Chinese Towkee. Albumen print. G.R. Lambert & Co. Singapore, 1900s. Photo Elaine Chiew

The exhibition Amek Gambar: Peranakans and Photography at Singapore’s Peranakan Museum (from May 5 to Feb 3 2019) is a rare glimpse into the very first and early days of the history of photography in Singapore through the lens of the peranakans — an ethnic group of mixed race Malay–Chinese with a richly distinctive culture, e.g. costumes (usually involving kebayas and sarongs), cuisine, objects d’art and home decor (peranakan tiles for example are commercially popular). Amek gambar, the title of this exhibition, is a derivation of the Malay term ‘ambil gambar’ — roughly translated as ‘to take a picture’.

This exhibition, co-curated by Peter Lee and Dominic Low, comprises a solid subset of the 2500 photographs his family, through the auspices of Mr. and Mrs Lee Kip Lee, have painstakingly found, acquired, collected, researched and then subsequently donated to the Peranakan Museum.  The exhibition is divided into two sections: the first focussing on the emergence, adoption and evolution of photography in Singapore, through the efforts of early day Western pioneers like Jules Itier (1902-1877), John Thomson (1831-1921), August Sachtler (1830-1879) and German photographer Fedor Jagor (1816-1900), and the second focussing on how peranakans express and represent themselves following the advent of portable cameras.

The arrival of photography in Singapore could be roughly pinpointed to 1840s. Jules Itier was an officer of the French Customs Office en route on a trade mission to China, but transited in Singapore for a month; some of the earliest extant photographs of Singapore were thanks to him using a daguerreotype (see image below). In fact, the oldest extant photograph of Singapore of all is believed to be the daguerreotype Itier took of Boat Quay along the Singapore River taken from Government Hill.

August Sachtler also took photographs of Singapore, and below is a rare glimpse of Fort Canning circa 1863 (which has its own interesting history — it was called Bukit Larangan or Forbidden Hill by the Malays because it was where kings of ancient Singapore were laid to rest, but during British colonial times, it was also the residence of Sir Stamford Raffles, but in 1861 a fort was built on the site and it became Fort Canning).

August Sachtler, Singapore from Fort Canning. Albumen print, 1873-1864. Photo Elaine Chiew

Jules Itier, View of Singapore. Daguerreotype. 1840s. Source: eresources.nlb

Similar to the development of photography in other Southeast Asian countries, studio or portrait photography took deeper root than fine art or salon photography, and within the peranakan community, portraiture fulfilled many social functions: as an expression of self, family and community, co-opted into ancestral or cultural rites (portraits even in the early days were taken for ancestral altars and shrines, or to document funeral processions — see image below), and as a testament of wealth, status and sense of well-being.  Notably, even in these early practices of portraiture, posing and dress mode (with the men more eagerly embracing Western costume and the women still opting for traditional garb) allowed for a level of expressive experimentation, according to Peter Lee, at variance with the prevailing anthropological perceptions of conservatism and a rigid code of social behaviour believed to characterise the peranakans.

Untitled. Gelatin silver print, Penang 1920s. Photo Elaine Chiew
Funeral hearse and procession Java. Gelatin Silver Print. 1925. Photo Elaine Chiew

The history trail thus picks up, inter alia, the opening of the first photographic studio in Singapore by William Jones in 1865 but which was subsequently taken over by different managers until it closed in 1919, the first paper photographs in Singapore (taken by Fedor Jagar),  the first dubbed war photographer in the figure of Roger Fenton, the introduction of colour photograph circa 1907, the use of large format original prints of landscapes and people by the famous studio G.R. Lambert & Co. (established in 1867), Singapore street scenes taken using the first Kodak camera (around 1890s), the first ‘selfie’ (this term was coined in 2005 thereabouts, but the idea of taking a picture of oneself with one’s own camera went as far back as the Kodak folding camera in 1920.

The history of photography in Southeast Asia has gotten a fresh injection of academic and scholarly interest with Zhuang Wubin’s excellent and thorough survey —Photography in Southeast Asia (NUS Press, 2016), and one must not forget photographer and educator Gilles Massot‘s contribution to the study of the origins of photography in Asia. Thus, the approach at the Peranakan Museum — to look at it from the angle of a particular community and its self-expression — is not only fascinating historically and ethnographically, it highlights photography’s currency here as ‘truth’, as documented reality.  It further corresponds to recent worldwide academic research efforts that “challenge the reign of textual comment as the paradigmatic means to historical retrieval.  Although historians have delayed making better use of images, these now emerge as alternative forms of document whose visual codes are susceptible to reliable and informative readings.”[1]

Thus, one interesting exercise would be to play spot-the-difference in the peranakan couples posing for wedding photographs between two time periods:  1910s  and 2009.  Heavens, not much seems to have changed — the ornate Chinese antique furniture as backdrop, the frontal serious poses in full wedding regalia, the bride on the left, the groom on the right (apparently this is studio convention, although it is unclear why). However, in the modern photograph, one could note somewhat tongue-in-cheek that the couple is posing in front of the ornate marital bed, called a ranjang kawen (suggestive as choice of object), and the focus appears to center more on the couple than on the cultural trappings of wealth (note the carpet and wooden screens and spacious interior in the older photograph).

Gelatin Silver prints, Keechun Studio, 1920s

Mr and Mrs Hui, fine art giclee print, 2009. 

The medium and method of production though also offers insight into the development of photography in Southeast Asia — and the exhibition seeks to add this dimension to the photographs through displays of glass and film negatives, camera models, even a deconstructed infographic of camera parts development from the 1930s to 2000s (see image below).

Infographic, Peranakan Museum. Photo Elaine Chiew

There wasn’t as much information into photography club developments in Singapore, and the attempt to incorporate fine-art photography (ala Chris Yap’s Of Fingerbowls and Hankies, 2019) and the commissioned installation by Sarah Choo Jing and Larry Kwa in the vestibule of the museum, entitled We stop to watch the world go by (2018) (see image below) feel neither here nor there. Perhaps, the time span is too large, and collapses too many time periods as well as modes.

Sarah Choo Jing and Larry Kwa, We Stop To Watch The World Go By, 2018. Photo Elaine Chiew

There were some interesting photographs (for its historical provenance as much as details captured, e.g. architecture) such as Battery Road in Singapore circa 1912 (see image below) and a group photo with scholar and founder of distinguished art school Santiniketan, Rabinandrath Tagore.

Battery Road, Singapore, 1912. Photo Elaine Chiew

Group photo with Rabinandrath Tagore, Singapore 1927. Photo Elaine Chiew

The exhibition concludes with a Space, Time and Memories section where the public is invited to contribute their own personal photos and demonstrate the way they use photography as well what memories they choose to document. Details available here.

[1] Dr. Sabrina Fairchild, “Report on Snapshots in Time: Photography and History in Modern China”, as part of a workshop by the same name held at the University of Bristol, 23-25 July 2016. Accessed May 8, 2019.