Malaysian Photography. History and Beyond. Part 2

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 2 of 2)

In 1848, the Wet Collodion process was devised in England but it made its debut in Malaya only in 1861. Thomas Hermitage’s studio on Queen Street in Singapore advertised wet collodion ‘portraits on glass or paper’ and ‘Views of Penang’ at four Straits Dollars per copy. The daguerreotype was soon phased out in the face of the ease brought about from the use of wet collodion glass plates. The latter allowed a quantity of prints to be produced in bulk from a specific image. The commercial viability of working from a stock of negatives ensured greater popular access.

Post Office, ca.1890
From the Collection of W.L. Lim
Symbols of civic life such as the post office, street lighting and telephone poles were evidence of the benefits reaped by locals from the colonial administration. The architecture of the building is of European influence, with its colonnades, prominent arches and decorated columns.

John Thomson, who arrived in 1862, produced a host of documentary images of the Straits of Malacca, Singapore and the Malayan mainland. Thomson’s artistic skill coupled with his technical knowledge secured him a reputation as one of the finest nineteenth century photographers in the region. Volumes of collotype images entitled Illustrations of China and its People and The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China evidence his far-flung photography expeditions. His studio on BeachStreet, Singapore was opened in 1861 and it provided album portraits,visiting cards, stereo photographs and large views.

Penang Electric Trains, ca. 1900
From the Collection of Tan Yeow Wooi
The juxtaposition of the trishaw with the two electric trams demonstrates the positive effects of British Colonialism. This handpainted postcard presents a promising picture of a growing port town.

His impression of the rapidly changing Singapore was ‘Not many years ago it was a mere desolate jungle-clad island, like hundreds of others in the Eastern seas… When I first saw it in 1861 I was startled by the appearance of the European town, and since that time it has been yearly registering its substantial progress in steadily increasing rows of splendid docks, in bridges, in warehouses, and in government edifices.

A Royal Portrait of Sultan Sir Abdul Samad, ca.1886
Courtesy of G.R. Lambert
The prestigious firm of G.R. Lambert & Co was given the privilege of capturing the Sultan of Selangor and his courtiers. Taken at Jugra in Kuala Langat, the Sultan is surrounded by symbols of his power and status.

This period was spent establishing a network of administrative and policy-making bodies such as the postal services, road systems, water board and the legal system. All these were examples of vital and effective structures that provided the framework for daily life but their need for centralised organisation resulted in the creation of the unified entity of the Federated Malay States in 1896 and the installation of a Resident General in Kuala Lumpur. With the establishment of the Federal Council in 1909, the manner in which ‘a centralised bureaucracy could usurp local power’3 was demonstrated herewith. A High Commissioner in Singapore and a Resident General in Kuala Lumpur held the financial and legislative reins. Nonetheless whilst the Malay royalty were no longer as integral to the governing process and in practice, their roles as heads of state were somewhat diminished, their significance as figureheads and representatives of the local people remained unchallenged.

Views of the Selangor River, Kuala Lumpur, ca. 1898
From the Collection of Geoff Edwards

Sachtler & Co, Carter & Co, Henry Schuren, G.A. Schleesselmann and the famous G.R. Lambert & Co were other Europeans who opened studios in Singapore and Penang but carried out work in other areas such as Penang, Kedah, Malacca and Borneo. They produced work of high calibre, and at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867, ten panoramic street scene and seascape views were exhibited. Furthermore, Salon entries in the Philadelphia Exhibition were mentioned in the Singapore Daily Times in June 1876.

G.R. Lambert & Co. the longest surviving photography company in Singapore, was set up in 1876. Well-known for their documentary as well as portraiture work, they set a standard for other photographers. Their active presence across Asia from China to Thailand produced a substantial body of work that has served historians well. Images of artistic and commercial quality guaranteed their success in the professional photographic boom of the 1880s and 1890s.

Views of the Selangor River, Kuala Lumpur, ca. 1898
From the Collection of Geoff Edwards

With the advent of transparent and pliable film negatives based in gelatin and the affordable Kodak No.1 towards the end of the nineteenth century, photography was within easier purchasing reach of the amateur hobbyist. Amateur photographers such as Leonard Wray, Curator of the Perak Museum and founder of the Perak Amateur Photographic Society in 1897, and the ill-fated J.W. Birch, the first British Resident of Perak, offered interpretations of daily colonial life. The Singapore Amateur Photographic Society was founded in 1887. Furthermore, the burgeoning fortunes of the Penang and Singapore ports effected a more stable and commercial environment for the professional photographers and studios.

A Young Gentleman, ca.1910
From the Collection of W.L. Lim
In this cabinet photograph, a young sitter is perched elegantly atop a high stool. Taken outdoors, the background scenery of tropical jungle is at odds with the trappings of a young English gentleman- a trilby hat, bird cage and leather brogues.

During this period, the postcard and portraiture movements dominated photography. Early landscape and townscape views in ‘real photo’, sepia tones or hand-colouring style were printed on postcards. Portraits in the form of stereo photographs, ‘cartes de visite’ and the more prestigious larger cardboard-mounted cabinet photographs were immensely fashionable. Of course, images imbibed with a native flavour remained in demand, capturing scenes of trade and commerce and the rich resources of the colonies. Views of tin mines, rice and rubber plantations evidenced the civic pride and power of the British administration, bolstering the faith of overseas investors and prospective traders.

The Lake in Botanical Garden, Singapore, ca.1890
Hand-Coloured Postcard
From the Collection of W.L. Lim
This postcard reflects the idealised vision of colonial life in tropical lands. Impressionist-like, a painted figure of a lady with a parasol sits on a grassy bank. Palm, coconut and acacia trees feature around a tranquil lake; the idea of taming nature and what is native is implicit here.

The First World War had little direct impact on the history of photography in Malaya. Whilst it led to the closure of many foreign professional photography studios, this was also the consequence of headways made by the growing numbers of locals who learnt the skills and then opened up their own studios to replace the more expensive services offered by the European professionals. They offered a real glimpse of Malayan life and catered towards the tastes of the increasingly affluent locals. Chinese immigrants such as Yuen Ka Tseung, Yuen Tak Sam, Yip Kun and Ng Kwan Guan, who opened up the Federal Photographic Studio on Jalan Sultan Street in Kuala Lumpur. Ten years later in 1911, Nakajima & Co, a Japanese photographer and artist opened a studio on High Street, Kuala Lumpur. This was later expanded to include a branch in Klang, under the management of N. Shimuzu.


Lady and Child, ca.1910
From the Collection of W.L. Lim
In this studio photograph, the background scenery is that of a pagoda pavilion in a Chinese garden. The lady has bound feet and she is dressed in Nonya style. Both sitters are ostentatiously adorned with painted-on gold jewellery.

<End of Chapter 1: 1900-1919> <NEXT: PART 3>