[Photo story] A Taiwanese collector's treasured photos of old Southeast Asia and Singapore

Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao showcases photographs of Singapore at the cusp of great change, from a more rural environment with many kelongs and farms to a bustling trade, finance and tourism hub. Through it all, the Singapore River has witnessed many of these changes, as seen in this collection.
Collyer Quay in the 1950s. Directly ahead is Cavenagh Bridge built in 1870, with Anderson Bridge further on. On the right is the General Post Office of the British colonial period, today the Fullerton Hotel. As Singapore was an important international commercial port, many goods were subject to shipping tariffs, so the post office and customs department were usually connected. The post office building was named after the first Governor of the Straits Settlements, Robert Fullerton.
Collyer Quay in the 1950s. Directly ahead is Cavenagh Bridge built in 1870, with Anderson Bridge further on. On the right is the General Post Office of the British colonial period, today the Fullerton Hotel. As Singapore was an important international commercial port, many goods were subject to shipping tariffs, so the post office and customs department were usually connected. The post office building was named after the first Governor of the Straits Settlements, Robert Fullerton.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

Among collections of old photographs of Asia, those featuring Southeast Asia do not get as much attention as those featuring China, which have many collectors and magazines dedicated to introducing them, while there are also columns and articles on them in various forms of media. More importantly, there is a large market for trade, with several auction companies conducting online and in-person auctions, creating a familiar trade in old photographs.

Since old photographs are an industry, naturally it has prompted the rise of collection and research of old photographs of China, as well as buying and selling, which has enriched its cultural assets and driven China’s culture of historical images.

Few Chinese collectors would collect old photographs of Southeast Asia. I am an exception; I do it mainly out of personal feelings.

Since China has no trade in old photographs of Southeast Asia, I can only buy them in Europe. Interestingly, in the European market, old photographs of Southeast Asia make up quite a significant proportion, mainly because Southeast Asia used to be previous Western colonies, and they were in a position to record images of Southeast Asia.

Also, as Western colonies, they were also a part of Western history, and Westerners still have some personal sentiments when it comes to Southeast Asia. So, my old photographs of Southeast Asia are mainly collected from Europe, with those of Indonesia and Indochina forming a significant part of the collection. The old photographs of the Straits colonies were mainly bought from Britain — after all, it was a British colony at the time.

Steamboats off Penang, Malaysia, 1930s, with Georgetown in the distance. Penang had the highest Malaysian Chinese population, with a thriving economy second only to Singapore.
An old street in Penang, 1920s. Chinese migrants lived here and set up various stores, including those selling Western alcohol and fabrics.
A Filipino-Chinese family, 1950s. The earliest Chinese immigrants to the Philippines came from southern Fujian, bringing Chinese culture and customs with them.
A Filipino-Chinese Catholic wedding, 1950s. Catholicism was brought to the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period, and many of the ethnic Chinese living there held their weddings in Catholic fashion.
A Filipino-Chinese couple celebrates their sixtieth birthdays together, 1957. The man, in a Western-style suit, and the woman, dressed in a qipao, sit in a Chinese-style hall decorated with birthday scrolls. During the Song and Yuan dynasties, China engaged in trade with the Philippines, and during the later Ming and Qing dynasties, Chinese people gradually emigrated to the Philippines, bringing Chinese culture and Han traditions to Southeast Asia.
Young girls in traditional Mindanao attire, 1920s. 
A traditional war dance performance in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, 1920s.
Sedan bearers in the Indonesian rainforest, 1920s. Indonesia has preserved large tracts of primary rainforest, and the sedan bearers walk along rugged, winding trails. Rainforests cover much of Java, known for its hot and humid climate, with a proliferation of ferns and diverse wildlife.
A gathering of village women wearing traditional clothes in Java, 1920s.
Locals at the sultan’s palace in Indonesia, 1920s.
A traditional performance in Java, 1920s. The masked performers act out an ancient fable and legend, with rich body movements complementing folk dance.
A rope suspension bridge in the mountains of Vietnam, 1920s. Under the bridge, boatmen row a light vessel.
Concubines in the Vietnam royal court, 1920s. Vietnam’s last emperor was Bao Dai (born Nguyen Vinh Thuy). During his reign, he maintained the traditional royal system, including having multiple wives.
An ethnic Indian woman tapping rubber in Malaysia, 1920s. The British imported rubber trees from Brazil to plant, driving the growth of Malaysia’s rubber industry.
Malay women in traditional clothes, 1880s.
Muslim students in Indonesia take part in a ceremony, 1920s. From a young age, children are familiar with religious practices and pray devoutly.
Thailand’s Prince Chulalongkorn (later King Rama V, left) and his father King Mongkut, 1910s. During the reign of Rama V, Thailand moved towards modernisation, and later generations called him Phra Piya Maharat, the Great Beloved King. Mongkut and Chulalongkorn were major characters in the movie The King And I.
A local performance in Vietnam during the Nguyen dynasty, 1920s. Many elements from China are incorporated, including the use of Chinese written characters, while preserving Vietnam’s own characteristics.
A female palace guard with a sword, Phnom Penh, 1920s.

What is moving about old photographs is that they evoke old memories for many people. In my previous article, the photographs of Singapore go back some four generations to the late 19th century and early 20th century. The people of that time are long gone, and so the photographs evoke historical feelings. In this article, the photographs of Singapore date back to the 1950s and 1960s, the childhood of many Singaporeans today. The memories will still be fresh, and they would have gone through personally what is shown in the photographs, so their emotions would be stronger.

An idyllic life

The old photographs of Singapore I want to show are the main symbols of the geography and lifestyle of the time — good memories of harbours, kelongs (fish farms) and agricultural farms.

Singapore was a small fishing village on the world map in the old days. However, right now there are very few historical images of Singapore as a fishing village, and young Singaporeans may not have much of an impression or idea of this. The fact is, before Singapore was urbanised in the 1980s, there were many kelongs in Singapore. This article presents Singapore in its early days, including the busy ports along the Singapore River that most people are familiar with, as well as the kelongs and farms that people are beginning to forget.

Trishaws at the port in Singapore, 1950s, presenting a serene waterside scene.
The elegant buildings beside the pier at the Singapore River. In the distance on the right is Empress Place Building. It was built in 1865 and got its name through association with the public square in front of it, called Empress Place after Queen Victoria. It was built in the neoclassical style and was originally used as a courthouse and government offices. Now, it is a national heritage building, forming part of the Asian Civilisations Museum.
The Singapore River, 1950s. The merchant vessels of Chaoshan sent by the Qing dynasty Chaozhou government for long-distance trading were called “red-prow boats” (红头船, literally red head boats) because their prows were painted red. Singapore’s lighters were painted black on the body, generally with red or green prows, and were called tongkangs by locals. In fact, the lighters were twakows, tongkangs and sampans; later came goods vessels with motors, and those that took on passengers were called motor launches.
A busy scene of people at work in Boat Quay in the 1950s. Smaller goods vessels were dependent on manual labour to shift goods.

Singapore being a fishing village in the old days, merchant vessels from the Middle East heading to ports in Fujian and Quanzhou would cross paths with Chinese vessels heading south to Nanyang or Southeast Asia; besides stocking up on supplies like food and water, they would also engage in small trading.

In the early 19th century, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles opened up Singapore, and the port colony’s international trade, urban management, and crops and planting grew rapidly. Given its excellent geographical location, goods transfer became Singapore’s biggest economic driver, and the main lifeline of its growth. Various hardware and software facilities appeared at Singapore’s port.

The smooth flow of goods naturally fed the shipping, storage, housing, and food and beverage industries, and this shift attracted a lot of workers. The foreign population grew rapidly, boosting consumption and demand for housing and food and beverage — this economic lifeline built Singapore’s prosperity.

Well-known buildings along Collyer Quay in the 1950s, including Union Building, HSBC Building and the Fullerton Building.
Another view of Collyer Quay in Singapore, 1960s. Many buildings were later demolished, while traditional wooden boats were no longer used. This photo shows a valuable image of a turning point in history.

So, around the time of World War II, the global impression of Singapore was the various piers along the Singapore River. Familiar sights included the grand General Post Office and the international banks, workers on the pier busily loading and unloading goods, small boats tightly moored along the river, and the night scenes with the lights. These are the most classic images of Singapore, which remain etched in people’s memory despite the major changes today.

When scenes are no more but the emotions remain

In contrast to the bustling, crowded city centre were Singapore’s traditional seaside kelongs and inland farms, which had existed for over a thousand years before Singapore’s founding. While the effects of urbanisation meant they got smaller and smaller, in fact before the 1970s, there were still many kelongs along Singapore’s shores, and people led uncompetitive, peaceful lives.

The photographs in this article show kelongs in the 1960s, which vividly show the pretty scenes of the past. As for farming, Singapore has limited land, and most food crops are imported from overseas. Local farmers mostly plant economic products like vegetables and fruits. These old photographs reflect the reality of Singapore’s agricultural production and farm life.

Two fishermen rowing a small traditional wooden boat in Singapore, 1950s.
A worker carries a vat of water at a kelong in Singapore, 1950s. Seaside kelongs had no water supply and wells had to be dug, both for daily use as well as for the fishing boats.
A young Malay fisherman taking in his nets, 1950s. Generations of fisherfolk lived in the kelongs on the shore. From the 1970s, as fishing slowly gave way to cultivating fish in the interests of productivity and land use efficiency, traditional kelongs disappeared.
Two fishermen in Singapore take in their nets, 1950s. Generally, fishing from a small wooden boat was a two-person effort.
An old fisherman rowing in Singapore, 1950s. Residents of fishing villages or kelongs were mostly Malays, but some Chinese also fished, and this was passed down through generations.
A man hoeing the ground in a vegetable farm in Singapore, 1960s. Usually, after harvesting comes a short fallow period, and the ground needs to be loosened before the next sowing. The lodgings in the background are traditional Malay grass houses.
Farmers watering a vegetable farm in Singapore, 1960s. The grass huts on the left are mainly for shade.
A woman gathering spinach at a farm in Singapore, 1960s. Spinach is one of the main vegetables for Singaporeans.
A fishing village by the sea in Singapore, 1950s, with traditional Malay stilt houses standing amid tall coconut trees.
A traditional Malay bullock cart with a wooden structure against the sun at a farm in Singapore, 1960s. The bullock cart was a common means of transport in farming villages, with a strong local flavour.

 As the population grew, Singapore’s growth strategy was focused on making it an international trading port, as well as a financial and tourism centre. In its land planning, a modern port, office buildings, commercial hotels, tourist attractions, housing, parks and greenery, and preservation of historical buildings became its focus. Port operations were taken over by a modern harbour. While renovated riverside buildings along the piers continued to show modern commercial vibrance, the kelongs and farms quickly disappeared.

Through vivid photographs, this article presents the most representative scenes of Singapore nearly 70 years ago: the port, kelongs and farms. While most of these scenes are no more, the good memories that they encompass evoke people’s deepest emotions. Without a doubt, these valuable historical images are part of Singapore’s rich cultural legacy, and are worth protecting and keeping permanently.

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