Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400-2004 tells the story of Malaysia through the eyes of the artists and photographers who witnessed and recorded over 1,200 rarely seen, beautiful and fascinating images. Faded pencil sketches, subtle watercolours, engravings and above all photographs—including the first views produced by 19th-century professionals, stunning studio portraits and the remarkable experiments of early amateurs—present the history of a uniquely complex multi-ethnic society that has transformed the land of the Melaka Sultanate into a thriving global nation.
The quest for the new and the fascinating has unearthed stunning images, many reproduced here for the first time, as well as classics without which no visual history of Malaysia would be complete. What makes the images extraordinary is the unique insight they provide into the everyday affairs of ordinary people as well as to major events and personalities. From this wealth of material, Malaysia’s history is brought vividly to life. Images were sourced over a two-year period from many different sources around the world. While the majority are from Arkib Negara Malaysia and The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad collections, museums in Europe also yielded some unusual and interesting material. Several private collectors, both in Malaysia and abroad, allowed access to rare and precious images that have further enhanced the whole collection.
In this book, Malaysia’s history is conveyed pictorially in six chapters. The first, ‘The Malay World, 1400-1849’, covers the long period before the invention of photography—from the beginning of the Melaka Sultanate to the approximate date when the first photographers arrived. The year 1400 was chosen because it represents the most popular beginning of Malaysian history (as opposed to pre and proto-history), coinciding approximately with the creation of the Melaka Sultanate, When the territory converted to Islam, following the lead of other kingdoms in the Malay world, any artistic representations fell mainly under the auspices of Islamic art, which prohibited realistic likenesses. Thus the latter had to wait until the arrival of the first Europeans. It will never be known who was the first to capture a view of Malaysia. Perhaps it was a mariner who sketched the palm-fringed coastline as his barque plied the Strait of Melaka or a trader who drew a picture of a handsome native woman in his diary. Sketches such as these might have filtered back to Europe to be redrawn as borders on 15thand 16th-century maps. Portuguese and Dutch records provide the first glimpses of Melaka, but realistic paintings only became widespread when European travellers arrived in Melaka and Penang in the late 18th century.
The second chapter, ‘Changing Times, 1850-1895’, begins with the first photographs of Malaysia, many of them previously unpublished rarities, which chronicle the early years of British intervention. At the beginning of this era, the colonialists only had toeholds in Melaka and Penang, but by the end of the 19th century, they were firmly established on the west coast and much of the east coast of the Peninsula and in Sarawak and Sabah. The photographs in this chapter are predominantly of Penang, where some outstanding photographers such as K. Feilberg were based, but there are also unique glimpses of Province Wellesley and other mainland centres, including the first pictures of Kuala Lumpur, and historically valuable images taken along the Perak River just before the so-called uprising when the British Resident was killed—an event that marked a rapid deterioration in Malay-British relations.
The third chapter, ‘The Colonial Jewel, 1896-1914’, begins with the establishment of the Federated Malay States in 1896. It illustrates the boom years of not only the colonial era, but also of the studio photographer, and ends with the outbreak of World War I. Included here are a series of renowned images showing the almost-extinct lifestyle of Sarawak’s indigenous peoples, and the portfolios of important photographers who travelled with their cumbersome equipment to record an amazing collection of events, people and places: from the pomp and pageantry of the Malay Durbars to the teeming pits of tin mines; from the wilderness of virgin rainforests to the planned streets of the new Moorish-style capital.
The fourth chapter, ‘The Turbulent Years, 1915-1945, spans the uncertain decades between the wars and includes the Great Depression and the Japanese Occupation and surrender. By then, photography had become widespread and was more accessible; amateurs had made serious inroads into photographic studio incomes and postcards flooded the market. Press photographers began chronicling not only major events but also everyday life. The sanitised views of the past gave way to the social documentary ‘Road to Nationhood, 1946-1969’, the fifth chapter follows the excitement of the post-war nationalist movements that led to Independence and the creation of Malaysia. Featured here are unforgettable images which were taken as the nation celebrated its freedom and began building a new identity. But it was not all euphoric—an Emergency declared against the Communist guerrilla uprising lasted 12 long years.
The sixth and final chapter, ‘A New Identity, 1970-2004’, covers the nation’s emergence from the end of the Emergency to what it is today. This chapter is the most familiar, being of the most recent past, and provides stunning contrast, both in the use of colour photographs as opposed to black-and-white and in the meteoric changes that the nation has undergone in the last three decades. It is a way of measuring progress, and a vivid reminder that what is real today becomes history tomorrow.
It is a heady journey, through six centuries of Malaysian life. At times it is exhilarating, and other times disquieting. Every image here is thought-provoking and conveys a potent message, that a nation is ready to call itself mature only when it accepts all of its past, no matter how discomfiting that may be.
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