Location Scouting in “Mogok”
Title of Film: Mogok (translation: Strike)
Directed by K.M. Basker.
Written by Jamil Sulong.
Produced by Malay Film Productions.
Year of Release: 1957
Country of Production: Singapore
Synopsis: Workers at an Eveready battery factory are disgruntled because their wages are low compared to a neighbouring factory. The factory manager exploits the workers’ rising discontent by colluding with a traitor within the workers’ ranks to instigate a strike in the factory, part of a devious ploy to take over the factory from the benevolent but incapacitated factory owner/boss. The colluders create dismal working conditions and make use of every opportunity and incident to raise the call for a strike, to sour industrial relations in a bid to close the factory down so that they can coerce the boss to hand over ownership.
The Film Locations:
1. National Carbon Factory (later renamed Union Carbide)
Title and credits superimposed over scenes of the factory interior.
The factory produces EVEREADY batteries. The film producers thank the American-owned National Carbon (Eastern) Limited for allowing them to photograph some scenes which would appear in the film.
Run Run Shaw must be on pretty good terms with the factory management, to be able to acquire permission to shoot a film about industrial unrest on their factory grounds, in 1957 — a period when employee trade unions in Singapore were powerful, strikes and ‘go-slows’ were still frequent despite Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock’s purges on left-wing trade unions, and anti-colonial (or even anti-capitalist) sentiments were on an all-time high; the neighbouring Federation of Malaya would be granted independence in August 1957 and Singapore remained a colony of the British until 1963.
Film-stills of factory interiors, workers and machinery used to produce batteries.
Lower left film-still: Those objects moving along the conveyor belt are EVEREADY batteries.
Upper film-stills: Factory workers being instigated to go on a strike — Mogok! Mogok!
Weren’t the real National Carbon factory owners afraid that their real workers, on seeing the actors say their lines on location about low pay, poor working conditions, union representation, strikes and work stoppages, get inspired to hold their own strikes? Perhaps the National Carbon took care of its workers real well… Industrial harmony!
So, where was the National Carbon factory situated in 1957? Where did they produce the then-first-rate Eveready batteries? Answer: Bukit Timah.
The National Carbon factory is marked out with a red rectangle. Above the factory ran the KTM railway track with the girder bridge passing over Hillview Road (at the upper left corner of the factory, marked out with a blue circle.)
Below the factory, marked with a green rectangle, is the Princess Elizabeth Estate, built by the SIT(Singapore Improvement Trust) around 1951 to commemorate the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) to Prince Philip (the Duke of Edinburgh) in 1947. Many residents of the estate worked in the factories in the Hillview vicinity — besides National Carbon, there were other factories run by Hume Industries, Ford Motors, Lam Soon, Kiwi Polish Co., Hong Kong Rope and Malayan Guttas (producers of Wrigley’s chewing gums).
What is now the Rail Mall is marked with an orange rectangle, and it fronts the Fuyong Housing Estate. Beyond the estate lies the Singapore Quarry and Bukit Timah Hill.
Blogger James Tann is an authority online for information regarding the Princess Elizabeth Estate and the Hillview vicinity. I had referred to his blog entries while composing this post and the blog is also the indirect source of the following decades-old photograph of the National Carbon factory:
“Eveready Flashlight & Radio Batteries” factory, or “Dien Tor Long” (battery factory in Hokkien) as the locals would call it. The entrance to the factory was from Hillview Road on the left of the picture. Today, the Hillview Heights condominium sits on the former site of the factory.
As in many other places in Singapore, the Hillview vicinity has undergone much changes since. I thought I should make a photographic record of the current state of the vicinity now, just for posterity’s sake. Who knows? They may decide to run an expressway over it twenty years later…
2. A Modern House
Film-stills from “Mogok”.
The factory boss (acted by Daeng Idris) lives in a modern house with his young wife (Mariani). Incapacitated, he oversees the factory from a distance and entrusts the daily management of the factory to his wife and the manager (S. Kadarisman). The treacherous wife pretends to treat him well, and is colluding with the factory manager to seize ownership of the factory.
3. Merdeka Bridge and City Hall
Film-stills from “Mogok”. Night scenes of the Merdeka Bridge and City Hall(lower right).
Establishing shots of the city at night, before a scene where the young wife and factory manager (obviously having an affair) visit a night club.
The Merdeka Bridge (Independence Bridge) opened in August 1956 and spans over the river mouths of the Kallang River and Rochor River. On the bridge runs part of Nicoll Highway — my parents still call Nicoll Highway “独立桥”, ie. “Independence Bridge” in Chinese. In the film, you can see one of the two stone lion statues that once stood at the entrance of the bridge. The lions have since been relocated to the SAFTI Military Institute.
These scenes in the film are accompanied by a pleasing tune, known variably as “Impian Semalam”, “新馬來情歌” or “榴莲飘香”…
4. Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Studios, No.8 Jalan Ampas.
Film-stills from “Mogok”.
Upper left and right: The young wife drives her car along a road (in reality Jalan Ampas), and turns into the battery factory (in reality the Shaw Malay Film Studios).
Lower left and right: The wife’s car knocks down the gate-keeper and she drives away. The factory workers gathered around the injured gatekeeper and one of them (acted by Omar Rojik), an accomplice of the factory manager, urges them to make a protest, seeking to raise the tensions between management and staff, laying the groundwork to call for a strike.
So, the producers of the film decided that the interior of the battery factory in the film’s diegesis was to be provided by National Carbon, and for the exterior, they had the convenience of their very own Shaw studio grounds at Jalan Ampas. The studios would appear in many films produced by Malay Film Productions (MFP), one of them being P Ramlee’s “Seniman Bujang Lapok”(1961). The following still from the film offers a good view of the studio grounds from the entrance:
I have made a simple montage using excerpts from the film that feature factory workers being instigated to strike:
Film-stills from “Mogok”, shot at the entrance to the Jalan Ampas Film Studios.
The factory workers finally organised a peaceful sit-in at the factory entrance, led by a union leader among the workers (acted by Ahmad Madmud).
Upper left and right: The banner should read in full “Kami Mogok. Kerana Membantah Majikan Hisap Darah” (rough translation: “We Strike. To Protest Because Our Bosses Suck Blood.“)
Middle left and right: It is a “legal” protest. Policemen in shorts watch over the sit-in. They would call for the riot police if the sit-in turns violent. They stand nonchalantly on one leg.
It should be mentioned here that I find it amusing that the film producers and directors would ask the studio staff to act as workers on strike at the studio grounds. Is a rehearsal for the real thing? Is it an opportunity for the Shaw employees to vent their frustrations and air their grievances, albeit within the imagined world of a film narrative? It was strange that Run Run Shaw would even accept and produce a “strike” film, with him knowing full well that his workers were unhappy with their meagre wages and long working hours.
In fact, the film workers union (PERSAMA; Persatuan Artis Malaya; P Ramlee and Jamil Sulong, the scriptwriter of “Mogok” were leaders of the union) was organized well enough to approach Shaw Brothers’ executives to request for a pay rise in February 1957, the year when “Mogok” was released. Some of the workers had been receiving the same salary for the past ten years. The Shaw management responded by firing three PERSAMA members from MFP. Omar Rojik, who acted as the manager’s accomplice in “Mogok”, was among the three. When protests continued, more vocal agitators, among them S. Kadarisman, who acted as the conniving factory manager in “Mogok”, were also fired in March 1957.
Then, a strike was called on 16 March 1957. More than 120 MFP employees picketed the Jalan Ampas studios. Film actors, such as Ahmad Mahmud, who acted as the union leader in “Mogok”, picketed Queens Cinema in Geylang. Following continuing protests and the eventual two days of negotiations under the auspice of Malay politicians, the strike finally ended in 7 April 1946. The five fired employees were rehired and demands for overtime pay dropped. There was a compromise between the Shaw management and PERSAMA.
This leads to me to question when “Mogok” was shot, before or after the March 1957 strike? Could Jamil Sulong of PERSAMA and K M Basker have written and directed the film back in 1956 or early 1957, and the film eventually released in the later part of 1957, after the tensions had died down? Was the “picket scene at the Jalan Ampas studio” in “Mogok” a precursor to, or a replay of the March 1957 strikes?
Timothy Barnard, in an article titled “The Shaw Brothers’ Malay Films”(2008), wrote: “Such strikes and protests were not limited to the film industry in early 1957. Both workers and employees throughout the Malay Peninsula and Singapore were in a state of anxiety over the form of the new nation that was to be created later in the year. With the final details of the structure of an independent Malaya being negotiated in London in the first few months of 1957, trade union strikes were rampant amid fears that foreign employers would leave without the security the British had provided and uncertainty over the status of Chinese and Indian immigrants in the new nation. Against a background of strong trade union activism, the Malay film industry [and the film “Mogok”, if I may add…] reflected larger anxieties of the time. (Emphasis in bold mine. Additions in italics and square brackets mine.)
5. Gombak Drive Railway Level Crossing
Film-stills from “Mogok”, shot at the Gombak Drive KTM Railway level crossing.
A strike at the factory is about to be called and it is going to be used as a harbinger for the forced closure of the factory. The manager and the factory owner’s wife threaten the boss-in-the-wheelchair to hand over ownership of the factory. The union leader (Ahmad Mahmud; in the upper right film-still), leads a small group of workers to rescue their employer, whom they realise is a kind and accommodating industrialist. Their urgent journey to the factory owner’s house is interrupted by a passing train at a level crossing. They waited at the crossing for the train to pass before continuing.
Today, the level crossing no longer exist as KTM ceased operating the Tanjong Pagar – Woodlands railway route in 2011. Numerous bloggers, though, have made photographic records of the level crossing, as you can see here, here and here. I didn’t have photos of the level crossing’s barriers before their removal, but I recently made a trip there to make a record of the “remnants” — a day before it was announced in the news that SLA (Singapore Land Authority) will demolish the former KTM buildings at the site, which they have deemed to be structurally unsafe.
These are days before the PAP’s introduction of the concept of “tripartism”. This film would probably act as a very good piece of propaganda to promote healthy industrial relations among employer and employees. To remind the audience (factory employees included) to be wary of traitors and colluders within their ranks; to establish cordial relations with their bosses is better than resorting to strike and violence; to compromise on their workers’ rights and stay employed!
I wonder what the left-wing trade unionists in 1950-60s Singapore would say of this film?
What would the SMRT “bus captains” on strike recently say of this film?