Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Amek Gambar
Image courtesy of Elaine Chiew

The History of Photography in Singapore Through Peranakan Eyes (via Invisible Flaneuse)

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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).

 

Read more of Elaine Chiew’s review on Invisible Flaneuse.

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