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Penang: 500 Early Postcards

CHEAH JIN SENG is an Emeritus Consultant at the Department of Medicine, National University Hospital, Singapore, and Professorial Fellow of the National University of Singapore. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Philatelic Society of London and a Director of the Singapore Philatelic Museum.

Editions Didier Millet (First Published, 2012)
288 pages including Bibliography


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Penang: 500 Early Postcards vividly captures the charm and diversity of Penang through a diverse array of picture postcards of Penang—including of its capital George Town, now a World Heritage site—from the 1890s to the 1970s. These depict many aspects of Penang including commercial life at the island’s harbour; imposing colonial architecture; the many hotels, schools and hospitals; bustling streets with their business establishments and places of worship; transport, from rickshaws and bullock carts to trams and early motorcars; the Botanic Gardens, Penang Hill and Province Wellesley; and Penang’s colourful people. The book also includes insights into the hobby of collecting postcards.

Mail from Penang began c. 1806. In 1826. Penang merged with Malacca and Singapore to form the Straits Settlements. Postage stamps of the Straits Settlements were first issued in 1867. Penang, as part of this administrative unit, used 5S postage stamps. In 1867, the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony. During World War I (1939-1945), Penang was invaded by the Japanese, on 19 December 1941. The Japanese Occupation lasted till 3 September 1945. Even during that tumultuous era, picture postcards were produced (albeit very few). On 1 February 1948, Penang became part of the Federation of Malaya; this was followed by independence along with the rest of Malaya on 31 August 1957. On 16 September 1963, Penang became a part of Malaysia.

The earliest picture postcard in the Straits Settlements was published in 1897 by German photographer Gustave Richard Lambert (G.R. Lambert). He opened his photographic studio in Singapore in 1867 but left the Straits Settlements in 1885, leaving the studio to the care of Alexander Koch in 1885. When Koch retired in Europe in 1905, he left the studio to the care of H.T. Jensen of the Parisian photographic studio, Reutlingers. Lambert’s studio was ultimately wound up during World War I in 1918. Both Koch and Jensen should be duly credited for many of G.R. Lambert’s picture postcards, but this is often forgotten!*

In Penang, the earliest picture postcard known was sent on 9 May 1898 and produced by the German photographer and publisher, Ernst August Kaulfuss, more often known as A. Kaulfuss. Kaulfuss was a pioneer of early picture postcards and photographs of Penang, and his early picture postcards of Penang are rare. They consist of real photographic vignettes of scenery and people of Penang and Sumatra (photomontages). These photographic images, such were arranged artistically on a picture postcard, and are in black and white, deep grey or sepia. Kaulfuss was the first established European photographer in Penang, and had a studio on Farquhar Street. He travelled widely and published many picture postcards of Malaya, however, he did not enter Singapore, perhaps due to an agreement with Lambert (Lambert published picture postcards of Malaya up to Kedah but did not cover Penang). Following his death in Penang in 1908, he was buried at the Western Road Cemetery.

Kaulfuss’s photomontages date from c. 1898 to 1900. Many of his picture postcards of Penang are in colour, and these are shown extensively in the later chapters of this book. Kaulfuss himself occasionally appeared in his picture postcards. Besides being the most prolific publisher of pre-war Penang picture postcards, he also published the “Greetings from Penang” picture postcard series (c. 1900-1905). These are similar to Lambert’s “Greetings from Singapore” picture postcards.

Charles Kleingrothe’s picture postcards of Penang were produced slightly later (c. 1900-1905). His picture postcards are visibly sharper, more colourful and better composed than those of Kaulfuss’s photomontages. Kleingrothe’s picture postcards are equally scarce and are shown in this collection as well. Little is known of Kleingrothe except that, like Kaulfuss, he too was German and that around 1888 he was the manager of Lambert’s branch studio in Deli, Sumatra. Within a year, he had opened his own photo studio in partnership with Herman Stafhell and by 1898, he had established his independent studio in Medan, Sumatra. He operated his studio till c. 1916 when his business succumbed to the economic downturn of World War I (1914-1918). His fate after the closure of his business in Sumatra remains unknown. Kleingrothe’s picture postcards of Penang are very distinct in appearance, and are mostly dated 1900 (the date appears after the name of the publisher), although a few are undated.

Tan Chin Kim (1882-1918), a Penangite, was also a pioneer photographer and publisher of Penang picture postcards. A chance meeting in 2009 with his last surviving child, Tan Ah Yeang who is now in her 90s provided information on the man himself and the founding of Federal Rubber Stamp Company (FRS). As he was a civil servant (he was an accountant with the Immigration Department), he was not allowed to operate a private company. He founded FRS in c. 1910, and left the business operations to his brothers, Tan Chin Hean and Tan Chin Thye, as well as other relatives. FRS had offices in Penang (Beach Street), Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The Singapore and Straits Directory of 1916 listed the FRS at 168, 170 and 172 High Street, Kuala Lumpur, and at Kuala Lumpur Railway Station. Numerous picture postcards of Penang and Malaya were published by FRS from c. 1910 to c. 1910. FRS closed in c. 1940.

Nikko Studio, a Japanese photographic studio, produced picture postcards of Penang with beautiful and subtle hues. Not much is known of this studio, except that in 1916 its proprietor was K.S. Okaniwa and its address was 21 Penang Road. It operated from c. 1910 to 1940.

A number of real picture postcards have unknown photographers or publishers. It is estimated that among pre-war Penang picture postcards, about 30 percent were taken or published by unnamed photographers or publishers. An example of such a picture postcard is a rare picture postcard of Lim Eu Toh, taken in 1904; its photographer is unknown. Lim Eu Toh was the president of the Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce (1918-1925) and an elected member of the Municipal Commission in 1906.

The earliest known picture postcard to reach Penang was on 26 December 1898. This postcard of a Japanese shrine was sent as a Christmas greeting card to Reverend and Mrs Pykett of the Anglo-Chinese School in Penang by their pupil, S.N. Tanida. The picture postcard was sent from Singapore on 23 December 1898 and arrived in Penang on 26 December 1898. Other photographers and publishers of Penang picture postcards include Arestore, A.M.I., Cooperative Agency, British Empire Series, K.M. Mahmed Esoof, MJ. S.M. Manicum, Pritchard & Co., Penang Photo Store, Raphael Tuck & Sons, Straits Photo, T.C.B., Straits Photo. Valentine & William, Waterlow & Sons, etc.

Nearly all the postcards featured in Penang: 500 Early Postcards are drawn from the personal collection of the author and are reproduced at, or close to, their natural size and colour. As such, the book is a valuable collector’s item as well as an important historical reference, particularly for philatelists and deltiologists.

History of Penang and Its Picture Postcards


The Harbour
Colonial Penang
The Hotels, Schools and Hospitals
The Streets, Roads and Transport
Beyond George Town
The People
Philatelic History

Further Reading
About the Author

Weight1.3 kg
Dimensions23 × 25 × 2.5 cm




Year Published


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