Outside of dialogue, outside of language
Toh Hun Ping

22 January 2021—22 January 2022
Interview between Bite the tongue and Toh Hun Ping, 2021, Published by XING.

Toh Hun Ping is an artist and film researcher. As a researcher, he investigates the history of filmmaking in early-mid 20th century Singapore. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hun Ping started sharing his collection of 1940s to ‘70s Malay language films on a YouTube channel. Followed by 13.4k subscribers, the channel developed into a precious resource to investigate yesterday’s Malaya—the ways of living, as well as the ways of speaking. Bite the tongue interviews the YouTube archivist.

Excerpts from Dang Anom, 1962. Directed by Hussain Haniff. Produced by Cathay-Keris Films.

THP Notes: This contains the dream sequence, as mentioned below. There are also pantuns in the dialogue.

Bite the tongue: Can you describe your first encounter with a Cathay-Keris film?

Toh Hun Ping: That would be Dang Anom (1962), film auteur Hussain Haniff’s anti-feudalistic classic, which was in a retrospective programme of films which featured Zubir Said’s music, at the National Museum of Singapore Cinémathèque in October 2012. It retells the legend from Sejarah Melayu of how Singapore fell to the Majapahit empire during the 14th century.

I wasn’t so much interested in old movies from Singapore or the region then, but Dang Anom really caught my attention because I found it to be comparable to the world cinema classics I had been feeding on during my self-education in film appreciation. Working as a media arts teacher then, I was convinced that scenes from the movie could be used to teach film editing, including that famous hallucinatory dream sequence of the titular character pining after her lover. And I realised later that Hussain Haniff was indeed one of the most accomplished film editors in the history of classic Malay cinema. Till today, I still hold a fascination for Hussain Haniff’s achievements in film editing and mise-en-scene, holding out hope that his oeuvre would be honoured with a complete and in-depth retrospective by one of the film institutions here in time to come.

Excerpts from Bujang Lapok (The Mouldy Bachelors), 1957. Directed by P. Ramlee. Produced by Malay Film Productions (Shaw Brothers).

THP’s Notes: This is one of P. Ramlee's best comedies that is lightly laced with moral critique. As Amir Muhammad mentioned in his book, many lines and gestures from the film have stayed current for decades, such as the closing "Jangan marah (Don't be angry)".

BTT: What is it about Cathay-Keris films you find interesting?

THP: I wasn’t only interested in Cathay-Keris films per se. As I progressed in my journey and research into the history of Singapore filmmaking, of which classic Malay films played a major part, I was paying more attention to the work of singular film directors—such as P. Ramlee, Hussain Haniff or K. M. Basker—rather than trying to differentiate between the outputs of the two major film studios existing in Singapore then. (K. M. Basker had in fact worked for both film studios.)

There were of course discernible differences, and the one I found rather intriguing early on in my research was in the studios’ attitudes towards shooting on location. Keris Film Productions, the predecessor to Cathay-Keris founded by Ho Ah Loke, was already an advocate for location shooting since its inception in the early 1950s. The studio even travelled as far as the Malay Peninsula for one of its first productions, Buloh Perindu (1953). Hussain Haniff, whom I mentioned above, also pushed for location shooting while directing films for Cathay-Keris. While most directors in Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions (MFP) used fabrications in the studio set for scenes of interiors of kampung houses, Hussain Haniff opted to go on location in actual kampungs and film in real, lived spaces in (traditional) Malay stilt houses. These are now important records of the kampung environment in existence then.

The impression I got then was that MFP mostly kept the filming within their studio sets at Jalan Ampas, with the occasional excursion to ‘run-of-the-mill’ places of interest around the island. Upon closer inspection, I realised that the film locations in MFP’s outputs are very worthy of mention too. I then wrote about them in my sgfilmhunter blog and the Singapore Film Locations Archive website. It was however the locations in Cathay-Keris films that prompted me to embark on a collaborative project with the Asian Film Archive, which turned out to be State of Motion. The first edition (in 2016) of this now-annual art and film event was focused on a selection of Cathay-Keris films and the history of the places featured in them.

BTT: What is your relationship to Bahasa Melayu?

THP: I come from a Mandarin-speaking family background. I grew up in a rather monolingual environment (I heard adult relatives speak Hokkien though) and only learned English upon entering school. I also took Chinese as “second-language” and wasn’t exposed to the learning of Singapore’s national language in school. There wasn’t really an opportunity to learn Bahasa Melayu. But I do remember loving to sing songs in Malay during my scouting days – Di Tanjong Katong, Geylang Si Paku Geylang, Bila Kita Berkumpul (The More We Get Together), etc.

My father can speak Pasar Malay, which he picked up while working for a few years in Brunei, but he only used it while conversing with the Malays, and not with us in the family. I remembered how this proficiency of his really helped during of my family trips to Malaysia and Indonesia. I never got round learning Pasar Malay from him though. Eventually, in an effort to gain a better appreciation of the classic Malay films I was watching profusely then, I went for classes at the local community club. That helped tremendously. I am still learning the language bit by bit, induced by the watching of more classic Malay films and the reading of old Malay film periodicals and books about the history of Malay cinema written in the Malay language.

Excerpts from Gila Talak (Divorce Madness), 1963. Directed by Hussain Haniff. Produced by Cathay-Keris Films.

THP Notes: The last excerpt from the film shows a stage performance probably styled after a Peranakan dondang sayang.

BTT: Despite a language barrier with Bahasa Melayu in the films, you’ve written accompanying synopses on your YouTube channel. Can you share this process of translating a narrative beyond a familiar tongue?

THP: I see my attempt at writing synopses and accompanying notes in English for classic Malay films in my Youtube channel as interim work before a proper film catalogue can be realised in the future, either by myself or a film institution here. At the current stage, my writing for the synopses in the Youtube descriptions is still unedited and unrefined. There may be mistakes even. I do quote liberally from books or articles written about classic Malay films (eg. Amir Muhammad’s 120 Malay Movies). I didn’t in fact start from scratch for many of the films; there’s already existing literature, in books and online. But for a portion of the films, there’s no to little knowledge and information written in English regarding what they are about.

So, I guess I have to start somewhere since there appears to be no one else doing it now. Synopses in English were written for singular selected titles during public screenings in the past, but never for the entire collection of classic Malay films produced in Singapore. The filmography at the end of Raphael Millet’s Singapore Cinema (2006) included many synopses in English but it is still incomplete—there are no descriptions for the majority of the Malay-language films released in the 1950s to ‘70s.

I have to admit again that I’m nowhere near proficient in the Malay language. I rely on reportage on the making of the classic Malay films in newspapers (eg. Berita Harian, Singapore Free Press, The Straits Times) and movie magazines (eg. Majallah Filem, Filem Malaysia). Some of the reports and articles featured entire storylines of the films. Friends and Google Translate help me in the translation of the articles from Malay to English. And then, for any particular film and synopsis, before I start writing, I watch the film to get a sense of the narrative and see how that compares with the story or plot gleaned from the newspapers or magazines. It’s fairly straightforward for films which have English subtitles. It’s the hardest for films without subtitles. Some guesswork, informed by contextual knowledge surrounding the film, is usually involved (which I feel will suffice for now since I’m uploading the films rather frequently, daily or one in every two to four days…so as to keep the momentum going!). Whenever I don’t feel confident enough that I can write a reliable synopsis for any particular film, I’d choose to upload it without a synopsis in English, and wait to uncover more information about the film before I attempt it again in the future.

BTT: Some of the films you archive are dubbed, some are not. Can you speak of the spectatorial experience which resides outside of language?

THP: Outside of the dialogue, outside of language, the films can potentially offer rich visual experiences. One could be enticed by the editing, the camerawork or the mise-en-scene in the classic Malay films, a “film language” utilised in those times which could be put up for comparison with studio feature films then produced in Japan, Hong Kong or even Hollywood.

Remembered in the films are the streets, the buildings and the landscapes of Singapore’s past—visual triggers as to how places here have transformed or disappeared over time. There are the faces, gestures, fashion, food and other cultural markers too. I can imagine one fully enjoying the films even if they are screened silent.

Excerpts from Sri Menanti (马来风月 / Moon Over Malaya), 1958. Directed by Phani Majumdar. Produced by Malay Film Productions (Shaw Brothers.

THP Notes: The film portrays an interracial (Malay-Chinese) romance. Chinese characters in the film are played by Malay artistes, as well as actors from Hong Kong. The Malay artistes acting as Chinese speak (Pasar or Bazaar) Malay in a manner which might be an imitation of how the local Chinese speak the language back then.

BTT: Historically, how did Cathay-Keris films circulate?

THP: They were mostly released in the cinemas in Singapore and Malay(si)a run by the Cathay Organisation during the time of their making. A selection participated in international film festivals (eg. Asian Film Festival) and were given a chance to be screened outside of Singapore-Malay(si)a. The films were also distributed in Indonesia during the 1950s. Subsequently, after Cathay-Keris ceased studio operations, beginning from the 1970s and ‘80s, the films were transferred to tape and ran regularly on free-to-air television or cable channels in Malaysia (eg. RTM, TV3, Astro) and in Singapore (eg. Suria). Some had made recordings of these television broadcasts on VHS and they ended up in the hands of private collectors. A number of these tapes have since been digitised and are circulated (or bought and sold) among lovers of classic Malay films. Some, in full or excerpts, are now shared on Youtube or Facebook. These old recordings from TV are important because a number of the film titles ran afoul of censorship or cultural norms in Malaysia over time and can’t be shown on TV anymore, or never got to be released on VCDs.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a substantial portion of the entire Cathay-Keris Malay film output was released on VCDs by Malaysian media companies such as Music Valley. Cathay Organisation also released a dozen of Cathay-Keris titles on VCD through Comstar Home Entertainment in 2003. One could also watch the films in retrospective programmes organised by the Singapore International Film Festival, national institutions, or by private companies—most notably Phish Communications, which organised ‘Screen Singapore’ in 2005, featuring among its programme eight Cathay-Keris films, including its only Mandarin film release Lion City (1960).

BTT: How do you as a spectator and a collector/archivist engage with various channels of dissemination?

THP: I am not partial towards any particular channel of dissemination. I watch and collect via all kinds of sources—VHS tapes, VCDs, DVDs, theatrical retrospective screenings. As far as possible, I attend public screenings of the old films, especially after the films are restored (by Asian Film Archive, for example). The films are still best appreciated in the cinema, projected large in a dark space.

I am quite comfortable working with various types of media, meaning I know how to digitise VHS tapes, do VCD or DVD-rips, and edit or manage the digital video files so that they are ready for storage in hard-drives or for upload onto Youtube. 

BTT: What would you consider the ethos of your collecting and disseminating practice?

THP: I'm not sure if I'm driven by any serious ethos. I guess I am simply a filmmaker who wants to collect and share films that I have an interest in and would use for my future work, and also hoping that many others would find them a valuable resource relevant to many research fields or areas of interest.

BTT: Thank you for the chat Hun Ping, together with the avenues of circulation and archival of rare films.

Toh Hun Ping

Hun Ping is a video artist, experimental filmmaker and film researcher. His video works explore and express themes of mental instability, alternate realities, resistance and existence. He employs experimental moving image-making methods from film-scratching, bleaching photographs, merging materials (mud, meat, nails) with video stills, to stop-motion animation with ceramic reliefs. The works have been presented in exhibitions and film festivals in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Paris, Seoul, Tokyo, Boston and Bangkok. As a film researcher, he is investigating the history of filmmaking in early-mid 20th century Singapore, and has served as researcher-writer and video editor for projects organised by The National Museum of Singapore and Asian Film Archive (‘State of Motion’). He also started the Singapore Film Locations Archive, a private video collection of films made in and about Singapore, and runs a website about the intrigues of old Singapore film locations.