(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Related: [Photo story] When tropical Singapore was ‘too potent to be conquered’ | The stories behind the woodcuts | Memories of South China: The enchanting garden that Whampoa built in Singapore | What old Chinese textbooks say about life and times in Singapore