsahib’s diary to the Resident’s demographic records. Archival documents and the founding of newspapers have also served to provide us with different perspectives of colonial life.

G.R. Lambert Street Scene of Penang, ca. 1898 From the Collection of Geoff Edwards

Census recording and land registration aided in the amassing of information on demographics and natural resources. Today, such sources reveal to us the developments of an emerging nation. Yet such sources were not limited to the purely factual, there was a grappling to come to terms with local culture. The concern with categorisation and ethnographic studies even resulted in a 1918 textbook by R.O. Windstedt entitled Kitab Tawarikh Melayu (The History Book of the Malays).

K. Feilberg
'Sea View of Penang', ca.1870s.
The L-shaped beachscape composition has been carefully planned; the looming trees and monolithic rocks dwarf the fishermen and their village. This wet-collodion photograph presents the tropical features of Penang at its most picturesque.

The earliest appearance of photography in this country dates to the 1840s. These were used for expeditionary purposes, to gather information and provide visual records. Topographical and ethnographical studies of the exotic people, luxuriant flora and fauna of Asia boasting of the bounty of the British Empire were principal subjects. These illustrations of picturesque scenes served as inspiration for romanticised notions seen in the writing of authors such as Somerset Maugham. Whilst before, subjective written and artistic descriptions had to suffice, the photographic medium offered a greater degree of authenticity.


Pride in the British Empire led to rich commercial pickings for photographers. Trade routes by rail, sea and land that formed with Kuala Lumpur at its core eventuated in its status as an economic and political centre. Money from tin and rubber flooded in, building up the young capital. The Treaty of Bangkok in 1909 added Johor, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu to the group of Federated Malay States. Compounded with the three protectorates in Borneo and the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, British control over the region was extensive. Illustrated books of travel and topography, picture postcards of colonial townships and tropical jungles were in high demand in Europe. A spate of adventure photographers came in visual acquisition, in the manner of conquering explorers.

The elephant crossing, ca.1897
Courtesy of Arkib Negara Malaysia
An awe-inspiring photograph of British officers riding on a herd elephants on the way to the 1897 Durbar. This was taken at the
Kuala Kangsar river. The sprawling landscape extends across with lush jungle and misty hills in the distance.

The first recorded portraitist to arrive was Gaston Dutronquoy, who appeared in 1839 in Singapore. Promotions in the Straits Times and the Singapore Free Press for Dutronquoy’s services announced:

‘Mr. G. Dutronquoy respectfully informs Ladies and Gentlemen at Singapore, that he is complete master of the newly invented and late imported Daguerreotype. Ladies and Gentlemen who may honor Mr. Dutronquoy with a sitting can have their likeness taken in the astonishing short space of two minutes’.

A separate advertisement in 1845 by C.V. Mennecken & Co. for the sale of daguerreotype equipment further evidences the growing fascination with photography. The history of photography in Malaya however, can arguably be said to have truly commenced with the establishment of studios. Penang and Singapore were destinations for these European professional photographers. Galleries doubling up as photography studios were set up, selling a variety of art mediums from oil paintings and watercolours to lithographs and sketches.

'Penang. Beach Street', ca.1890
Courtesy of G.R. Lambert
In the right foreground, ensconced in the doorway is a white-suited European man surveying this scene of busy commerce. The wet
collodion process allowed for easy dissemination of these idealistic and almost propagandistic images in postcard format.

Studio work allowed a controlled environment and the management of external settings such as lighting. Whilst it allowed friends and family back home mementoes of Europeans abroad, it presented a strange sense of cultural merger - scenes of classical Roman architecture and heavy European furniture against traditional sarongs and ornate local bric-a-brac were commonly used as studio backdrops. Then, the capture of the native environment was limited to vistas of colonial development and agricultural outlay. Cultural integration was limited and images of genuine everyday native life were typically limited to ethnographic voyeurisms and outlandish perspectives.

'Members of the Johor Royal Family', ca.1905
Courtesy of G.R. Lambert
Sultan Ibrahim's family demonstrate an adoption of European style into traditional dress- leather lace-up shoes worn beneath sarongs and songkoks with checked bush jackets. The background recalls an English country house and demonstrates the eminent standing of the sitters.

One of the features of colonial society was ethnic division. Not just primarily between the colonialist and his subject but between the new immigrants and those of local origin. To a class-bound society like England, these divisions seemed perfectly natural. Although it was only in 1910 that the Malays were admitted into the civil service, they were still typecast into agricultural and administrative roles. The need for physical labour to supplement the growing economy led to an unrestricted influx of immigrants from China and the Indian subcontinent. Whilst previously the migrants were self-contained within dialectal and provincial communities, by the end of this period, growing economic contributions and importance led to a more settled and rooted local identity.

''The Chuan Chow Company', ca. 1900
From the Collection of W.L. Lim
In cabinet fashion, an immigrant Chinese family is depicted against a dirty white canvas backdrop. Dressed simply in plain cotton with no ornaments adorning them, we can draw conclusions that this photograph was taken for ethnographic documentation.

Early photographs were taken by European photographers on short stint stays such as J. Newman, who arrived in Singapore in 1856. He took the first daguerreotypes of the Malayan mainland with his studies of Malacca. His main interest lay in portrait photography and hand-coloured work. Newman’s stay in the region was relatively short and lasted just over a year, most probably due to the inadequate demand for his services. At this time, quality was weak due to the instability of the daguerreotype process.

<End of part 1> <NEXT: PART 2>