Singaporean times

It’s been a while since the Bioscope covered a digitised newspaper collection. Since we wrote about The Times, The Guardian, New York Times, and about collected archival databases such as France’s Gallica, Austrlian Newspapers, New Zealand’s Papers Past and the UK’s 19th Century Newspapers, more digitised newspapers have become available. Our long-promised round-up of these will get produced one of these days, but you can always check the Wikipedia list of online newspapers or the handy International News Archives on the Web.

One resource I’ve not covered previously is NewspaperSG. I stumbled across it quite by accident the other day, and was amazed first to find digitised newspapers from Singapore and Malaya dating from the early years of this century, and then to find such interesting material there that relates to film.

Feature film production only began in Malaysia and Singapore in the mid-1930s, but there was a history of film exhibition that went back to 1896. One of the treasures of the NewspaperSG site is a report on the inaugural exhibition of the Edison Kinetoscope in Singapore, reported on by the Straits Times on 13 July 1896:


Dr. Harley, the entertainer, ventriloquist, illusionist, and electrician, has brought the novelty of which the reading and scientific public have heard and read so much, viz., the novelty that Edison failed to finish in time for the Chicago Exhibition, and which he calls the Kinetoscope. It is in the shape of an upright hardwood pillar letter-box, being square instead of round, having a hooded slit in the top and a magnifier beneath, through which the beholder views the scene to be enacted.

The writer goes on to describe the film Bar Room Scene, then adds:

It should be understood that this is not an imaginary scene from the brush of an artist, but is an accurate photograph of a scene that has taken place … Dr. Harley will lecture and exhibit the machine at Messrs. Robinson’s music store from 10 till 5 to-day and Tuesday. Only a limited number will be able to view it as his accumulators are running low and he will not get them filled in Singapore.

There is so much information here, from the showman Dr. Harley, to the intelligence that Edison did not exhibit the Kinetosope at the 1893 World’s Fair (many a history still states the opposite as a fact, but they knew better in Singapore in 1896) and the revealing information about the lack of an electricity supply in Singapore in 1896.

A quick browse through the site using some likely keywords reveal an advertisement telling buyers to beware of buying bioscope projectors that were not proper Bioscopes (Straits Times, 25 October 1902); notices of the exhibition of Japanese films in 1907 (Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 23 October 1907); an interview with Maurice Bandman, a leading cinema and theatre entrepreneur in India and East Asia, about his Shakespeare productions and connections with Kinemacolor (Weekly Sun, 30 September 1911); many hundreds of cinema programmes, such as that for the Harima Hall Cinematograph, which showed Zigomar v Nick Carter, film of ‘The Balkan Crisis’, Vitagraph’s Justice of the Sage, Edison’s The Living Peach and a Gaumont Graphic newsreel, issue number 41 (Straits Times, 12 November 1912); and opinion pieces on what Singaporean audiences liked and did not like (Straits Times, 22 October 1930). As well as information on screenings in Singapore, then is plenty of information culled from British and American journals, ensuring that local cinema-goers were kept up-to-date with the latest Hollywood gossip.

Many of the reports are quite short (one of the commendable things about the resource is that the search results list tells you how many words are in each article) but the wealth of documentary evidence about what was being seen in Singapore in the silent era is considerable, and practically every search term yields many hits. The resource itself is plain in style but helpfully put together. There is an advanced search option which allows you to narrow down researches by date, newspaper (there are seventeen on offer ranging 1836-2006) and content type (article, advertisement, letters etc.). There is also a fuzzy search option. The results page gives you title (hyperlinked to the article itself), newspaper, date, page, a portion of the OCR text (with plenty of errors, beware), word count and links to a full page view and a table of contents for that issue of the newspaper (a very nice feature). All of the digitised documents are heavily watermarked (though quite legible).

The early cinema in Singapore and Malaya is not going to be of abiding interest to most, but it is further and rich evidence of the rapid spread of motion pictures into every corner of the globe. It’s also a site that’s just a pleasure to browse.

8 responses

  1. This is interesting stuff indeed. Dr. Harley exhibited the Kinetoscope in Calcutta at the very end of 1895 [see my ‘A ‘Kinetescope’ in the Last Cold Weather’, Osian’s Cinefan Festival Daily (24 July 2007)[. That marked the first arrival of cinema in Asia (previously, historians thought the first film was either in Japan or Bombay). This Singapore screening is another outing for Dr. Harley, whoever he is (I think I have an idea). There were several western showmen in the east in those days: Corrick, Jamilly, Stevenson, etc. These online sources which Mr Bioscope brings to our attention will help track them down. Thanks!

  2. I have also found these resources to be very useful for my work on the early history of film in south India. At first it may seem strange to think the Singapore and Malaya newspapers can provide useful information, for south India, but these places were key nodes of a vast network of touring entertainments which stretched from New Zealand, Australia, Japan, China with Burma, India and Ceylon. Bandman, as mentioned in the post, was an important figure in this network and operated anywhere from 3 to 10 different touring shows accross this territory at any given time between 1904 and 1920.

    What I have found particularly helpful about these sources is that they have allowed me to trace the touring newtworks beyond my local source materials for Madras now Chennai. Though it has been somewhat sketchy, I have been able to use the New Zealand and Australian newpaper sources along with the Singapore and Malay materials to triangulate a shared network of film and variety entertainmentthat placed Madras on a much wider map than I would have never imagined possible a few years ago.

    So, while I certainly agree with the original post that Singapore and Malay newspapers will not be an abiding interest to most, I humbly submit that they should be. Early film history was a much more global affair and these kind of sources help us to make connections that can take us beyond Manhattan and London.

    Thank you for shining the light.

  3. I heartily agree that those with a serious interest in silent film should think as globally as did the silent film industry itself. The more we look at such supposedly far-flung corners, and use the resources that are becoming available, the more we should understand that considering national cinema only is not just pettily parochial, but just plain wrong.

    I have come across Maurice Bandman in relation to Kinemacolor films in the far east and I’m keen to know more. He seems to have been an influential figure.

  4. That’s about the best summary of studying silent cinema in a world context that I’ve ever seen: “The more we look at such supposedly far-flung corners, and use the resources that are becoming available, the more we should understand that considering national cinema only is not just pettily parochial, but just plain wrong.”
    The work on Japanese silent cinema is an obvious example of that, but as another example, I’d draw attention to some of the work that Stephen Hughes has done about cinema in south Asia (I’ve never met him, by the way!) Very interesting stuff! including a Chicago, 1996 thesis, and an article entitled ‘Policing Silent Film Exhibition in Colonial South India’, in Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, ed. R. S. Vasudevan (Oxford University Press, 2000): 39-64.
    There was a strong global dimension in early film (an excellent work on this theme is Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907-1934 (London: BFI Publishing, 1985) [now online as this Bioscope site told us:

    As this part of the world [Asia] reasserts its importance, scholars are starting to investigate these issues. For example, at the Domitor (early film studies association) in Toronto in June, two scholars from south Asia presented their work – Ranita Chatterjee and Sudhir Mahadevan – both very interesting papers. Also, some PhD studies are under way at the University of Utrecht (a leading early film centre – [where I myself gained my PhD!]) which are looking at this theme of ‘early film in Asia’. Plus see Leslie Anne Lewis’ work on the Corrick travelling shows [in Pordenone catalogues]… And… I just met (here in Thailand) a really dedicated scholar, Nadi Tofighian (from Sweden), who is studying how early film came to Asia. He pointed out that in existing published histories of film in SE Asia there is a gap between the 1890s and the 1920s when national production began, but it’s not a ‘real’ gap because, as he (and Stephen H) are finding, if you look at the local press of the time, it is clear that films were being distributed and screened by both ‘western’ and local showmen in many of these countries.
    It would be misleading of me in this context not to mention the great “panjandrum” of Asian early film scholarship, who has organised several events on this theme and galvanised scholarly work in this area: Nick Deocampo. NC’s book “Cine : Spanish influences on early cinema in the Philippines” (2003) is a key text. He has also edited a collection on early film in Asia (forthcoming – I hope: Indiana UP) with a useful summary introduction about film in this region, and articles by such scholars as Nadi [see above], myself [on Burton Holmes], and Charles Musser – who has himself become very interested in early film in Asia.
    By the way, I myself am interested in foreign showmen Harley and Jamilly. Though strangely, I found little mention of Bandman [see above] in the trade press in the UK.

  5. Thank you, Stephen, for the survey of what is going on in Asian film studies. I’ll try to document what I can here – and to unearth new resources. For the newcomer, Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment is a fine start, though reading it makes you realise how few histories have such a global reach.

    And I’m delighted to have come across Stephen Hughes work, which I had not encountered before. More info here, folks:

  6. While this thread is still moving along, I should mention that there is a promising new journal, which has encrouched on the name of this site. It is called “BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies”. It obviously has more of a regional focus and will be more of a fellow traveller than competitor to this site. Though the journal is not focused on early and silent cinema, the name of the journal was meant to signify its committment to publishing archival based historical scholarship on early cinema along with more contemporary media. In the first issue (vol 1, no. 1 January 2010) there is an excellent article by Sudhir Mahadevan, “Travelling Showmen, Makeshift Cinemas: The Bioscopewallah and early Cinema History in India”, which directly relates to the issues previsously raised in this thread. It should be of particular interest to readers of this blog in that he explores how in India the “bioscope” phenomena has survived to the present through a series of reinventions, which weave in and out of the European and Indian worlds to play a central role in movie exhibition through much of the 20th century.

    Long live the bioscope!

%d bloggers like this: