Original film title in Japanese: Marai No Tora (マライの虎)
English translation of film title: Tiger of Malaya
Directed by Masato Koga
Written by Keizo Kimura
Starring: Koji Nakata, Shozo Nanbu, Kichijiro Ueda
Produced by Daiei Film Co.
Year of Release: 1943
Upper Chin Chew Street (“Doh Sau” Undertaker 多寿殡仪馆)
Shophouse at junction of South Bridge Road and Nankin Street
Orchard Road Police Station
IN 1939, with the Second Sino-Japanese War raging, the Japanese government began to enact laws to facilitate direct state intervention in the film industry. Japanese filmmakers were required to acquire official permission to commence movie production and distribution. Productions that were not in line with Japan’s imperial policy were curtailed or censored. A consolidation of the commercial film industry took place and productions were eventually restricted to only three companies (Shochiku, Toho and Daiei). Tiger of Malaya of 1943 was a film produced by Daiei under such limiting conditions.
The film was inspired by the real life story of Tani Yutaka, a Japanese who grew up in Terengganu, Malaya, where his father opened a barbershop. He harboured a deep hatred for the Chinese and the British colonialists after his young sister was murdered in a riotous mob directed at the Japanese. (The Chinese had rioted in retaliation for Japanese aggression in northeastern China, early 1930s.) Tani Yutaka then became a bandit leader operating near the borders of Malaya and Thailand, robbing trains and stealing from wealthy Chinese and British. He was nicknamed “Harimau” (which means ‘tiger’ in Malay) for his fearless behaviour. The Japanese military intelligence agency got wind of his exploits and recruited him. He provided ground information to aid the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941, while conducting guerrilla sabotages of British possessions. Deemed a patriot, Tani Yutaka and his story were eventually seized upon as perfect fodder for a propaganda film about a Japanese-Malayan war hero.
The resulting propagandistic biopic Tiger of Malaya was intentionally filmed on location in Malaya (as a cultural expression of imperial expansion into new foreign lands, symbolic of the ideological construct of the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”?) It features Malaya’s long tropical beaches, Muslim cemeteries, the Malayan railway, its coconut plantations and rural landscapes (and also a tune popular with the locals, Terang Bulan, sung to Japanese lyrics; the melody of the song was later adopted for the Malaysian national anthem “Negaraku”). The film company even built a studio set resembling a public space in Malacca, in addition to the use of stock footage showing the streets of Malacca and Kuala Lumpur. Added to the mix are also the streetscapes of Singapore, the prize of the Malayan Offensive in February 1942. We are able to identify three of the film locations in Singapore that appeared in Tiger of Malaya – Upper Chin Chew Street, South Bridge Road and Orchard Road Police Station.
The film begins with a Chinese triad gangster in dark glasses and hat walking down a wide shophouse street with facades populated by hanging laundry. He surveys his surroundings and quickens his pace to step onto the five-foot-way. Then the film cuts to him at a street corner pacing past several shops before meeting other triad members. (This is a tracking shot, and at some point in the shot, two Samsui female labourers in their distinctive headgears passed right in front of the camera.) Presumably, other than the actors (Japanese actors in Chinese roles), the rest of the people in the shots were not hired extras but the actual local Chinese and residents of the shophouse district. This was in fact the second year into the Japanese Occupation (1942-45), and life seemingly went on as usual, as the film revealed. Beneath the apparent normalcy, the local Chinese were likely living in a climate of despair and fear, with massacres aimed at the Chinese early in the Occupation (Sook Ching) fresh in their memories.
Our key to the identification of the shophouse streets in the film is the signboard of “Doh Sau” Undertaker 多寿殡仪馆. (The signboard reads “多寿.长生寿板.”, which literally translates into “Doh Sau – Longevity Casket”.) “Doh Sau” was known among former Chinatown residents to be located along Upper Chin Chew Street, close to the junction with New Bridge Road. It once functioned as a death house or “sick receiving house”, similar to the more renown ones in Sago Lane.
Upper Chin Chew Street was colloquially known among the local Chinese as “Beancurd Street” 豆腐街, so named for the area’s thriving bean-curd-making cottage industry in the 19th century. It was renown in the 1910s to 20s for its hotels, brothels, opera houses and entertainment venues. In the 1930s, it emerged as a favoured residential area of many Samsui women – female labourers from the Samsui district of China’s Guangdong province. It became one of the most densely populated regions in Chinatown. Overcrowding was rife and living conditions poor. Upper Chin Chew Street (with neighbouring Upper Nankin Street) was eventually expunged in the mid-1970s. The squalid shophouses in a state of disrepair finally succumbed to urban renewal. The vicinity was subsequently redeveloped as Hong Lim HDB Complex and Chinatown Point in the 1980s. The “Doh Sau” Undertaker relocated to a light-industrial estate in Geylang Bahru.
Back to the film, the three aforementioned triad members look across the road to a shophouse occupied by 马来亚聪像 (Malaya Photo) and 泰兴百货公司 (Lane Crawford?). The shop-owner is targeted for having business dealings with the Japanese and is due to receive a warning from the thugs.
The road sign in the shot clearly indicates “South Bridge Road”. These shophouses are identified as those at the corner of Nankin Street and South Bridge Road. They have been conserved and are now a part of the China Square Central shopping mall.
Moments later in the film, Tani Yutaka and his family are introduced into the narrative. They run a barbershop in Kota Bahru. An angry mob of Chinese gangsters carrying weapons and sticks gathers in the town. Japanese businesses are singled out in the mob organized by the thugs. In the confusion, his younger sister was left stranded, and mercilessly shot to death by one of the thugs. Distraught but still thinking rationally, Tani Yutaka proceeded to the local police station to make a report and seek justice for the murder.
That police station, or at least its exterior appearance, was the real Orchard Road Police Station in Singapore (the building was demolished in 1967; formerly situated at the junction of Orchard Road and Scotts Road, where ION Orchard is today). It had masqueraded as a police station in Kota Bahru, where the film story is set.
The real Tani Yutaka passed away in a hospital in Singapore shortly after the British surrendered in February 1942. He is still commemorated by the Japanese community in Singapore today. A memorial stone in the Japanese Cemetery Park (Chuan Hoe Avenue in Hougang) is dedicated to him.
1. Hiroshi Kitamura, Screening Enlightenment: Hollywood and the Cultural Reconstruction of Defeated Japan (pp. 16-17). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.
2. Stephen C. Mercado, The Shadow Warriors of Nakano: A History of the Imperial Japanese Army’s elite intelligence school (p. 31-32). Washington D.C.: Brassey’s, 2002.
3. 区如柏,豆腐街身影已朦胧. 联合早报 (Lianhe Zaobao), 17 May 1987, p. 33.
4. 区如柏,文人墨客往来豆腐节. 联合早报副刊 (Lianhe Zaobao Supplement), 24 March 1996, p. 6.
5. Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen: Japanese Film Culture in the Fifteen Years’ War 1931-1945 (pp. 432-435). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
© 1943 Daiei Film Co.
© 2007 Cosmo Contents
1. Great Britain. Royal Air Force, Singapore photomap, National Library of Australia, MAP G8041.A4 s6 1950. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn502375]
© 2012, 2013, 2014 Toh Hun Ping