Single-shot documentaries or “actualities” of around 1 minute
Directed by Joseph Rosenthal
Produced by Warwick Trading Company
Year of release: 1900
Collyer Quay, Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation Building
Tanjong Pagar Wharves, Keppel Harbour (speculated)
PROBABLY THE EARLIEST RECORDS OF COLONIAL SINGAPORE on cinematographic film, this set of three single-shot documentaries or “actualities” were produced by a British film company (Warwick Trading Company, founded in 1898) and filmed by one of the company’s leading cinematographers Joseph Rosenthal, using their own manufactured product – the ‘Bioscope’ camera.
In John Barnes’ archaeology of Victorian cinema The Beginnings of The Cinema in England, 1894-1901, Vol. 5 – 1900, he listed three films in running order that were shot in Singapore by the Warwick Trading Company. He had referenced notes from a British weekly newspaper The Era (10 November 1900, p. 30d):
CIRCULAR PANORAMA OF SINGAPORE AND LANDING STAGE
This film shows a splendid view of one of the principal streets in Singapore with its grand commercial buildings contrasting with the abutting huts and shanties of the natives, while the scene is further enlivened by the many rickshaws drawn by coolies. Contrast this latter with a single sleepy cab horse plodding along drawing a dilapidated four-wheeler and you gain a good idea of the mode of “rapid” transit in China (sic). As the camera sweeps around a good view of the landing stage is had.
PANORAMA OF SINGAPORE SEA FRONT
Another circular panoramic view of life in one of Singapore’s principal street fronting the sea, showing the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s magnificent buildings, besides many others of different architecture. Much running to and fro by coolies and Europeans. A splendid picture, full of life.
COOLIE BOYS DIVING FOR COINS
When the ship left Singapore our photographer had an opportunity of taking an interesting view of coolie boys diving from the boats, which crowd around the steamer, and pick up the coins thrown to them by the passengers, before the same can sink to the bottom. The dexterity with which these boys again enter their boats and paddle about is wonderful, and bespeaks of long practice of these beggar urchins.
The objective of Joseph Rosenthal’s filming sojourn to the Far East was probably not Singapore given the limited and transient nature of the coverage, instead he was likely en-route to or from China where he was reporting on the Boxer Rebellion between 1900 and 1901.
A copy of Coolie Boys Diving for Coins is held by the British Film Institute.
Watch the film at colonialfilm.org.uk.
The title of the ‘actuality’ – Coolie Boys Diving for Coins – was in fact a misnomer. The coin-divers featured in the film were not “coolie boys”, but likely residents of Malay kampongs in the vicinity who were there to earn their living, by performing the feat of coin-diving for tourists watching from their steamships and liners berthed at the Keppel Harbour (Tanjong Pagar). Perhaps it was somewhat typical of European travellers to term natives of colonised lands as “coolies” and anyone in a subservient position as “boy”. But the expert coin-divers, many of whom were from Pulau Brani’s Kampong Telok Saga, were neither wage-earners nor servants. It’s most inappropriate to name them as “coolie boys”.
We found several reports about the coin-divers in the local press of the 1930s. The divers were in the news after a series of shark attacks. Performing coin-diving was not the kampong men’s only profession. In the face of possible fatalities and injuries from shark bites, many of them quitted coin-diving and found jobs as “fitters, wiremen or lascars”. One death from a shark attack was recorded in July 1938, of 60-year-old Minggu bin Silat from Pulau Brani. By October 1941, The Straits Times would report that the “colony’s coin divers have ‘disappeared’”, leaving the risk of shark attacks – under advice of the Coroner and the Marine Police – for vocations in the “various Services, the Post Office and the Immigration Department.”
1. John Barnes, The Beginnings of The Cinema in England, 1894-1901 Vol. 5 – 1900. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997.
2. Stephen Herbert, A History of Early Film (Vol. 1). London: Routledge, 2000.
3. ‘Diver Caught By Shark’. Singapore Daily News, 28 October 1932, p. 1.
4. ‘The Diving Boys’. The Straits Times. 27 April 1935, p. 13.
5. ‘Shark Risks A Matter Of Fate’. The Singapore Free Press. 21 July 1938, p. 9.
6. ‘Colony’s Coin Divers Have ‘Disappeared’’. The Straits Times. 26 October 1941, p. 5.
© 1900 Warwick Trading Company