The Celluloid Looking Glass: Changing Perspectives of Malaya Through Film

Author: Su Lyn Koay, Caleb Goh Hern-Ee

Malaya has long been an enigma to the West.

Tales of the peninsula—famously dubbed the Golden Chersonese[1] by Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy—once set Western imagination aflame with promises of abundant treasure, ancient temples and wild cannibal warriors. By the advent of the 16th century, due to an increase in the number of European travellers, a wildly fantastical image of Malaya grew, fanned by orientalism, and propelled by gross exaggeration in early travel books and engravings. It was therefore unsurprising that 17th-century Dutch travel writer Johan Nieuhof (considered a credible source on the Far East by his contemporaries) wrote of a fanciful and mythical strain of the Malay race in Malacca called the Kakerlakken, who looked like Europeans and were blind in the day but could see at night.[2]

(1) Isabella Bird's 'Golden Chersonese' specifically the lithographs of 'Malay Men and Women'
Isabella Bird’s Golden Chersonese, specifically the lithographs of “Malay Men and Women”

The coming of photography, as early as 1841, did little to roll back the fog of ignorance and orientalist fancy. In the early 20th century, films became an essential tool for the continual reinforcement of the Western projection of Malaya—a tropical nation with dense jungles, rich in natural resources for potential exploitation, and with uncivilised natives to be tamed.

However, locals, too, came to use film to showcase a Malaya relatable to its people: one which reflected of local identity, culture and struggles and deconstructed the image projected by the West. These films became particularly important in the construction of national identity after the war, when Malaya was finally projected as what she was in the eyes of her own. This essay seeks to trace the changing perspectives of Malaya through films, from the early 20th century to the post-independence period, showing how the narrative of Malaya was encapsulated through both Western and local filmmakers’ lenses.

Part One: Beginnings

The earliest celluloid glimpses of Malaya, dating from the early 20th century, are preserved in amateur films shot by colonial officers and tourists on simple, consumer-level cameras such as Pathé’s Cine-Baby, or by British soldiers on the Polish-made Aeroscope widely supplied to the British Army by the War Office. Several of these films, each under a minute long, survive in the Huntley Film Archives.[3] Most depict everyday scenes of life in the colony, such as the scene below of buffaloes and rickshaws against the backdrop of Kuala Lumpur in 1910. However, there was no real urgency to film Malaya, a collection of colonies and protectorates of little importance compared to India or Burma.

Huntley Film Archives

The earliest film footage of Malaya is an actualité (a term for a short unstructured film of no more than one or two minutes, depicting real events, people and places).[4] This actualité is composed of three one-minute films titled Circular Panorama of Singapore and Landing Stage, Panorama of Singapore Sea Front and Coolie Boys Diving for Coins (1900). These were filmed by Joseph Rosenthal—a travel camera operator for the Warwick Trading Company who was dispatched to Shanghai to film the Boxer Rebellion[5]—when his ship stopped at the port of Singapore. With scenes of the town, seas and ships by the Tanjong Pagar Wharves, Coolie Boys presents a glimpse of Singapore’s shoreline 119 years ago. Interestingly, Rosenthal wrongly identified the boys diving into the shallow waters to collect coins for the amusement of foreigners as the children of coolies (a term for indentured Chinese and Indian workers, borrowed from the Tamil word for work payment).[6] In fact, they were Malay boys from the Orang Laut community.[7] These boys often encouraged tourists to throw coins into the water so that they could perform aquatic feats for entertainment. This practice ended by 1941 owing to shark attacks.[8] At any rate, Rosenthal’s Coolie Boys certainly encouraged the romantic imagining of far-off lands.

2) Screengrab from Coolie Boys
Screengrab from Coolie Boys
(2A) Picture of Joseph Rosenthal
Joseph Rosenthal

It was not until 1910 that proper footage was filmed in Malaya,[9] when the France-based (and world’s largest) sound and motion picture company, Pathé Freres, introduced newsreels. These short films, meant to keep people informed of current events around the world in an age before television news, were played in local cinemas prior to movie screenings. One of the first important instances when Malaya featured on a newsreel was the victory celebration in Singapore following the surrender of the Central Powers at the end of the First World War in 1918, shot by the British branch of Pathé Freres.

This was the earliest professionally filmed footage of Singapore. It prominently features the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Arthur Henderson Young, handing out war honours against the backdrop of the great gothic spire of St Andrew’s Cathedral. Just three years before, sepoys (Indian soldiers) had rebelled and slaughtered their British superiors in the Singapore Mutiny, before being put down with the help of Russian, French, Japanese and the Sultan of Johore’s troops. Nonetheless, Malaya was portrayed to the West simply as a “white man’s world”—a rich land where British law and order thrived alongside vibrant entrepot trade, mining and rubber industries.

Singapore Governor Presents War Honours (1914-1918)

(3) Picture of the Pathe Brothers
The Pathé Brothers

The 1920s also saw the increasing popularity of travelogues, a term coined by filmmaker Burton Holmes. This coincided with the period of peace and prosperity after the First World War, with the British Empire reaching its territorial peak in 1922, after consolidating control over Egypt, Iraq and Palestine.[10] These travelogues showcased the allegedly luxurious and peaceful life in the colonies, with the aim of encouraging Western audiences to travel to or invest in them. Accordingly those covering Malaya featured scenes of her main cities, core industries and economic activities.

Holmes’ films included Souvenirs of Singapore (August 1920), Quaint Kuala Lumpur (December 1920), The Port of Penang (November 1920) and Rubbering in Selangor (October 1920). These films have been lost to history,[11] but a short description of Souvenirs of Singapore reads as follows[12]:

Souvenirs of Singapore (1 reel) Burton Holmes—We are visiting the capital of the Straits Settlements, ruled by Britain and policed by Sikhs. The lure of wealth brings men from China here, and men from India near the Black Man’s burden. We see on breast and brow the marks of caste. Two-wheeled carts pass in the streets, the shops are rich in colour. One-half billion dollars’ worth of merchandise is carried every year by the “Mosquito Fleet” plying in and out of this noted world port. Loads of tapioca from the roots of the tapioca tree come to the central station where the raw material is worked over in vats. Tamil maidens are arrayed in diamonds as they work….”

Holmes’ films steered clear of politics and poverty, focusing instead on aspects of societies considered by the West to be most appealing, such as elaborate costumes, dramatic landscapes, bustling cities, industry, commerce and native ceremonies. Later, in 1938, his camera operator Andre de le Varre made his own travelogue on Singapore, copying Holmes’ tone and mood aimed at investors and tourists.

Pictures of Burton Holmes_ Poster 1
Burton Holmes Poster (1)
Pictures of Burton Holmes
Burton Holmes Poster (2)

The earliest travelogue of Malaya still in existence is Gaumont’s Actualities of Singapore, produced in 1920. The camera veers through Battery Road, with neoclassical streets not unlike that of London’s West End, teeming with rickshaws and curious Hajis (Muslims who had been to Mecca as pilgrims, often adorned in white garments). The film particularly focuses on Singapore’s busy harbour, possibly to entice the business-minded Western viewer to invest in European trading companies on the island, like Boustead, Guthrie and Jardine Matheson.

Thus, by the end of the 1920s, the Western world generally knew Malaya through an British lens—a strange land of vast natural resources, with many native races and tongues, and a peaceful colony under a stable British “protector”, ripe for investment and exploitation.

Old Singapore in the 1920s

Part Two: From the Outside, Looking In

From the early 1930s, full-length films set in Singapore graced screens across the globe. Western public imagination knew of Malaya only through this famous island capital, heavily romanticised as a savage yet tantalising paradise, and labelled with a bevy of exotic names like Timbuctoo, Zanzibar and Samarkand.

One of the first major films was Paramount Pictures’ Road to Singapore (1940). This movie, shot in the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens,[13] represents Singapore as the Hawaii of the Far East, with local architecture largely consisting of endless beach huts. Here, Bing Crosby finds Dorothy Lamour, a dancer in a native dance troupe clad in bikini-and-sarong ensembles, with odd fruity headdresses, singing in Esperanto instead of Malay. Other films depicted Malaya as a far-flung, cowboy-town colony, with natives consisting of pirates, tricksters and conmen attempting to make a fortune. Alfred Hitchcock, in one of his lesser known films called Rich and Strange (1931), depicts a trickster who tries to relieve the heroine’s husband of his money by making a prostitute pose as a German princess in Singapore. In Out of Singapore (1932), directed by Charles Hutchison, a group of sailors tries to blow up a ship en route to Singapore from Manila, in order to collect the insurance payout.

Malaya was also portrayed in Western films of this period as a jungle safari teeming with trophy animals. Western travellers and writers like W. Somerset Maugham and Henri Fauconnier helped promote orientalist tropes of Malaya: its wild, exotic jungles; the white man’s mission to master the land and civilise its natives. Such portrayals dovetailed with Western economic interests in exploiting the natural resources represented by the jungles, and the mission to civilise natives in the course of conquering land reflected the spirit of the age of imperialism—”Gold, Gospel and Glory”. “Jungle films” with these themes were commercially successful: hits included the Tarzan films, Jungle Jim (1937) and The Lost Jungle (1934), and the genre was even parodied in the iconic King Kong (1933), where the character Carl Denham—famous for making wildlife films in remote, exotic locations—unwittingly stumbles upon King Kong’s domain as he attempts to shoot in the unknown.

Western travellers and writers like W. Somerset Maugham and Henri Fauconnier helped promote orientalist tropes of Malaya: its wild, exotic jungles; the white man’s mission to master the land and civilise its natives

Borneo became prominent in Western cinema as a wild, mysterious land of untamed jungles, but with a white Rajah allied with the Empire, rendering it the “Amazon” of the Empire. Universal Studio’s East of Borneo (1931) was an abominable adventure-drama where the heroine finds her husband serving the Prince of Marado Island (possibly based on Marudu in Northern Sabah), and ends up in a sticky love triangle with both. While this film was largely shot in a studio with a few scenes of jungle landscapes in between, it reinforced the Western image of Borneo as the eternal jungle. Some jungle footage was later reused in The Beast of Borneo (1934), another King Kong-like tale of intrepid white explorers savaged by Bornean simians.

When Frank Buck began making movies in the 1930s, this “jungle” trend was given a fresh twist. Buck had made regular hunting trips to Asia since the 1910s, to collect exotic animals for American zoos. He wrote popular books detailing (and grossly exaggerating) his expeditions, of which his films were largely re-enactments. Thus, Buck shifted the focus of the “jungle” genre from narrative storytelling to documentary filming in a vein that the “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin would emulate half a century later. He tried to sell his films as an authentic record of a big game hunter’s adventures. Of course, jungle-documentaries were not new: as early as 1921, the husband-and-wife team of Osa and Martin Johnson had made short films of exotic lands, even featuring two shots in Malaya and Borneo in The Jungle Adventure (1921) and The Visit to Sandakan and Singapore (1923). Unlike the Johnsons, however, Buck made adventure films based on his own exploits, depicting fights between wild beasts intended to be believed by audiences. His first film, and also his most successful, was Bring ‘Em Back Alive (1932), shot and set in Malaya.

Picture of Frank Buck
Frank Buck

Interestingly, Buck was a personal friend of Sultan Ibrahim of Johore, who allowed him to film in his estates near Johore Bahru. This city, Buck’s films claimed, was in the “deepest and most unreachable depths of the Malayan jungle”, and yet he is seen to set off for it by boating up the Singapore River, which (to anyone who knows the land) is simply implausible. Other “jungle” scenes were shot along Singapore’s Clementi Road and Jurong Road. The Sultan lent Buck a hand in acquiring animals from his own collection or from the Royal Zoo of Johore, and was himself featured in Buck’s later film, Wild Cargo (1934). Subsequently, Buck made an action-adventure narrative drama, Jungle Menace (1937), for Columbia Pictures. Released originally as a 15-part serial featuring the fictional Seemang, a thinly-disguised version of Malaya (natives in songkoks are a dead giveaway), it faded into obscurity after the Second World War.

The Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 ended the British Empire’s control over its territories and protectorates in the Far East. During the slow and painful period when the Japanese were working their way south towards Singapore, the British—unwilling to be humiliated by this defeat—continued to screen cinema propaganda impressing upon the public that the British army intended never to desert the Peninsula, and that law and order remained well preserved. The news proclaimed that Singapore was secure against any attack, a “Gibraltar of the East” and “impregnable” “fortress”.[14] British Pathé newsreels showed the arrival of troops and aircrafts on Singapore, with montages of the build-up preparations, infantry, plane and guns, followed by shots of Chinese and Malay workers digging defences along the streets, while Australian soldiers dig defences in the jungle. Even Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Brooke-Popham, Commander in Chief of the Far East, was shown inspecting the carriers. That, of course, all came to nought.

British World War Two propaganda, including Sir Arthur Brooke-Popham’s inspection

After World War Two came the Cold War. Trapped between the Communist East and the Capitalist West was Southeast Asia—and Malaya became a useful pawn in this battle. The familiar backdrop of her jungles evolved into a setting for warfare. At the height of the Red Scare, it was not uncommon to see portrayals of Communist villains (usually Chinese or Koreans) playing to a full house in Asian cities. The first conflation of the old jungle adventure theme and the new jungle war was MGM’s Malaya (1949)—portraying a swashbuckling, heroic American reporter’s mission to steal rubber from Japanese-occupied Malaya.

An influential film was The Planter’s Wife (1952), in which a white colonial wife is dragged into the rugged and backward hinterlands of the colonies by her husband, amid increasing attacks by Communist insurgents, and finds her life transformed drastically. The colonial wife was a favourite character of Western authors and filmmakers in the years immediately before and after the War. Notable examples include Maugham’s Kitty Fane in A Painted Veil (1925), Burgess’ Fenella Crabbe in Time for a Tiger (1956) and Shute’s Jean Paget in A Town Like Alice (1950). Significantly, The Planter’s Wife heralded the end of on-screen Malaya as a sunny tropical paradise. It was now an unforgiving rainforest, with savage beasts and certain death at the end of a Communist bayonet. Arguably, the Malayan Emergency converted the old investment wonderland of the 1920s and the sarong parties of the 1930s into a warzone populated with “Commie” gun-wielding natives and an uncompromising rejection of the free market. The Planter’s Wife was 1952’s “sixth most popular movie of the year at the British box office”.[15]

Picture of The Planter_s Wife - British pictures
Screen-grab from The Planter’s Wife
Film Poster of The Planter_s Wife
The Planter’s Wife film poster

Malaya became a staple setting for war thrillers, much like Vietnam 30 years later. Britain’s Hammer Films, a studio famous for many iconic films of terror and gore, released The Camp on Blood Island in 1958. It was heavily promoted with a poster bearing the tagline “Jap War Crimes Exposed!” in blood-painted words, above a gruesome caricature of a Japanese soldier with stringy teeth and a pencil moustache, about to slash the reader’s head off. This was one of the first mainstream publicly-screened films in Western cinema to depict graphic gore and violence. In a Japanese POW camp in Malaya, the prisoners struggle to prevent the commandant from knowing about the surrender of the Japanese, for fear that he will order their massacre. When this fails, both sides slaughter each other in an hour-long cinematic bloodbath that was derided even by contemporary commentators as wildly inaccurate, almost a sensationalisation of war crimes. Nonetheless, the film was wildly successful at the box office, and a subsequent novelisation sold two million copies. Despite its inaccuracies, The Camp firmly cemented the impression of Malaya as an inhospitable jungle ravaged by war.

The Sandokan series was another hugely popular franchise which spawned a succession of films, television series and comic books. Based on a series of books written by Emilio Salgari in the late 19th century, the series was set in a Malaya that resembles India (all the men bore Hindu names and wore turbans). This fantastical version of Malaya included a Borneo ruled by the cartoonish, evil British under Queen Victoria. The occupying British forces were commanded by Lord James “The Exterminator” Guillonk, the ruthless governor of a combined Malaya and Borneo (at a time 70 years before these territories were actually unified). His daughter, the beautiful Marianna Guillonk, was nicknamed “The Pearl of Labuan”. Ironically, Salgari never visited the Far East and based his books on popular papers published by Henry Keppel.

Malaya became a staple setting for war thrillers, much like Vietnam 30 years later

There were three spin-offs of this series towards the middle of the 20th century. The most famous was Sandokan the Great (1964), with Steve Reeves playing a gallant Malayan pirate in the non-existent Tapuah (perhaps inspired by Tapah). After witnessing the murder of his mother and brothers by the British, Sandokan vows to avenge their deaths. His father, the Sultan of ‘Mulaker’ (Malacca perhaps? Though Malacca has not had a sultan for 600 years!), was held captive by the evil Lord Hillock. Despite numerous inaccuracies, Sandokan the Great was wildly popular—banking successfully on an orientalist perception of Malaya for a Western audience that seemed not to have the slightest idea of the place’s history, culture and people.

Part Three: From the Inside, Looking Out

By the 1920s, cinema was allowing Malayans a peek into the worlds of their colonial rulers as well. Travelling showmen scurried from kampung to kampung with portable projectors in mobile booths. At each stop, a screen of white cloth was set up around the booth and the latest Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton flick leapt to life. This form of entertainment grew rapidly in popularity, ushering the leather shadow-puppets of yesteryears toward obsolescence. The early silent films imported from Europe and the United States were simple slapstick comedies easily understood by the various communities of her cities and towns, from the highly educated to the most illiterate villagers.

Singapore’s first commercial cinema, the Paris Cinema, opened in 1904. By 1906, there were no fewer than four cinemas in Singapore alone.[16] Although precise figures are elusive, by the end of the 1930s, there were between 30 to 40 permanent cinemas spread across the Federated Malay States and the Straits Settlements, with an almost equal number of mobile booths.[17] Larger cinemas opened seven days a week, with an average of 48 screenings a month.[18] Motion pictures became a growing entertainment and educational phenomenon that transcended the barriers of literacy and language in its appeal, and was also freely available to all sectors of society.

However, this source of entertainment was a double-edged sword in the eyes of the colonisers, as it exposed the local population to the culture and lifestyle of the West. In the words of René Onraet, Inspector General of Police in the Straits Settlements from 1935 to 1939, cinemas “taught the mass of uneducated Asiatics about the white race”.[19] The colonial authorities were alarmed when negative aspects of the West were showcased in criminal and gang-related material, and disturbed by depictions of white women bordering on nudity. After all, most Hollywood films of the pre-Code period (when there was less censorship)[20] were subject to few restrictions on sexual innuendo, inter-racial relationships, mild profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality.[21]

A leading campaigner on this subject was Sir Henry Hesketh Bell, the former Governor of Uganda, Northern Nigeria, Leeward Island and Mauritius, who visited the Malay Archipelago and Indochina in 1926, and later wrote on the subject of cinemas for the Times.[22] He was of the opinion that the average Asian audience was “incapable of discerning truths from travesty in what they saw on screen”.[23] He argued that American films (Hollywood films forming about 71% of all screenings in Malayan cinemas)[24] had “weakened the whole platform of respect on which the ascendancy of the white man rested” by glorifying criminals and encouraging gangs, while undermining the moral standing of white women through sexualised depictions.

Picture of Sir Henry Hesketh Bell
Sir Henry Hesketh Bell

Bell wrote:

“[P]ictures of amorous passages… give [the Asian] a deplorable impression of the morality of the white man and, worse still, of the white women… To hear indeed, the remarks and cat-calls which often proceed from the cheap seats occupied by young coolies during these ‘love passages’ is sometimes enough to make one’s blood boil”.[25]

George Biliankin, Editor of the Straits Echo, a Penang-based English newspaper, similarly noted in 1932 that:

“[T]he Asiatic returns to the cinema and once again sees white women in a state bordering on nudity. His own women are all dressed to the neck. Indian, Chinese and Malay women are as carefully guarded from strangers’ gaze as if they were unused photographic paper”.[26]

Bell also charged cinemas in Malaya with boosting crime rates. He lamented: “Police authorities in the East are unanimous in attributing many of the more important and complicated crimes to the suggestions of cinemas.”[27]

While Bell’s arguments can be regarded as somewhat extreme, there was a general belief at that point of time that American films lowered the regard of local people for Europeans.[28] The British were reeling from the after-effects of the Mutiny of 1915—the rebellion of 850 soldiers from the 5th Light Infantry of the Indian Army in Singapore, suppressed at the cost of the lives of 47 British officers and civilians[29]—and wary of another possible rebellion. Amid serious concerns for white colonial respectability, and discomfort at inter-racial sexual relations between whites and Asians, agitation for stricter cinema censorship in Malaya grew.[30]

The eventual Cinematograph Films Bill of 1928 applied to both the Malay States and Straits Settlements. Rooted in the earlier Ordinance No.200 (Cinematograph Films) of 1923, this legislation empowered an “Official Censor” to approve or ban “in total or part any cinematograph film or picture photograph, poster or figure advertising a cinematograph intended for exhibition display”. In 1929 an amendment established an “Appeals Committee”, provided for hefty fines up to $500, and extended the Censor’s powers to cover “sound and speech”[31], in line with new feature films popularly known as “talkies”.

These discretionary powers were heavily used. In the last eight months of 1927 alone, 128 pictures were banned. Popular films produced in America, England, and Germany were banned in Malaya although viewable in most parts of the world.[32] Most American talkie films in the 1930s faced partial or even total censorship, usually on the grounds of politics, gangsterism and kidnapping, deemed inappropriate for local viewing. Among them were MGM’s Tough Guy (1936) and Robin Hood of El Dorado (1938), banned on the grounds of excessive gun use and slaughter.[33] The first British talkie to be banned was The Informer (1929), a gripping Dublin underworld drama based on a novel by Liam O’Flaherty, in which a man faces reprisals after betraying his best friend, a terrorist, to the authorities. Monty Banks Farce’s The Compulsory Husband (1930), Raise the Roof (1930) , and Harmony Hill (1930) were all likewise deemed “unsuitable” for Malayan audiences and banned. The only British talkie showed in Malaya in 1930 was Atlantic (1929), a shipwreck drama based on the sinking of the Titanic.[34]

The cuts in most films rendered them commercially useless, so that the manager of Australasian Films (Malaya) Ltd, R. Gourdeau, left Singapore for Java with the banned talkies from British International Pictures. Later, British International Pictures protested to the Secretary for the Dominions regarding the allegedly arbitrary treatment of English films by colonial film censors, arguing that “certain American films of questionable taste had been accepted by the censor in Singapore”.[35] Chinese films like China News (1937) and Five Children (1937) were also banned as propaganda[36] and for their ostensible tendency to “influence Malayan viewers towards superstition and weird beliefs”.[37] This censorship can be described as a confrontational attempt to preserve orientalist ideology and ultimately, the image of whites.

Part Four: Looking at Our Celluloid Reflections

A few decades after the arrival of film to Malaya, its people also began to experiment with this new wonder. The first film shot entirely in Singapore was New Immigrant (Sin Keh) (1927) by Nanyang Low Pue-Kim Independent Film Production Company. It was also the first and only local Chinese-language production in Malaya at the time. The film revolves around a young Chinese immigrant, Sham Hwa-kueng, and his struggle to adapt to life in Muar, Johore. The film reflects the producer’s experiences and concerns: Low-Pue Kim, hailing from Muar, had encountered the negative perceptions held by mainland Chinese towards the diaspora while visiting China in 1925, and he made the film to convey the social struggles and issues faced by Chinese immigrants in Nanyang.[38] Unfortunately, the authorities prevented public screening of the last three of the film’s nine reels. They cited concerns about the film’s depiction of the 30 May 1925 massacre in Shanghai, where the British police fired on student demonstrators.

The most notable local film in the next decade was Motilal Chemical Company of Bombay’s Laila Majnum (1934), directed by B.S. Rajhans. The very first Malay-language feature film, it told an ancient Persian-Arabic tale of a madman’s love for a ravishing beauty, and their final union in death—a Romeo and Juliet of the deserts. While the film contains orientalist elements straight out of the Arabian Nights, its hodge-podge of Indian, Arabic and Malay influences testifies to Malaya’s status as a cultural melting pot. Laila Majnum was well-received by Malayans of all races, reflecting the acceptance of Malay as a lingua franca cutting across the barriers of race, culture and religion. Its success motivated the Shaw Brothers of Shanghai to invest in local film productions by setting up their film facility in Malaya, with talk of even establishing Malaya’s very own Hollywood.[39] Unfortunately, the war put an abrupt halt to Malaya’s rising film industry.

Poster advert of Laila Majnum
Poster advert for Laila Majnum

Claims that the Japanese helped Malayans to identify themselves as a nation[40] are naturally controversial, given the context of imperialist Japanese invasion and occupation. Nevertheless the occupation did challenge the status quo of the colonial order, including in the sphere of cinematic representation, with consequences for local identity and consciousness. The imperial authorities seized the cinemas—which were crucial propaganda tools—and in August 1942 imposed a total ban on all Western and Chinese films. Instead, Japanese newsreels and war documentaries dominated the screens, and film production was restricted to only three Japanese companies: Daiei, Shochiku and Toho.

In 1942, Mare Senki: Shingeki no Kiroku was released as a combat documentary. Compiled from Japanese war news footage and confiscated British newsreels, it celebrated the Japanese victory in Malaya, including the surrender of Singapore, Britain’s erstwhile “Gibraltar of the East”. Centering the perspectives of the invaders, the film was screened to the peoples of Malaya (or Malai, as the Japanese Empire dubbed it) in an effort to humiliate the West and assert Japanese superiority. The newsreel Sensen Nimankiro (or Twenty Thousand Kilometre Battlefront) was also released in 1942, chronicling Japanese advancement at numerous battlefronts including the Mongol Border Land, Zhengzhou, Changsha, Fujian, Hong Kong, Philippines, Borneo, Burma, Malaya and Singapore.[41] Few locals had anticipated the fall of British Malaya, and the Japanese victory shredded the image of white men as invincible.

In some ways, Japanese films also reversed orientalist ideology. The heroes on-screen were no longer tall, white, moustached Anglo-Saxons, but short Asian men and women, just like ordinary Malayans. The most famous propaganda film of the time was Tiger of Malaya (1943), inspired by the story of Tani Yutaka, a Japanese boy who grew up in Terengganu, Malaya, where his father operated a barbershop. Yutaka deeply hated the British colonialists and the Chinese because his young sister had been murdered in an anti-Japanese mob in the early 1930s, when several Chinese riots and boycotts had taken place in response to Japanese aggression in Northeast China. Yutaka became a bandit leader operating near the borders of Malaya and Thailand, robbing the wealthy Chinese and British, and giving to poor Malays, earning the monikers of the “Robin Hood of Malai” and “Raja Harimau” (“Tiger King”).[42]

Yutaka also aided the Japanese invasion of Malaya and was consequently deemed the perfect Japanese-Malayan war hero, bridging two very different cultures. Filmed in Malaya, with familiar scenes of tropical beaches, Muslim cemeteries, jungle railways, coconut plantations and rural landscapes, as well as the main streets of Singapore, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur,[43] the film sought to win the support of Malays for the Japanese regime, while vilifying the Chinese.

Picture of the real Tani Yutaka
The real Tani Yutaka
Picture of Koji Nakata as Tani Yutaka in Tiger of Malaya - Filem Klasik Malaysia
Koji Nakata as Tani Yutaka in Tiger of Malaya

After the war, Malayan films continued to be set during the Japanese occupation. Among the earliest was Blood and Tears of the Overseas Chinese (1946), released almost immediately after the end of the war in 1945. Produced by Singapore-based Miu Hang-Nee, it was one of the few independently made local Chinese-language films. It exposed the brutality of the Japanese towards the Chinese, with the result that the same uniform that had been worn by on-screen heroes only a few weeks ago was now the garb of villains. Seruan Merdeka (1946), set during the Occupation years, depicted how the inhabitants of British Malaya, mainly the Malays and Chinese, fought for freedom. This portrayal of Sino-Malay cooperation against a foreign “other” was significant, as the years of the occupation had generated a lot of animosity between the two communities, chiefly due to starkly unequal treatment by the Japanese occupiers.[44] Seruan Merdeka also related “the exploits of Malays who worked in Japanese-occupied Singapore in 1942 and their adventures with the guerillas in the wilds of the Johore jungle”.[45]

These two films demonstrated a newfound boldness among Malayans. The screen showed them themselves, not merely as oppressed peoples or hapless natives, but saviours of their own race and land, driven by nationalism. Malaya was shown as no longer a thriving colony but an occupied territory of invading forces. This cavalcade of films echoing local sentiments proliferated during the liberal period of the “Malayan Spring”,[46] upon the early stages of British return, but such freedom of expression remained short-lived. The British later reinstated the pre-war censorship that had glorified the Empire, and films were used once again to disseminate British propaganda, in an attempt to restore their lost prestige.

The screen showed them themselves, not merely as oppressed peoples or hapless natives, but saviours of their own race and land, driven by nationalism

Accordingly, in 1946, the British Military Administration (BMA) formed the Malayan Film Unit (MFU) to create films for British political ends. The MFU played a vital role in psychological warfare during the Malayan Emergency, by creating short films and newsreels intended to influence public opinion against the Communists. They were portrayed not as freedom fighters or peoples’ heroes, but as bandit terrorists. The MFU’s propaganda films included The Kinta Story (1949), which outlined measures to counter the Communist “bandits”, and Jungle Fort (1953), which offered a valuable historical record of the Government’s war on communist bandits. Propaganda was also disseminated through its fleet of mobile cinemas.[47] The titles of many of its films are self-explanatory: A New Life: Squatter Resettlement (1951), Dunlop in Malaya (1955), Land of The Hornbill (1955) and Malaya Celebrates (1953), which chronicles Elizabeth II’s coronation.

 Picture of Malayan Film Unit Poster - Colonial Film UK
Malayan Film Unit Poster

This film provides an illustration of how the MFU also ensured that visions of an independent and sovereign Malaya were based on Western ideals of democracy, law and order and, most importantly, social harmony. The film captured Malay fishing boats and silat performers, Chinese lion dancers, and a paper elephant in Hindu finery, all sharing the same stage and waving the Union Jack. This harmonious portrayal demonstrated the British vision of the Malaya to come: an imagining of a multicultural nation that could share a common identity despite the many social and racial gulfs within. The MFU version of Malaya was also a well-organised colony—clean, hygienic, tightly policed, Communist-free, and its natives loyal to both Queen and Sultan.

MFU-created films also provided visual education in hygiene and health, and sought to promote self-sufficiency, modern welfare services and a western model of citizenship. Overall, the MFU offered an Anglo-Western vision of a “united Malaya”: helping a people who had only known life as conquered people for two centuries imagine an independent Malaya after decolonisation.

In contrast, local Malayan filmmakers saw a Malaya and later, a Malaysia, of a very different picture and possibilities.

Cathay-Keris Studio, helmed by the Loke family of Kuala Lumpur, created films that bolstered nationalism, with many inspired by local myths and legends. Buloh Perindu (1953) was the first Malay-language and indeed the first Malayan movie to be filmed in colour.[48] Terang Bulan di Malaya (1954) came next, and its main musical theme, a remake of Indonesia’s 1937 hit “Terang Bulan”, later became the tune of Malaysia’s national anthem, “Negaraku”. In line with the government’s agenda of strengthening national identity, especially that of the Malay community, later Keris films like Hang Tuah (1956), Cinta Gadis Rimba (1958), Mahsuri (1959) and Hang Jebat (1961) appealed to the Malay mass market.[49]

The main rival of the studio was the Shaw Brothers. Shaw had a trump card in a scrawny teenager from Penang with a golden voice—P. Ramlee. In that era—with the streets of Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore occasionally plastered with posters of Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, and Cary Grant—the idea of a Malayan film star was unprecedented. Early actors were bangsawan opera troupe actors, quickly forgotten after their shows were taken off the film reel. But P. Ramlee, a singer and bangsawan actor himself, broke the mould.

Picture of P.Ramlee
P. Ramlee

Talent-spotted by B.S. Rajhans in Penang, P. Ramlee’s first starring role came in Chinta (1948), a tale set in 14th-century Brunei, about two jealous lovers fighting over the eponymous maiden. In 1955 he was given an opportunity to not only sing and act, but also to direct a film. This film—Penarek Becha (1955)—shot him to stardom. For the first time, Malaya had a star and movie director of her own. Although P. Ramlee excelled in most genres, he found his true calling in comedy, and came to define Malay comedy. Bujang Lapuk (1957), for instance, was one of the first local comedy series to find universal popularity across the Malay-speaking world.

P. Ramlee helped usher in the golden age of Malayan film. During a time when films were predominantly focused on the Malay social imaginary, P. Ramlee used films to showcase the ethnic and cultural issues confronting the budding nation and relatable to its people. These in turn help shape the local view of Malaya as an independent, post-colonial nation with its own unique identity and culture, rejecting the remnants of orientalism. Racial harmony was a major theme, especially towards the turbulent sixties when Malaysia came into place with the incorporation of Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak into the Federation of Malaya.

Sesudah Suboh (1967) and Gerimis (1968), for instance—both directed by and starring P. Ramlee—explicitly featured inter-ethnic relationships. Sesudah Suboh featured an inter-ethnic friendship between Malay Ariffin and Chinese Alan, as well as inter-ethnic romances: between Ariffin and Chinese Alice, and between Ariffin’s son Salim and Malaysian Indian Chandra. The characters, despite their differences, carry out acts of recognition and respect that create a sense of openness. For instance, Alice assures Ariffin that the food served in her home is halal, and Ariffin expresses gratitude for Alice’s respect for his religion. In another scene, Salim greets Chandra’s parents with a traditional Indian hand gesture, putting both hands together at the chest. Chandra’s mother Sarasawathi constantly visits her neighbours to play congkak, a traditional Malay game.[50]

Interestingly, the film’s official poster presented a multi-ethnic Malaysia: it centred Alice, wearing a cheongsam that indicates her ethnic and cultural identity, alongside other characters. The film’s opening credits similarly introduce the distinct ethnic identities as “Keluarga Melayu” (Malay family), “Keluarga Tiong Hua” (Chinese family) and “Keluarga India” (Indian family).[51] This message of integration and national unity was important at that time of efforts to build a more multi-ethnic nation state amid racial stigmas and tensions.

Gerimis tells of a marriage between Malay Kamal and Malaysian Indian Leela, who face antagonism and hostility from family members who are unable to accept their inter-ethnic union. Significantly, Kamal and Leela marry, without the blessings of their families, in the presence of a kadi (Muslim religious judge). Leela’s willingness to compromise her religion is presented as an act of inter-cultural accommodation; she also wears the baju kebaya interchangeably with the saree after her marriage.[52]

The film’s poster posed a question above Kamal and Leela’s images: “Berlainan bangsa, berlainan keturunan…dapatkah mereka mendirikan rumahtangga bahagia bersama untuk selamanya?” (“Will they of different ethnic backgrounds, have a blissful and long lasting marriage together?”) This directly confronted Malaysians with dilemmas and struggles similar to those they faced in real life, challenging the status quo by portraying relationships beyond ethnic and cultural boundaries.

Film poster of Sesudah Suboh
Film poster for Sesudah Suboh
Film poster of Gerimis
Film poster for Gerimis

These films by P. Ramlee and Keris demonstrated local filmmakers’ vision of a more inclusive, multi-ethnic Malaysia. Through their lenses, Malaya (and later, Malaysia) was no longer a colony, but an independent country in the midst of nation-building. They acknowledged the different races and cultural backgrounds of their fellow Malaysians, who were striving to accept such differences and achieve national unity.


When motion pictures first arrived, most Western films featured Malaya’s vast lands and resources. This depiction continually reinforced Western imperialism and orientalism. However, such portrayals were gradually deconstructed by the rise of local films reflective of Malaya’s very own reality and identity, especially after the Second World War. To that, the instructive power of cinema played a crucial role in determining what Malaya was, and how she was perceived by both the Western and locals at different periods of time. Few elements of Western orientalism remain in modern cinemas today, with Malayan films reflecting a growing nationalism catering mainly to the Malay market. Yet a look back at the golden era of Malayan film reminds us that it once centred on the themes of inclusion and multi-racialism.


[1]Isabella L. Bird, ‘The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither’, a republished by Century Publishing London, 1983, p.1-3

[2]Farish A Noor, ‘You are under arrest; Epistemic arrest and the endless reproduction of the image of the colonised native’, South East Asia Research, Volume 24 issue 2, First Published June 1, 2016 Singapore, pp. 185-203

[3]The Huntley Film Archives is one of the world’s largest archives of 35mm, 16mm and 8mm films; focusing on the life of the ordinary person world-wide. It was founded by film historian John Huntley and includes many early reels from the British Film Institute, the largest film archives in the world.

[4]Actualité films, or actualities, were too short to be documentaries and thus, lacked narrative. For one thing, early cameras of that era were incapable of storing long films.

[5]A peasant uprising which broke out in 1900 which attempted to drive all foreigners from China. “Boxer” was a term used by the West with reference to a Chinese secret society known as the Yihequan (“Righteous and Harmonious Fists”) which practiced certain boxing and calisthenic rituals. A total of up to 100,000 or more people died in the conflict, including many Chinese Christian and foreign nationals (mostly Christian missionaries).

[6]‘Coolie’, Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition. Adam and Charles Black, 1877.

[7]‘Assistant Professor Hamzah Bin Muzaini on the Orang Laut Community in “Singapore on Film”‘,, Singapore Research Nexus (Faculty of Arts & Social Science), 11 February 2019, accessed 18 February 2019.

[8]‘Colony’s Coin Divers Have ‘Disappeared”, Straits Times, 26th October 1941, p.5

[9]‘List of film titles that were released between 1900-1919 and produced in Singapore, or featured places and spaces in Singapore’, , accessed on 30 September 2018.

[10]‘World Domination – The Empire’, , accessed on 30 September 2018.

[11]In 2004, 200 decaying reels of Holmes’ films, long thought to be lost, turned up in a storage facility, and are currently being restored in the George Eastman House film museum. They are not available to the public and George Eastman House has yet to reveal the titles that survived in this cache.

[12]The Educational Screen, Vol. VI, No. 5, May 1927, Chicago, Illinois.

[13]‘Road to Singapore’, , accessed 10 October 2018.

[14]‘Gibraltars in the East’, The Straits Times, 12 March 1939, p.1 and ‘World importance of Singapore’s Defences’, The Straits Times. 11 June 1940, p.10.

[15]U. S. STARS TOP WORLD IN BRITISH FILM POLL, New York Times (1923-Current file), New York, N.Y. 27 Dec 1952, p.5

[16]Chua Ai Lin, ‘Singapore’s ‘Cinema-Age’ of the 1930s: Hollywood and the shaping of Singapore modernity’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 13, Number 4, 2012, p.593

[17]Rex Stevenson, ‘Cinemas and Censorship in Colonial Malaysia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, The Centenary of British Intervention in Malaysia (Sep., 1974), p.219

[18]Proceedings of the F.M.S Federal Council, October 1930

[19]R. Onraet, ‘Singapore: A Police Background’, London, 1947, p.17

[20]Pre-Code Hollywood refers to the brief period in the American Film Industry between the widespread adoption of sound in pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines, known as the “Hays Code” in mid-1934. Although the Hays Code was adopted in 1930, it did not become rigorously enforced until July 1934. Prior to that date, films were more regulated by local laws, and the Hays Code was often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers until a widespread campaign was launched by American Catholics against the ‘immorality’ of American films. The Hays Code sought not only to determine what could be portrayed on screen, but also to promote traditional values. For instance, sexual relations outside of marriage could not be portrayed as attractive and beautiful, nor be portrayed as right or permissible. All criminal action had to be punished. Authority figures had to be treated respectfully, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comical characters or villains.

[21]Thomas Doherty, ‘Pre Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema’, Columbia University Press, New York, 1999, pp.2-3

[22]Rex Stevenson, ‘Cinemas and Censorship in Colonial Malaysia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, The Centenary of British Intervention in Malaysia (Sep., 1974), p.209-211


[24]William Van der Heide, ‘Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film: Border Crossings and National Cultures’, pp.120-121

[25]‘Films in Tropical Colonies’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 8 August 1930, p.7

[26]George Bilainkin, ‘Hail Penang!’, Areca Books, 2010, pp.61-62

[27]Rex Stevenson, ‘Cinemas and Censorship in Colonial Malaysia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, The Centenary of British Intervention in Malaysia (Sep., 1974), p.209-211

[28]William Van der Heide, ‘Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film: Border Crossings and National Cultures’, pp.120-121

[29]‘Singapore: A Mutiny Like No Other’, The Diplomat, 10th February 2015,, accessed on 12th February 2019

[30]Rex Stevenson, ‘Cinemas and Censorship in Colonial Malaysia’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, The Centenary of British Intervention in Malaysia (Sep., 1974), p.210-211

[31]Ibid, pp.216-218

[32]‘The Film Quota’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 14 September 1927, p.174

[33]‘Banned Films: Politics, Kidnapping & Gangsterism’, The Straits Times, 20 July 1936, p.17

[34]‘Banning of British Talkies’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 27 August 1930, p.132

[35]‘The Film Censorship’, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 October 1930, p.11

[36]‘S.S bans Chinese propaganda films’, The Straits Times, 16 October 1937, p.12

[37]‘Canton censorship’, Malaya Tribune, 19 December 1932, p.14

[38]‘Xin Ke – Singapore’s First Locally Produced Film’, 4th March 1927,, accessed on 21st September 2018

[39]‘Malayan Films’, Malaya Tribune, 30 May 1934, p.5

[40]Hara Fujio, ‘Malaya and Singapore during the Japanese Occupation’, edited by Paul H. Kratoska, Singapore: Dept. of History, National University of Singapore, 1995

[41]‘Twenty thousand kilometre battlefront (1942)’,, accessed on 16th August 2018

[42]T.N Harper, ‘The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya’, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.45

[43]‘Tiger of Malaya’,, accessed on 16th August 2018


[45]‘Seruan Merdeka’, The Singapore Free Press, 19 August 1947, p. 5

[46]“An Outline of Malayan Chinese Literature”, Han Suyin, Eastern Horizon, June 1964, pp. 6-16

[47]‘The Malayan Film Unit’, Colonial Film Archives UK, , accessed on 28th August 2018

[48]Lim, K. T, ‘Cathay: 55 years of cinema’, Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991, pp. 116, 124; Hamzah Abdul Majid Hussin, ‘Memoir Hamzah Hussin: Dari Keris Film ke Studio Merdeka’, Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1997, p. 44.

[49]It is noteworthy that as Chinese films of the post-war era were produced bearing the international Chinese diaspora in mind, most Chinese films filmed in Malaya by then were carried out by Hong Kong film companies, with few locally produced ones after Sin Keh and Blood & Tears of the Overseas Chinese.

[50]Wong, A.W.W, S. Pillai and P.L. Ong, 2018, ‘The Golden Era of the Malaysian Film Industry: Cross Cultural Dialogue and Negotiations of Ethnicity in a Budding Nation’, Kajian Malaysia 36(1):1-24



Su Lyn Koay

Koay Su Lyn read Law at University of London before becoming a history researcher at Penang Institute. She is interested in the socio-economic and political developments of post-war Malaya and is the co-author of Unsung Patriot: Memoirs of Wong Pow Nee.

Caleb Goh Hern-Ee

Caleb Goh Hern-Ee received his LL.B. (Hons.) from the Telekom University, Malacca in 2016. He is interested in the formative histories of Malaya and Singapore, the conundrum of national identity and the convergence of Eastern and Western civillizations. He is currently working on a series of papers that he hopes will magically transform into a book someday.

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