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Singapore’s only cable radio service was an instant hit when it was launched in 1949. Barbara Quek charts the history of the pioneering broadcasting station. For a generation of Singaporeans, the name Rediffusion brings back warm memories of a little nondescript brown, rectangular box blaring music and entertainment in homes and coffeeshops across Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s. This iconic radio station – known as 丽的呼声 in Mandarin (Li Di Hu Sheng) – provided countless hours of enjoyment to its listeners with the latest American pop music, dramatic stories told in Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese, and the friendly chatter of DJs at a time when home entertainment options were in short supply. Before the production of Channel 8 dramas, people were hooked on traditional tales narrated by the likes of Lee Dai Soh (李大傻) in Cantonese, Ng Chia Kheng (黄正经) in Teochew, Ong Toh (王道) in Hokkien…

In the days before cinema, bangsawan performances entertained the masses. Tan Chui Hua looks at the rise and fall of bangsawan venues in Singapore. “With a bottle of champagne broken on the door-step, the new Theatre Royal, in North Bridge Road, was opened officially on Saturday night, the Wayang Kassim’s Trip to Fairyland being staged before a packed house, the conclusion of the formal opening ceremony.” – The Straits Times, 15 June 1908 In the early decades of the 20th century, before the days of cinema, residents of Singapore eagerly flocked to bangsawan performances to be entertained. Performed in Malay, bangsawan featured acting and singing as well as music provided by a live orchestra. Back then, it was one of the few forms of mass entertainment available. Such was the draw of bangsawan in the pre-war years that people living in Tanjong Pagar would travel by bullock cart all the…

Brothels in colonial Singapore, with its large male migrant population, did a roaring trade. Adeline Foo examines the lives of the unfortunate girls and women who were sold into prostitution. “I went a few times because of my youthful follies, to see those girls being sold to the brothels. The auction took place in front of the go-downs at the port. The zegen [pimp] took the girls out of the hold, ordered them to change their clothes and lined them up in front of a warehouse. The brothel-owners bought them on the spot in [the] auction. Good looking girls were priced between one and two thousand yen, and ordinary girls from four to five hundred yen.” This account by Tomijiro Onda, a Japanese barber in Singapore, describes how the trade in young girls operated here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ships carrying girls from Japan and China…

Travelling alone across Southeast Asia in the 19th century, Ida Pfeiffer encountered human heads put out to dry and faced off angry cannibals. John van Wyhe recounts the adventures of this remarkable woman. The name Ida Pfeiffer (1797–1858) is largely unknown today, but in the mid-19th century, she was one of the most famous women in the world. Starting in her mid-40s, this Viennese mother of two embarked on five major expeditions, two of which involved circumnavigating the globe. She accomplished all this while travelling as an unchaperoned woman, a notion that was almost unheard of in those days. During the course of her journeys, Pfeiffer visited Singapore twice: in 1847 and in 1851. Thanks to her, we have a glimpse of Singapore’s natural environment during the period as well as snapshots of daily life on the island. A Tomboy Who Grew Up Ida Laura Reyer was born into a…

Four journalists from Singapore covered the Vietnam War for the international news media. Only one survived. Shirlene Noordin has the story. Some of the most iconic and impactful images of the 20th century emerged from the Vietnam War, or Second Indochina War, which took place from 1955 to 1975. During what the Vietnamese called the Resistance War Against America, the world’s media had unprecedented access to the combat zone as these photographers followed American troops into battle. By 1968, at the height of the war, there were about 600 accredited journa­lists in Vietnam. Photographers, camera crew and war correspondents could easily hitch a ride in a helicopter and find themselves in the thick of combat action. The media had unfettered access to the events as they unfolded, with the photographers and cameramen obtaining some of the most vivid, uncensored images and video footage of war ever captured. As a result, for…

In 1915, sepoys in Singapore revolted against their British officers in a bloody rebellion. Umej Bhatia recreates the final moments of the mutineers as they pay the ultimate price for their actions. On 15 February 1915, a mutiny broke out among sepoys (Indian soldiers) of the 5th Light Infantry Regiment based in Singapore. The mutiny lasted almost a week and claimed the lives of 44 people – British soldiers and civilians, as well as Chinese and Malay civilians. More than 200 sepoys were tried by court martial and received varying sentences, while more than 47 were publicly executed at Outram Prison. Initially portrayed as a minor event confined to Singapore, Umej Bhatia’s recently published book Our Name is Mutiny argues that the event was part of a larger movement rebelling against the British Raj. This abridged extract is from the first chapter of Bhatia’s book, which deliberately uses a novel-like narrative to recount the events. The end is always a good place to start. Even in the face of its own extinction the…

Chinese newspapers have been published in Singapore since the 19th century. Lee Meiyu looks at how they have evolved and examines their impact on the Chinese community here. The Chinese newspaper industry in Singapore has a colourful and varied history enriched by a large, revolving cast of missionaries, reformists, revolutionaries, businessmen, writers and the government. Since the first Chinese newspaper was published in Singapore in 1837, over 160 newspapers have come and gone. Some of them played an important role in disseminating information to the people as well as shaping politics, society, culture and literature in Singapore. The First Chinese Newspaper in Singapore Singapore’s first Chinese newspaper was a periodical titled Eastern Western Monthly Magazine (东西洋考每月统记传). It was originally published in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, on 1 August 1833 by the German missionary Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff. He started the magazine with the aim of making “the Chinese acquainted with…

In the first of two essays on the history of printing in mainland Southeast Asia, Gracie Lee examines the impact of the printing press in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Printing in Southeast Asia was largely established on the back of European colonialism and expansion in the region. Motivated by the need to disseminate official government information and Christian knowledge, colonial governments and missionary societies set up the earliest printing presses in Southeast Asia and introduced Western printing methods such as letterpress aprinting and lithography . Prior to this, writing in Mainland Southeast Asia largely consisted of inscriptions on stone or bamboo, or handwritten manuscripts composed of palm leaf, bark or paper. These early books were mainly in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts and folding books. As the production and function of books at the time were deeply rooted in the traditions of religion and the aristocracy, common topics discussed in…

The resplendent Istana – where colonial governors and modern-day presidents once lived – celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2019. Wong Sher Maine recounts key moments in its history. “The building is a handsome one – the handsomest by a long way in the Settlement and one which will be an ornament to the place long after those who fought for and against it have passed away.” – The Straits Times, 24 April 1869 These words by a Straits Times scribe some 150 years ago would prove to be uncannily prophetic. He was referring to Government House, which is today known as the Istana, the official residence and office of the president of Singapore. A century-and-a-half old, the Istana – which means “palace” in Malay – is a gazetted national monument and also functions as the working office of the prime minister of Singapore. It is the closest thing Singapore has…

The very first census here was conducted in 1824. Ang Seow Leng reveals how doing a headcount has evolved over the last 200 years. Singapore’s population has grown steadily over the decades to reach a total population of 5.7 million as at June 2019. Population censuses provide vital surveys of individuals in order to understand the basic demographic composition and trends of a society. They are also useful for developing evidence-based policies in strategic planning and decision-making. In the case of Singapore, figures on population distribution by areas, for instance, are studied to plan the requirements for schools, markets, hospitals and other public amenities. The Handbook on the Management of Population and Housing Censuses, published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2016, defines a population census as “the total process of planning, collecting, compiling, evaluating, disseminating and analysing demographic, economic and social data at the…