Short travel films
Souvenirs of Singapore
Directed by Herford Tynes Cowling (H. T. Cowling)
Produced by Paramount-Holmes Travel Pictures
Year of release: 1920
Film Locations: Singapore harbour and town, Tapioca plantations, Chinatown(?), Little India(?)
In the Garden of the East
Produced by Burton Holmes
Distributed by National Non-Theatrical Motion Pictures
Year of release: 1922
AMERICAN TRAVELER, PHOTOGRAPHER AND FILMMAKER ELIAS BURTON HOLMES was a pioneer of the ‘travel lecture’ – an educational-entertainment lecture program to a paid audience consisting of travel stories, slide shows and documentary motion pictures photographed all over the world. He was said to have coined the term “travelogue”. His enterprise, which began in the late 1890s with lectures accompanied by hand-coloured photographic glass slides, eventually gravitated to film lectures around the turn of the century. The repertoire was wide-ranging: North and South America, Europe, Russia, India, Japan, Ethiopia, and countries in almost every continent of the planet. “To travel is to possess the World”, he would claim in advertisements for his films and lectures.
Many of Burton Holmes’ film lectures hinged on the exotic and the scenic, and catered favorably to escapist audiences. As his film travel business expanded, he collaborated with major Hollywood film studios (such as Paramount), brought on board assistants and sent them across the globe with film cameras and notebooks. While he led his assistants-cinematographers on certain voyages, he also maintained his lecture routines touring the major cities of North America. He would make a total of over 8000 lectures in his lifetime. In late 1918, one of Holmes’ globetrotting director-cinematographers, Herford Tynes Cowling, arrived at Singapore after a voyage covering Canada, the South Pacific Islands, Australia, Philippines, China, Japan, Siam (Thailand) and Malaya (The Moving Picture World, 21 December 1918).
By March 1919, Cowling was back in New York with a stock of negatives for Paramount’s exhibitors’ supply and wrote about his experiences traveling “into warm climate”, “making scenes in strange lands”, “going into the remote parts (of Siam) on the back of elephants”, and breaking “down religious traditions, aided by the Sultan of Perak” (The Moving Picture World, 22 March 1919). Among the footage he garnered would have been documentary scenes from Singapore, which were later put together into a single-reel travel film named Souvenirs of Singapore. An American movie trade magazine Motion Picture News (11 September 1920) described the film:
“Singapore Travel Picture to be Released
“Souvenirs of Singapore” will be released on August 29th in the series of Paramount-Burton Holmes Travel pictures. The harbor of Singapore is a world-cross-roads and the town itself is a wonderful mixture of all kinds of interesting people. There is a Chinese section and a Hindoo and a Parsee section.”
Seven years later, the travel film was still in circulation. The Educational Screen, (Vol. VI, No. 5, May 1927) provided a more substantial description:
“Souvenirs of Singapore (1 reel) Burton Holmes – We are visiting the capital of the Straits Settlements, ruled by Britain and policed by Sikhs. The lure of wealth brings men from China here, and men from India near the Black Man’s burden. We see on breast and brow the marks of caste. Two-wheeled carts pass in the streets, the shops are rich in color. One-half billion dollars’ worth of merchandise is carried every year by the “Mosquito Fleet” plying in and out of this noted world port. Loads of tapioca from the roots of the tapioca tree come to the central station where the raw material is worked over in vats. Tamil maidens are arrayed in diamonds as they work….”
We reasonably presume that footage from Souvenirs of Singapore was subsequently re-edited together with other materials that Cowling shot, into a Burton Holmes 1-reel travel film In the Garden of the East, which was released and listed in the movie trade periodical Moving Picture Age (August 1922). It was classified under “Geographical Films – Recommended for Classroom Instruction”. The film was described as such: “Java, picturesque island in East Indies owned by Holland; Tandjong Priok, Batavia, street scenes, steam railway, bamboo trees, the Botanical Gardens of Buiten-Zoorg, irrigating sugar cane, Chinese ships, bay and fleet of Singapore, junks, old-time vessels, making tapioca, native girls, country scenes, native dance, strolling entertainers, Oriental geese.”
Long thought to be lost, some 200 reels of Burton Holmes’ travel films dating from 1898 to 1952 were rediscovered in 2004. The films are now in the collection and storage of the George Eastman House museum and film archive.
We wonder if Souvenirs of Singapore and In the Garden of the East, or any footage of Singapore for that matter, are amongst the collection.
Further reading and watching:
Burton Holmes, Extraordinary Traveler – burtonholmes.org
Preserving the World of Burton Holmes (by George Eastman House) –
Films by Burton Holmes in The Travel Film Archive on youtube –