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Film Melayu: Nationalism, modernity and film in a pre-World War Two Malay magazine

  • Timothy P. Barnard

Prior to World War Two many of the Malay-language films released in Singapore and Malaya were made in Java and the Philippines. Beginning in 1940 the Shaw Brothers began producing Malay films in Singapore for distribution to their theatre network throughout Malaya. The first Malay film magazine, Film Melayu, which began publishing in May 1941, documented the production and release of a number of these pre-war films in Singapore, providing one of the few avenues for a better understanding of the origins of Malay cinema. More importantly, this periodical was firmly ensconced within the Malay publishing community and thus reflects debates over issues ranging from the proper script to use in publishing to technology and its relationship to the nation (or community, bangsa).

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1 Dissanayake, Wimal, ‘Introduction: Nationhood, history, and cinema: Reflections on the Asian scene’, in Colonialism and nationalism in Asian cinema, ed. Dissanayake, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. xix; Anderson, Benedict, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, rev. edn (London: Verso, 1991).

2 Although the fifth issue of Film Melayu, is the last one to survive, the magazine continued to be published until December 1941; Anonymous, ‘Kata Utusan Melayu’, Dunia Film Melayu [Malay film world], 1 (May 1946): 6.

3 National Archives (Britain), Colonial Office (CO) 273/550/14: Cinematograph Films Ordinance (1928).

4 In contrast, one contemporary observer of the region wrote that ‘most of its native communities are sufficiently intelligent, for instance, to appreciate the fact that a white man performing ridiculous antics is a deliberate clown’; Gibson, Ashley, The Malay Peninsula and Archipelago (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1928), p. 135.

5 The original article in The Times, ‘The cinema in the east: Factor in the spread of communism’, was published on 18 Sept.1926. The discussions over its implications, can be found in CO 273/541/3: Influence of Cinema Pictures in Malaya (1927). The quotes are taken from page 3 in the document folder. For a detailed discussion of the topic, see Stevenson, Rex, ‘Cinemas and censorship in colonial Malaya’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 5, 2 (1974): 209–24.

6 Bilainkin, George, Hail, Penang! (London: Sampson, Low, Marston and Co, 1932), pp. 5865; Wheeler, L. Richmond, The modern Malay (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1928), pp. 173–5.

7 CO 323/974/1: Encouragement in Production of British Films; CO 273/534/23: Censorship of Film at Singapore; CO 273/550/14: Cinematograph Films Ordinance (1928).

8 Malayan Film Weekly, 8 Apr. 1936, p. 1.

9 This claim has been published in a number of works. The most easily accessible is Uhde, Jan and Uhde, Yvonne Ng, Latent images: Film in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 3.

10 Millet, Raphaël, Singapore cinema (Singapore: Didier Millet, 2006), pp. 1821, 116–17.

11 van der Putten, Jan, ‘Wayang Parsi, bangsawan and printing: Commercial cultural expressions in the Malay World’, in Islamic connections: Muslim societies in South and Southeast Asia, ed. Feener, R. Michael and Sevea, Terenjit (Singapore: ISEAS Press, 2009), pp. 86108.

12 Advertisement for Leila Majnun, The Straits Times (hereafter ST), 27 Mar. 1934. Also see Muthalib, Hassan Abd., ‘Lost films from Malaysia’, in Lost films of Asia, ed. Deocampo, Nick (Manila: Anvil, 2006), pp. 44–5.

13 The Editor, ‘Di-antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 2 (June 1941): 4.

14 Although the Indonesian film Terpaksa Menikah (Forced Marriage – 1932) was made in Malay, it was forgotten by the late 1930s, making Terang Boelan the influential first. Kadir, Wan Abdul, Budaya popular dalam masyarakat Melayu bandaran [Popular culture among the urban Malay masses] (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1988), pp. 173–4; Salim, Said, Shadows on the silver screen: A social history of Indonesian film, trans. Siagan, Toenggoel P. (Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation, 1991), p. 24.

15 Advertisement for Terang Bulan, ST, 18 Apr. 1939, p. 8; H. Misbach Yusa Biran, ‘Recalling a lost Indonesian film’, in Lost films of Asia, pp. 27–30; Heider, Karl G., Indonesian cinema: National culture on screen (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991), pp. 1516; Salim, Shadows on the silver screen, p. 26.

16 Po-yin, Stephanie Chung, ‘The industrial evolution of a fraternal enterprise: The Shaw Brothers and the Shaw Organisation’, in The Shaw screen: A preliminary study, ed. Ain-ling, Wong (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2003), pp. 16, 331; Said, Shadows on the silver screen, p. 27; Kong, Lily, ‘Shaw cinema enterprise and understanding cultural industries’, in China forever: The Shaw Brothers and diasporic cinema, ed. Fu, Poshek (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), pp. 28–9; Sai-Shing Yung, ‘Territorialization and the entertainment industry of the Shaw Brothers in Southeast Asia’, in the same volume, pp. 133–8.

17 Chung, ‘Industrial evolution of a fraternal enterprise’, p. 6.

18 ‘Malay films to be made in new Singapore studios’, ST, 17 Apr. 1940, p. 10. In 1940 the Malayan dollar was worth two shilling, four pence sterling, which works out to an exchange rate of Malayan $60 for £7. Thus, the reported cost of building the studio was £2,335. Each film was budgeted at approximately £5,850.

19 ‘Malay films to be made in new Singapore studios’; ‘Films to be made here: Chinese actress from Hong Kong’, ST, 16 Apr. 1940, p. 11. These Cantonese films were never made, most likely due to the Japanese Occupation.

20 For example, see Millet, Singapore cinema, p. 24.

21 As was observed, ‘It's surprising that the Chinese director is overseeing Malay actors, but the language being used is English!’; Haaj (Haji Abdullah bin Ja'afar), ‘Melawat di Studio Shaw’, Film Melayu, 4 (1941): 8–9.

22 In a later discussion of one of their films, the author describes Hau as the sole director. Anonymous, ‘Terang Bulan Di-Malaya’, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 11–14; In addition, in a picture of the Wan and Hau in the August 1941 issue (p. 3), Hau was described as a ‘director’, while Wan was only given the title ‘Miss’. This is refuted, however, in an oral history interview with a star of these films in which she described the duo as ‘directors’ with her comment: ‘Dia dulu director dari Hong Kong, satu lelaki satu perempuan’ (there were directors from Hong Kong, one man and one woman); Habsah binte Buang, reel 3, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore.

23 ‘Malays on the screen’, ST, 16 July 1940, p. 11; Advertisement for Mutiara, ST, 20 July 1940, p. 6; ‘At the cinema: Mutiara’, ST, 24 July 1940, p. 10.

24 Mata Hantu and Tiga Kekasih were finished soon before the Japanese Occupation, and their dates of release are a bit uncertain. They may have been released in early 1942, or shown during the Japanese Occupation.

25 Advertisement for Ibu Tiri, ST, 27 Sept. 1941, p. 5. The advertisement also announced, ‘If it's Shaw's it has to be the best!’.

26 Proudfoot, Ian, ‘Pre-war Malay periodicals: Notes to Roff's Bibliography drawn from government gazettes’, Kekal Abadi, 4, 4 (1985): 19; Roff, William R., Bibliography of Malay and Arabic periodicals published in the Straits Settlements and peninsular Malay States, 1876-1941 (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 21–3.

27 The Editor, ‘Di-antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 2 (June 1941): 3.

28 The Editor, ‘Di-antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 3 (July 1941): 4, 7. Eventually the price of the magazine went up to 15 cents in August 1941, and it was explained in the September issue that the rise in price was because paper and printing had become more expensive. Haaj poetically described the situation he faced as a publisher when he explained that paper (kertas) had become more expensive than gold (emas) as limitations were placed on paper by the Department of Supply; Haaj, ‘Di-antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 3.

29 Beng, Tan Sooi, Bangsawan: A social and stylistic history of popular Malay opera (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 859; Cohen, Matthew Isaac, ‘Border crossings: Bangsawan in the Netherlands Indies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’, Indonesia and the Malay World 30, 87 (2002): 101–15; Dumas, Robert Martin‘Teater Abdulmuluk’ in zuid-Sumatra (Leiden: CNWS, 2000), pp. 4355. For more information on popular entertainment in the 1930s, see Jan van der Putten's contribution to this collection.

30 Sulong, Jamil, Kaca permata: Memoir seorang pengarah [Through a lens: The memoir of a director] (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1990), p. 9.

31 Cohen, ‘Border crossings’, pp. 101–5.

32 Tan, Bangsawan, p. 31; Wan Abdul Kadir, Budaya popular, p. 192.

33 Haaj, ‘Riwayat hidup’, Film Melayu, 1 (May 1941): 18–9; Advertisement for Bermadu.

34 Haaj, ‘Riwayat hidup bintang-bintang film’, Film Melayu, 2 (June 1941): 18–19; Tan, Bangsawan, p. 31; Dumas, ‘Teater Abdulmuluk’, pp. 48–51; Habsah binte Buang, reel 1, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore.

35 Haaj, ‘Riwayat hidup bintang-bintang film’, Film Melayu, 4 (Aug. 1941): 17–18; Habsah binte Buang, reels 1–4, Oral History Centre, National Archives of Singapore.

36 Haaj, ‘Riwayat hidup’, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 10.

37 Prior to this announcement, Shaw Brothers had been using the Kampong Gelam Keronchong Orchestra, which was the best-known band in Singapore at the time; Haaj, , ‘Di-antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 5.

38 Haaj, ‘Melawat ke studio Shaw’, pp. 8–9.

39 ‘Ruangan alam cinema’, Warta Jenaka, 1 Aug. 1940 (page number illegible).

40 Millet, Singapore cinema, p. 116.

41 Anonymous, ‘Bemadu: Film Melayu, modern keluaran Singapura’, Saudara, 29 Oct. 1940, p. 13.

42 Anonymous, ‘Hanchur Hati’, Film Melayu, 1 (May 1941): 7. The film and its plot may be an adaptation of the Chinese play Haiwaixunfu, which was very popular in Chinese and Singapore at that time. Hau and Wan would have been familiar with the story, which is a classic of modern Chinese drama.

43 Anonymous, ‘Terang Bulan di-Malaya’, pp. 11–4.

44 Haaj, ‘Melawat di studio Shaw’, p. 9.

45 For a broader discussion of issues relating to this community, see Kahn, Joel S., Other Malays: Nationalism and cosmopolitanism in the modern Malay world (Singapore: Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with Singapore University Press, 2006).

46 Various film advertisements, Film Melayu, 1 (May 1941): 9–14.

47 Milner, Anthony, The invention of politics in colonial Malaya: Contesting nationalism and the expansion of the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 92103.

48 Roff, William, The origins of Malay nationalism (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 159–61; Milner, Invention of politics, pp. 119–33.

49 Ibid., pp. 270–71; Roff, Origins of Malay nationalism, pp. 242–7; For more information on Kajai, see Henk Maier's contribution in this symposium.

50 For example, Ibrahim Yacoob's Melihat Tanah Air is the only book advertised in the pages of Film Melayu. Advertisement, Film Melayu, 4 (Aug. 1941): 16. On page 18 of the same issue there is also an advertisement for a concert to be held at Happy World on 6 August for Kesatuan Melayu Negeri-Negeri Selat Singapura, which was the political organisation Ibrahim Yacoob founded. Milner, Invention of politics, pp. 270–77; Kahn, Other Malays.

51 Kajai, Abdul Rahim, ‘Pengenalan’, Film Melayu, 1 (May 1941): 3; Teresa Birks, ‘Film Melayu – The first Malay film magazine: A preliminary study’ (Masters thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1992), pp. 35–6.

52 Ishak, Md. Sidin Ahmad, Penerbitan dan percetakan buku Melayu 1807–1960 [The publishing and printing of Malay books, 1807–1960] (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1998), pp. 21–5.

53 Subjects that used many foreign terms, such as science and mathematics, tended to favor Rumi script, while the rest used Jawi. Adnan, Hamedi Mohd., Direktori majalah-majalah Melayu sebelum merdeka [Directory of Malay magazines before independence] (Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 2002); Jan van der Putten, ‘Configuring Malay identity through script’ (unpublished manuscript), pp. 8–9.

54 Birks, ‘Film Melayu’, pp. 35–6.

55 Roha, , ‘Menuju ka-sana’, Film Melayu, 1 (May 1940): 34; Hussain, Mustapha, Malay nationalism before UMNO: The memoirs of Mustapha Hussain, trans. Mustapha, Insun Sony (Kuala Lumpur: Utusan Publications, 2005), pp. 130–34.

56 Haaj, , ‘Menyempurnakan permintaan orang ramai’, Film Melayu, 1 (May 1941): 5.

57 Van der Putten, ‘Configuring Malay identity through script’, pp. 1–11.

58 ‘Obrolan Dong dan Neng’, Film Melayu, 4 (Aug. 1941): 22.

59 The Editor, ‘Apa tuan fikir’, Film Melayu, 3 (July 1941): 14.

60 Ibid., p. 15.

61 For more information on this aspect of the publishing industry see Mark Emmanuel's contribution to this symposium. A first-hand account of the role of newspapers in nationalist discourse, as well as the Letters to the Editor column is in Mustapha Hussein, Malay nationalism before UMNO, pp. 112–14, 123–4.

62 ‘Apa Tuan Fikir? Surat-surat daripada pembacha-pembacha kita’, Film Melayu, 2 (June 1941): 14.

63 Hakmat, ‘Serba sadikit’, Film Melayu, 3 (July 1941): 18. Rentjong Atjeh was promoted as ‘the first great Malay historical drama’ in advertisements when it was released (advertisement for Rentjong Atjeh, ST, 29 Aug. 1940, p. 6).

64 Osman, , ‘Berkhidmat pada film Melayu’, Film Melayu, 4 (Aug. 1941): 1516.

65 Sagap, Mohamad Amin, ‘Film Melayu, dengan penuntun-penuntun-nya’, Film Melayu, 2 (June 1941): 15.

66 Albar, Ja'afar, ‘Tegoran yang suchi terhadap Film Melayu’, Film Melayu, 4 (Aug. 1941): 14.

67 A.B.S., ‘Pantjawarna jadi chontoh’, Film Melayu, 2 (June 1941): 15; Wan Abdul Kadir, Budaya popular, pp. 173–4.

68 Ahmad, M.B., ‘Filem bukan bangsawan’, Film Melayu, 2 (June 1941): 15; Wan Abdul Kadir, Budaya popular, pp. 185–6.

69 Roha, ‘Menuju ka-sana’, pp. 3–4.

70 Jamil Sulong recalls that ‘the manner of acting and speaking at that time was still loud barking in a stagy manner’ (Jamil Sulong, Kaca permata, p. 9).

71 Roha, ‘Menuju ka-sana’, p. 4.

72 Said, Shadows on the silver screen, pp. 28–9.

73 The Editor, ‘Di antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 3 (July 1941): 3–5.

74 ‘Advertisement for Pah Wongso’, ST, 26 July 1941, p. 2.

75 The Editor, ‘Di-antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 3 (July 1941): 4.

76 Ibid., p. 5.

77 Hamid, Selamat bin Haji Abdul, ‘Film Melayu, buatan Melayu’, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 16.

78 Ahmad, Mohamad Salim bin, ‘Tidak kelayakkan sebab kekurangan’, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 15.

79 Although it is not certain who ‘Dong’ or ‘Neng’ were, such columns were common in Malay newspapers; Kajai wrote one under the pseudonym ‘wak Ketok’. See Henk Maier's piece in this symposium for more details.

80 Anonymous, ‘Dong dan Neng memperkenalkan diri-nya kapada para pembacha F. M.’, Film Melayu, 3 (July 1941): 6–7.

81 ‘Obrolan Dong dan Neng’, Film Melayu, 4 (Aug. 1941): 21.

82 Fong, Leong Yee, Labour and trade unionism in colonial Malaya: A study of the socio-economic and political bases of the Malayan labour movement, 1930–1957 (Penang: Universiti Sains Malaysia, 1999), pp. 72105.

83 The Editor, ‘Di-antara tuan dengan saya’, Film Melayu, 3 (July 1941): 4.

84 Haaj, , ‘Editor's note for Angkatan baharu, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 7.

85 Norisa, , ‘Angkatan baharu’, Film Melayu, 5 (Sept. 1941): 8.

86 Ibid., p. 8.

Timothy P. Barnard is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: . The author would like to thank Annabel Teh Gallop for her help during visits to the British Library, as well as the feedback from Mark Emmanuel, Henk Maier, Yung Sai-shing and one of the anonymous reviewers. Any mistakes, of course, are solely the author's.

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