Friday, June 08, 2012

An Enduring Legacy

A former British soldier’s personal collection of old postcards from Penang opens a window to a bygone era, writes MARY SCHNEIDER

IT USED TO BE that no holiday was complete without sending an obligatory postcard or two or three to family and friends back home. A short message scribbled behind a pictorial image of a sun-kissed beach, an exotic temple, or a bustling marketplace was enough to let everyone know where you were, what you were doing and what a wonderful time you were having without them.

Although traditional picture postcards are now being sent by a decreasing number of holidaymakers, they continue to be much sought-after by collectors. Some of the more prominent collections feature images that date back to the 1890s and the early 20th century. For it was during this period, when telephones were few and telegraph messages prohibitively expensive, that portable cameras and cheap postal rates gave rise to the picture postcard’s popularity, and not just with holidaymakers. They were often sent to announce an imminent family visit, or to invite friends to a social gathering, or to inform a soldier’s loved ones of his safe arrival at a foreign port. Soon, hundreds of millions of postcards were being mailed around the world.

The largest and most historically significant collection of postcards covering pre-war Penang was amassed by Englishman Malcolm Wade. Part of Wade’s extensive collection was first published in 2003 in Penang Postcard Collection 1899-1930s, a richly illustrated book he co-authored with Penang historian and heritage advocate Khoo Salma Nasution. Such is the continuing popularity of this publication that it recently went to print for the third time.

Khoo Salma Nasution
Island impressions
Dip into the pages of this collection of more than 700 black-and-white and colour (hand-painted) postcards and at once you will realise that you are in possession of a historical gem. The images give vivid impressions of Penang’s port, streets, buildings, suburbs, beaches and hill resort during the early 20th century, while also providing a unique insight into life on the island during that period.

Examine the book a little closer and you will see that the postcards are arranged in such a way as to make you feel as if you are being taken on a guided tour of Penang, with Khoo’s enlightening and engaging text providing Wade’s images with the necessary historical context.

“Many of the postcards offer a rare glimpse of some of Penang’s well-known buildings during their glory days,” says Khoo. “For example, you can see the Goh Chan Lau villa with its unique Anglo-Chinese architecture, as it was when it was used as a private residence. Subsequently, it was converted into a hotel and then a school, before falling into its current state of dilapidation.

“Similarly, a postcard of Bishop Street lined with early 19th-century double-¬storey shophouses and open monsoon drains, tells us that the street has since been raised, and the drains covered over. However, the most striking aspect of this postcard is that Augustus Kaulfuss, the renowned German photographer responsible for this and many other images in the collection, can be seen standing in the middle of the road!”

Society and cultural attitudes are also on display. One especially telling image shows Penang’s expatriate elite enjoying a day out at the Turf Club—the men with their three-piece suits and the women with their long-sleeved dresses and petticoats. Sitting on ‘The Lawn’ with little more than a hat and/or a parasol to protect them from the sun’s harsh rays, they must have been sweltering, albeit with a stiff upper lip.

When collector met historian
Wade’s enthusiasm for postcards has its roots in stamp collecting, a hobby he took up as a schoolboy in West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1940s. Years later, when he was posted to Singapore as a young soldier with the British Army, his interest in philately was still very much alive.

Leaving the Army in 1967, after finishing up as a senior technical instructor at the Malaysian School of Signals, and ending his last tour of duty in Kuala Lumpur, he joined the Malaya Study Group, the leading international society dedicated to the study of Malayan stamps and postal history. “The first meeting I attended was a display of postal history, about which I knew absolutely nothing,” he wrote in one of his essays. “I sold all my stamps and launched enthusiastically into the acquisition of ‘Postal History’ of all the Straits and States.”

He soon narrowed the field to just a few states, one of which was Penang. Thirty years later, after reading Khoo’s best-selling book Streets of George Town, he decided that she might just be the right person to help him compile the large number of picture postcards that he had amassed over the years.

“With my background in heritage and urban history [Khoo is currently president of the Penang Heritage Trust and custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Penang Base], I was naturally interested to see what some of the buildings and streets in Penang looked like all those years ago,” says Khoo, recalling her first meeting with Wade in 1997.

“Some of the images in the postcard collection are not available elsewhere. Of the few photographs taken of early George Town, not many have survived, but postcards were usually printed in batches, increasing the chance that at least one or two would survive intact.”

Not only did Khoo provide the historical context for the book, but she also wrote the captions. “I didn’t know where some of the images were taken,” she says. “So I had to do a bit of detective work to track down the exact locations. For example, there are four different piers along Weld Quay, looking rather alike to the uninitiated. Furthermore, some old buildings have been transformed, and upon examination I discovered that part of Cheah Cheang Lim’s house is still there behind the Waldorf Hotel facade. I love playing detective.”

It took her several years of research and another year of intensive writing to complete the text and captions, an undertaking that she had to fit around two small children and her pregnancy with her third child. But anyone who knows Salma will tell you that she is nothing if not determined.

As part of the George Town World Heritage Site’s knowledge bank project, Wade’s collection of Penang postcards is in the process of being catalogued and uploaded onto the ‘Visions of Penang’ website. This endeavour will ensure that this enduring testimony to Penang’s rich heritage will reach an even bigger audience.

Penang Postcard Collection 1899-1930s, published by Areca Books, is available at all leading bookshops in Malaysia

Reproduced from the Annual 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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