Of lost kampongs, fishnet bondage and remnant tombs in an equatorial hollywood.

Location Scouting in “Samarang”

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Film Title: Samarang (re-issued as “Shark Woman” in 1940)
Directed by Ward Wing.
Produced by B.F. Zeidman and United Artists Picture [USA].
Story by Lori Bara.
Year of Release: 1933

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Synopsis: Ahmang, a fearless Malay youth, lives with his aging mother (Mamounah) and younger brother (Ko-Hai) in the remote fishing village of Samarang. He takes an interest in Sai-Yu, the daughter of a Malay Chief from the same village, and hopes to marry her. However, his meagre earnings from coastal fishing and his paltry status make him feel inferior to Sai-Yu. He then decides to join a group of villagers on a pearl-diving trip to the faraway Forbidden Lagoon of Sakai, a cannibal island. A lucky haul of the prize pearl can bring him riches and secure his marriage to Sai-Yu, but the task is also highly risky due to lurking man-eating sharks in the perilous waters.

When “Samarang” was first released, it was advertised as “Malaya’s first sensational thriller, filmed entirely in Singapore, with local artists.” It was indeed one of the first narrative feature films (arguably the first) made in Singapore and an early example of Hollywood’s exploits in this part of the world. (Frank Buck and Clyde Elliott’s “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” was another early exemplar of a film with actual location shooting in Singapore and Malaya.) Singapore was even coined as the future “Equatorial Hollywood” — a prime staging point to exotic tropical locations around the region that would act as backdrops to stories of jungle expeditions, wild-life escapades and encounters with “primitive” cultures. Exoticism in Hollywood cinema was becoming fashionable then. The Hollywood audience regarded Southeast Asia and Singapore as places for exotic enchantment and romance coloured by Oriental tones.

Besides Ward Wing, Clyde Elliott and Frank Buck, film directors and actors who had been drawn to make films or set up their bases in Singapore during the 1930s included Tay Garnett (“Trade Winds”), James A. Fitzpatrick (“Singapore and Jahore”), Percy Mamont (“Rich and Strange”), Martin E. Johnson (“Borneo”) and even Charlie Chaplin. [Singapore Free Press, 20 March 1936, Page 8]

The Film Cast of “Samarang”:

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Clockwise from top left: Ahmang the male lead, acted by Captain A.V. Cockle, a police inspector in Singapore and a famous speciality dancer; Sai-Yu the female lead, acted by Theresa Seth, a beauty parade contestant and daughter of John Philip Seth, a prominent Armenian who resided in Singapore; Ko-Hai the brother and Mamounah the matron, acted by two other locals after an audition process. It was also reported that many local Bangsawan performers eagerly signed up for the audition and applied for the leading roles in the film.

Funny that the leading characters, who are supposedly Malay, have Chinese-Cantonese-sounding names (Ko-Hai? Sai-Yu?) and the parts went to non-native local actors. Well, we can never count on Hollywood for accuracy…

The Film Locations:

Though set in a fictional “Samarang” (the real “Semarang” is a city on the north coast of Indonesia Java), the film was reportedly shot entirely on location in Singapore. I suppose that documentation with regards to the film locations for “Samarang” do not exist anymore; a search in the newspaper archives did not reveal much either. So, I shall attempt to make some reasoned speculations then…

1. A seaside Malay kampong. On the east coast of Singapore? Siglap?

01-From_the_sea,view_of_the_Kampong1
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Film-stills from “Samarang”. View of the Malay kampong along the coast, nestled within a coconut plantation. 

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Open compounds of the Malay kampong.

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Street peddlers. Cattles. Ice Kacang. Chicken-rearing.

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Ko-hai the younger brother is having fun “abusing” turtles.

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Ibu Mamounah calls out to Ahmang who has just returned from a coastal fishing trip. Sai-Yu sun-bathes outside a Malay kampong house.

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Ahmang lays down his fishing tools.
In the background, a Malay kampong thatched house built on stilts. A villager sits on the staircase leading up to the ‘anjung’, a covered porch at the entrance to the house. The ‘anjung’ is usually for receiving informal guests and acts as a family recreational space where family members and friends gather to rest and chat.

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Ahmang fools around with Sai-Yu. Fishing nets and bondage. Villagers sitting at the ‘anjung’ cheers him on.

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10-Katong_Village,Ahmang_watches_saiyu1-2
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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Ahmang teases Sai-Yu as she takes her bath.
A Hollywood-inspired romp in an exotic setting of a Malay kampong, thatched huts, tropical palms, sarongs

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. A wayang-kulit (shadow puppets) and gamelan performance is staged to send off villagers participating in the pearl-diving trip.

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If I have to make a wild guess of the location of the Malay kampong where “Samarang” was possibly filmed, I will pick Siglap, on the east coast of Singapore. There are reasons for me saying so. The kampong depicted in the film is a coastal fishing village, nestled within a coconut plantation. I scoured the archives for early images of Malay kampongs in Singapore, looking for photographs that best match the images in the film. And I found the following:

02 Tanjung Siglap,1890s
Kampong Siglap, 1890s. Photo by G.R. Lambert & Co. “According to Malay legend, dark thunder clouds had appeared as a Malay chief  (Tok Lasam) once landed in the area (he later became the Penghulu of Kampong Siglap). This led to the place to be known as ‘Siglap’, derived from the Malay word ‘gelap’, meaning ‘darkness that conceals’.”

This photograph of Kampong Siglap bears much similarities to the images of the Malay kampong depicted in “Samarang”. Simple thatched huts on stilts. Tall coconut palms aplenty. Though this photograph dates from the 1890s, which was about 40 years before “Samarang”, I am assuming that the kampongs in Siglap wouldn’t have changed much during that period in early 20th century. The post-war rapid urbanisation of the east coast of Singapore hadn’t happened yet.

In fact, there were four kampongs that existed in the Siglap vicinity until the 1980s, after which land reclamation on the east coast pretty much ended the fishing occupations of the villagers. The kampongs were finally torn down to make way for urban redevelopment, and replaced with new private residential estates and condominiums. The four kampongs were Kampong Siglap, Kampong Hajijah, Kampong Lim Choo (甘榜林厝?) and Kampong Goh Choo (甘榜吴厝?). The first two were Malay kampongs and the latter two Chinese kampongs.

19-Kampongs_in_Siglap_vicinity,1970s
A map showing the locations of the four kampongs in the Siglap vicinity in the 1970s.

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19-KampongSiglap,c.1970s
A photocopy of a photograph showing houses and remnant coconut trees in Kampong Siglap (circa 1970s), where “Samarang” could have been filmed in the 1930s.
According to one account online, Kampong Siglap was also a popular spot for location shooting in films made by Cathay-Keris in the 1960s. (The Cathay-Keris film studio was merely a stone’s throw away to the west of Siglap Road.)

Siglap today is not what it used to be. Private terrace houses, bungalows and high-rise condominiums now occupy the land where the kampungs once stood. Late last year, I explored the Siglap vicinity in search of traces and remnants of what once existed there more than 30 years ago. I started in the east end of the vicinity (former Kampong Hajijah) and walked westwards (towards the Muslim cemetery atop Siglap Hill):

2. Tropical Rainforest. Local Zoos in Punggol or East Coast Road?

How good can a Hollywood film made in tropical Singapore/Malaya be without scenes of the jungles and its wild inhabitants? As the director and producers of “Samarang” would have it, Ahmang, Sai-Yu and a few boat crew members got stranded on a cannibal island in the film’s diegesis. There they came face to face with the supposedly wild animals — tigers, pythons, elephants, orang utans,… you name it, they have it.

I doubt that the directors had the patience and resources to seek those animals out in the wild. Yes, they did probably completed a few shots of the actors finding their way around in the rainforest, but mostly, the shots of the animals were done in a local zoo — either Basapa’s Punggol Zoo, Herbert de Souza’s menagerie along East Coast Road, or even Frank Buck’s animal compound near Orchard Road.

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Film-still from “Samarang”. Ahmang and Sai-yu got stranded on cannibal island. On the look-out for wild carnivorous animals and the headhunters.

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Film-still from “Samarang”. Ahmang and Sai-Yu are delighted with the rainfall. They have been short on drinking water. 
For the entire sequence on the cannibal island, the female lead was also made to go topless. Hollywood probably held the opinion (based on anthropological findings) that the female natives in Southeast Asia (and Africa) had a tendency to not wear anything above the waist. They exploited such a phenomenon for sensationalistic ends, to appeal to a Western (male) audience hungry for the exotic nude. These kinds of films would be known as “jungle exploitation” films. For examples, check out “Virgins of Bali” (1932) or “Cannibal Holocaust”(1980).

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. The quintessential wild animals galore! Malayan tapir, tiger, elephant, monitor lizard and python.

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Film-stills from “Samarang”. Probably shot in a zoo or menagerie, the male and female leads interact with an orang utan. Another actor struggles with a python. 

3. An Orang Asli Village in Malaya?

Since part of the story in “Samarang” happens on a cannibal island (named “Sakai”, after an indigenous tribe in Peninsula Malaya), the film producers found it imperative to include shots of the Orang Asli (a generic term used for the indigenous people of Peninsula Malaya). I’m not sure whether the Orang Asli depicted in the film were definitely Sakai. But regardless of the tribe that they belonged to, the film producers had engaged them natives for the film shoot, carrying spears and various hunting paraphernalia, and being nomadic, living in make-shift huts made out of natural materials…

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For the record, I consider this as exploitation, since these natives were not cannibals or even headhunters. The film producers had knowingly exploited Western assumptions about native tribes in Asia and Africa — that some of the so-called “uncultured people” or “savages” still practice cannibalism. As far as I understand, the Orang Asli don’t.

In spite of the more sensationalistic and exploitative aspects of the film, there are moments in “Samarang” that are more sincere and toned-down in the depiction of the locals, especially the close-ups of faces of the kampong residents and the seafarers. These I find intriguing…

75-Pearl-divers-1-1,oranglaut?Are they the Orang Laut, the indigenous sea nomads who came from the Riau Islands?
The Orang Laut were known to have lived in Singapore waters. They lived on sampans and sustained their lives by fishing and collecting other materials from the forests. By the mid-20th century, most of the Orang Laut in Singapore had moved ashore and adopted a more sedentary lifestyle.

75-Pearldiver1,oranglaut?
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75-Pearldiver3,oranglaut?
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Then, there are the Malay villagers…. (or bangsawan actors who auditioned for roles in the film)…

70-Kampong,Villagers2a
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… and a Chinese boatman with a pigtail?!

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At the end of the film, Ahmang returns triumphant with the prize pearl and marries Sai-Yu in the kampong.
The Kampong (Siglap?) Malay residents would have been activated to pitch in ideas as to how the wedding ceremony should be conducted…

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The ‘kompang’ ensemble.

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After “Samarang”, Ward Wing the film director reportedly made another three films in Singapore and Malaya, namely “Rimau! Rimau!”(Tiger! Tiger!), “The White Rajah” and “Singapore Police”. The first was another story set in a Malay kampong, written again by his wife Lori Bara [The Straits Times, 26 Apr 1935, Pg 12]. The second is a biopic film which depicted the life of the first white Rajah of Sarawak– James Brooke [The Straits Times, 1 Jun 1935, Pg 17]. And the last was about the Singapore police and smuggling activities in the crown colony [The Straits Times, 23 May 1937, Pg 3].

Besides “Samarang” (or the re-issued “Shark Woman”), the other three Ward Wing films made in Singapore seemed to be either incomplete or lost. They were not listed in IMDB or mentioned anywhere else besides being reported in the local newspapers at the times when they were made. It is possible that the films were never produced at all and The Straits Times had made some false or exaggerated reporting. That I can’t verify and it shall remain a mystery to me…

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2 comments on “Of lost kampongs, fishnet bondage and remnant tombs in an equatorial hollywood.

  1. […] Film Hunter blog, which examines the locations used in Singaporean films.  The article “Of lost kampongs, fishnet bondage and remnant tombs in an equatorial Hollywood” examines “Samarang” in greater depth and tries to separate the film’s fact […]

  2. rahim says:

    There was a very old Muslim cemetery at Jalan Tanah Puteh that was dated before the 1800s.

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