Malaysian Photography. History and Beyond. Part 4

Date Published: 8/27/2012
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.

1920-1939 (PART 2 of 2)

The enormous popularity of these two formats led to the ‘postal portfolio’ phase whereby images of famous personalities were collected. This movement was significant in the democratization of photography. There was a trend to amass albums containing autographed portraits of major and minor stage celebrities amongst Malayans from all walks of life. Figures in stage costume and uniformed regalia were also in vogue. Photograph collecting became a passionate hobby for many.

Teamwork, ca.1930
Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of W.L Lim
This group photograph of a sports team is posed and yet appears natural. Kitted out neatly in spotless white outfits, their trophies are resplendent on the table before them. The good quality of the photograph taken in outdoor settings is proof of advancements made in photography.

The first stereophotographs were invented in the 1840s but found their way to Malayan shores much later. Taken with a double lens camera, the two slightly offset and nearly identical images were supposed to create spatial depth and perspective. This photographic form was based on the principles of binocular vision. A cheaper alternative that did not require the double lens camera framed double takes of the same person, in true resemblance of stereocards.


At rest, ca. 1930 Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of Tan Yeow Wooi
Taken by the same studio that captured the panoramic views, this example exemplifies Ngai Chan's technical skill. The photographer had made full use of the extended horizontal format by presenting a narrativelike composition.


At this time, portrait photographers were expected to create results that would conform to social norms and artistic fashions. The photographer was seen as an extension of a camera to be dictated to rather than as an artist in his own right. This was to change with the Art Photo Movement of the 1930s. More natural outdoor portraits were favoured and strenuous efforts were made to produce portraits in which the subject appeared at ease with himself and his surroundings. Portraits expressing true character and realism were accorded preference over posed and retouched portraits. Amateur photography also played its part in the pervasiveness of the Art Photo Movement.

A Chinese Family, ca.1930
Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of W.L. Lim
Taken in majestic Old Shanghai style, this family poses against the backdrop of heavy wood panelling, fine French furniture and gilded mirrors. Each individual has their own prop- the boy appears studious with a book in hand, the lady elegant in her white fur and the little baby dressed in lace attentively held by her nanny.

The May Day rallies in 1940 showed the unrest caused by a socioeconomic structure imposed along ethnic lines. The fallibilities were made even more obvious by the unfortunate economic repercussions of the Great Depression abroad. Whether in the capacity of trader or rubber tapper, all British Malayans were affected. The disparities in wealth were made all the more evident and further exacerbated by the difficulties of the poorly educated locals in coping. Coupled with the heavy competition from native photographers more attuned with local tastes, many European photographers departed from Malaya. It was common for their Chinese apprentices to assume management of their studios, and they continued to apply the various European styles from the Victorian, French, Mignonette to the Imperial.

The Bridal Couple, ca.1930
Gelatin Silver Print
From the Collection of W.L. Lim
The attire of this young married couple reveal a symbiosis of western and local culture. Both of them are wearing intricate and ornate jewellery. To atone for the drawbacks of the photographic process, the sitters have applied white powder to their faces to bring their features into contrast.

With the expansion of institutions such as the Straits Medical Service, Straits Legal Service and Straits Settlement Civil Service, there was a need for better-qualified and English educated individuals. Earlier policy had been one of creating the means to benefit the end according to the stereotype roles cast by the British. In 1920, the Registration of Schools Ordinance was intended to bring all education under the wing of colonial control, ‘to prevent the teaching of undesirable political doctrines’ 2. Left leaning politics had surfaced not just within the Chinese community with the founding of the Malayan Communist Party in 1930, but eight years later, the Young Malay Union was formed with the rousing proclamation of Hidup Bahasa! Hiduplah Bangsa! (Long live the Language! Long live the nation!).

Schools such as the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar, Raffles Institution, Victoria Institution and the Penang Free School were established to provide adequate schooling to those privileged by birth or intelligent enough to qualify. Improvements in education coupled together with an increase in cultural awareness and exposure to art abroad led to the formation of art societies. Whilst the first one in Malaya was the Penang Impressionists (1920~1939), it comprised mainly of Europeans. The first truly local art body was the Penang Chinese Art Club, also known as the Penang Art Club or the Yin Yin Art Society. It was founded in 1936 and one of the founders was the famous Yong Mun Sen.

Meanwhile in Singapore, the founding of the Singapore Society of Chinese Arts and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore in 1938, gave deserving recognition to photography as an art form in its own right. Photographs were exhibited alongside more traditional mediums such as watercolour, oil, Chinese ink, woodcut, sculpture, pastel, ceramics and monotypes.


<End of part 4>