Original film title in Malay: Nilam
Literal English translation of film title: Sapphire
Chinese title: 魔宮劍影
Directed by B. S. Rajhans
Written by A. R. Iyer (story)
Songs by Osman Ahmad
Produced by Malay Film Productions (Shaw Brothers)
Cast: Siput Sarawak, S. Roomai Noor, Daeng Harris, P. Ramlee
Tongkang anchorage off Beach Road and Crawford Street, along Rochor River and Kallang River
Alkaff Gardens and Lake (off Upper Serangoon Road)
It remains a mystery to us who A. R. Iyer really was. Mr. Iyer, presumably a Tamil, was credited as the storywriter of Nilam and three later Malay Film Productions releases (Aloha , Rachun Dunia  and Sejoli ). Was he a friend of B. S. Rajhans, Shaw Brothers’ prized director of their post-war Malay film productions? Or was he an acquaintance of the Shaw Brothers, who were constantly on the look out for talents who might contribute to their expanding film business? A search in the local newspapers archives didn’t reveal much, other than a report about a similarly named patriot who gave an “address on India’s war efforts” (Singapore Free Press, 18 Oct 1941, p. 5). He did have a knack for conjuring up exotic-tinged fables set in far-flung places; Aloha flew the movie audiences out to Hawaii, and Nilam set them sailing from Java to an Egypt where everyone looks and speaks Malay. And more incredibly, the making of these local film productions never deserted Singapore for the more excitable (and heavier on the budget) foreign lands in the Pacific or the Middle East. Singapore, on film, could be contrived to appear just as alluringly strange or romantic.
In Nilam, Ahmad (S. Roomai Noor) is urged by his mother to leave his village in pursuit of greater adventures overseas. He inherits a magic holy ‘keris’ and takes to the oceans with his newfound friend Jaiman (Daeng Harris) at the ship anchorage. They sail from Java halfway round the globe and land in an Arabian kingdom in Egypt. There, Ahmad falls in love with princess Nilam (Siput Sarawak), magically cures her of a sleep-dancing spell, and is about to marry her with the king’s consent. But the scheming prime minister, in favour of his own son’s marriage to princess Nilam, advises that Ahmad should bring back a mythical sapphire to the palace as a betrothal gift, from a cave in a faraway place guarded by vicious Egyptian mummies.
The film story mainly happens in the interiors of Arabian royal palaces and Egyptian dance clubs, which would have called for shooting in studio sets. But Nilam’s narrative did offer a handful of opportunities to shoot outdoors on location, with a meandering storyline that runs, or sails, from a Javanese seaport where Ahmad makes his departure; over a lake in the garden where Ahmad confesses his love for Nilam; through rugged rocky landscapes where Ahmad and Jaiman seek the sapphire; and down granite quarries where Ahmad becomes a blind slave, late in the film. The film crew matched the fictional Javanese seaport with the Tongkang anchorage at Kallang Basin, then situated off Beach Road and Crawford Street (as we reasonably speculate), close to the mouths of Rochor and Kallang Rivers. They picked the Alkaff Gardens and Lake, located off Serangoon Road (we are more certain with this one), to masquerade as the Egyptian garden of love in the film. And they probably combed the island to pair Singapore’s outlying rugged landscapes (rocky outcrops, granite quarries) with the desert landscapes of the imaginary Middle East (just as we did to search for similar-looking rocky places in today’s predominantly urban Singapore.)
‘Tongkang’ (a word probably derived from ‘belongkang’, a Sumatran term for a river cargo boat) is a cargo-carrying sea vessel that is propelled by sail, chiefly used to transport charcoal, firewood and piling logs as part of the inter-coastal and inter-island trade in the region (Indonesia, Malaya, Thailand). Before Mainland China came under communist rule in 1949, tongkangs (or junks), mostly setting sail from Hainan, had already been used to ship cargo between China and Singapore since the 19th century. Away from the major harbours at Keppel and Tanjong Pagar which catered to steamships, the tongkangs were assigned to anchor and congregate at the secondary port town at Kallang Basin (which we wrote about earlier in our review of Singapore .) There, a tongkang and ship repair-and-building industry also grew in tandem with the increase in usage of the tongkang anchorage at the port town. Tanjong Rhu later replaced Beach Road as the venue of the anchorage, where new warehouses and wharves were built to accommodate the tongkang trade.
Of the various estates and properties owned by the well-to-do along Upper Serangoon Road, Alkaff Gardens, which belonged to the notable Alkaff family of traders and landowners was one the most well-known landmarks and destinations for weekend revelers. (The family also owned the Alkaff Mansion at Telok Blangah Hill). Designed by the Japanese, the landscaped gardens and lake, with fake hills, and facilities for leisure boat rowing, opened to the public in 1929. Its popularity went into decline in the 1940s. Japanese shelling during the war destroyed the bridges over the lake. The garden site was eventually sold to a property developer in 1949. The lake was drained in the mid-1960s and the gardens made way for a school (Willow Avenue Secondary School). The Cedar Girls’ Secondary School took over the campus in the 1990s and has been there since. In the interim during the 1950s when the garden was half-abandoned, the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions, with its studio in nearby Balestier, brought life and romance to it whenever a film script called for a lovers’ serenade in an Eden-like garden (this is common to Pembalasan , Rayuan Sukma  and Patah Hati  too.)
As we watched the above sequences from Nilam, we wonder where in 1940s Singapore could a film crew tap onto for filming locations to depict the harshest of landscapes, as settings for a gruelling treasure-hunting adventure, or a slave-driving labour camp? Rocky outcrops? Barren hills? Granite quarries? By referring to maps and geological studies made in Singapore, we discovered that hard igneous rock (granite) made up the ground and foundation of the central third of the Singapore island, with other pockets of similar geological stuff found in Changi and offshore Pulau Ubin. Not surprisingly, therein were the areas where granite quarrying began to take place in Singapore – Pulau Ubin, Bukit Timah, Mandai (in that order chronologically, up to early 1950s), and subsequently Bukit Gombak and Bukit Panjang (developed in the late 1950s to 1960s, amidst a construction boom). We tracked down a few of the possible granite quarries in Singapore (most are quarry lakes now) where the film crew of 1949’s Nilam might have used for location shoots. Where sapphires and mummies were hidden, and slaves whipped into submission…
Film locations of Nilam (in Singapore):
Alkaff Gardens and Lake [35:56]
Tongkang anchorage [8:07]
Granite quarries [1:29:05]
From James Harding and Ahmad Sarji’s ‘P. Ramlee: The Bright Star’, 2002, page 25:
“Once again the crowd-pleasing partnership of Siput Sarawak and Roomai Noor graced an exotic story which mingled elements of the ‘Arabian Nights’ with those of fairy-tales. The richly complicated plot, set in Java, involved a magic keris, an evil genius, a flying horse, a priceless jewel guarded by haunted mummies, a belt that made the wearer invisible, a blind man who regains his sight, and the customary finale of a happy marriage between two lovers after many adventures. To make confusion worse confounded, Siput Sarawak played two roles: that of Nilam, daughter to the King of Egypt, and that of the beautiful dancer Dilara. Much trick photography, supported by Osman Ahmad’s insinuating melodies sung by P. Ramlee, enhanced a mixture that was typical of Malay Film Productions films at the time.”
Subservient guards in the Arabian kingdom in the film were presumably played by actors in blackface. Were they playing black-African slave soldiers? (10:01; 12:48; 21:35; 1:13:25; 1:16:55; 1:37:28)
1. Amir Muhammad, 120 Malay Movies (pp. 41-43). Petaling Jaya: Matahari Books, 2010.
2. Ngiam Tong Dow, ‘Tongkangs – The Passage of a Hybrid Ship’, in Aileen Lau(ed.) Maritime Heritage of Singapore (pp. 173-175). Suntree Media, Singapore, 2005.
3. ‘S’pore junk building industry hard hit’, The Singapore Free Press, 2 August 1950, p. 7.
4. Ray Tyers, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then and Now. Singapore: Landmark Books, c.1993.
5. Julian C. Wallace et al., ‘Geotechnical Feasibility of Rock Cavern Construction in the Bukit Timah Granite of Singapore’, in J. Zhao and V. Choa (ed.), Rock Caverns for Underground Space Utilization (pp. 53-72). Singapore: Nanyang Technological University, 1993.
6. Zhao Jian, Lee Kim Woon & Victor Choa, Construction and Utilization of Rock Caverns in the Bukit Timah Granite of Singapore. Singapore: NTU-PWD Geotechnical Research Centre, Nanyang Technological University, 1995.
‘sgfilmhunter’ blog on the film locations of Nilam:
Where Sojourners Make Acquaintance:
Where They Confess Their Love For Each Other:
Of Rugged Landscapes, Mysterious Rock Caverns, Slavery and Rehabilitated Granite Quarries:
© 1949 Malay Film Productions
1. Great Britain. Royal Air Force, Singapore photomap, National Library of Australia, MAP G8041.A4 s6 1950. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn502375]
2. Great Britain. Ordnance Survey, Singapore Island, National Library of Australia, MAP G8040 1941. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn1900708]
3. Federated Malay States. Survey Department, Singapore and Johore, National Library of Australia, MAP G8040 1935. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn382576]
© 2013 Toh Hun Ping
Your informed write-up and historical pictures are indeed amazing.
When I was a young man then in Singapore, though I was living hardly a minute walk from Cedar Girls’ Secondary School and also Allahyarham P Ramlee’s residence at one time, I was not aware ‘Sennett Estate’ was once the late Alkaff’s Gardens.
I didn’t know P. Ramlee’s residence was in the Sennett Estate. Do you remember the address?
P Ramlee also appeared in film scenes that were shot in Alkaff Gardens (‘Patah Hati’, with Neng Yatimah).
Will write and post about the film locations in ‘Patah Hati’ soon.
Thanks for the response.
I stand corrected, if my memory is still reliable, I believe his residence was in Mulberry Avenue. Again I may be wrong, he had a huge American car, Dodge.
From memory, most of the time he was not home and after school hours, several girls from Cedar Girls’ Secondary School would visit home for some drinks (non-alcoholic) and tit-bits. There would always be a lady to take good care of those visitors.
Kindly accept my apology.
A friend of mine has just informed me, Allahyarham P Ramlee’s home was in Cedar Avenue, Sennett Estate and not Mulberry Avenue.
Age is catching up, unfortunately.
Thank you for sharing this piece of information with us. And clarifying that P. Ramlee and his family did indeed lived along Cedar Avenue. Somehow, I have a hunch that his house may still be around and standing till today…
Like you, I have a feeling the two-storey terrace house is still standing and it is hoped you will be able to find out more about it.
To me and a countless number of his fans, Allahyarham P Ramlee is ‘immortal’ and will live in our memory and that of generations to come forever, being the most multi-talented and gifted film star the world has seen but at the same time, he was the poorest money-wise. He had devoted his entire life-time for the love to entertain others and also, for others to make money out of him. It is just like a candle in the wind in a dark night.
Since he had always sacrificed for the comfort of others, he inadvertently forgot to create some wealth for himself. As a result of which, the world’s greatest film star lived and passed, as a poor man without any money and just a handful of friends. RIP P Ramlee.
I have watched all of P Ramlee’s classic films for an umpteen number of times and never ever feel bored. There is something special in him, not possessed by others. He could assume any role with ease because of his in-born natural talent.
Yesterday I happened to watch his ‘Ibu Mertua-ku’ (produced in 1962) and I realized the car used by Nyonya Mansor is the Dodge, which P Ramlee drove when he was living in Cedar Avenue.
I, too, am a fan of P. Ramlee, but a relatively late one. In fact, I was drawn to watch and collect all these old classic Malay films after being first introduced to P. Ramlee’s venerable films about two to three years back. We, the “late-comers”, are fortunate enough to have access to a substantial number of these old films through VCDs published in Malaysia in the late 90s/early 2000s. Many of the VCDs are now out-of-print, but a great number of them have been uploaded onto Youtube. Their image quality, however, leaves much to be desired and most films were un-subtitled. I tried to pick up the Malay language but my ability to understand the dialogue in the films is extremely limited. The website ‘filmkita.com’ and Amir Muhammad’s ‘120 Malay Movies’ are helpful in providing synopses and gists of the films’ stories, but these are still not exhaustive and complete. There are still gaps to be filled. I hope to do something for these old ‘made-in-Singapore’ films, the least an avenue for young (especially non-Malay) audiences to gain an appreciation for them….
By the way, do you know the house in ‘Ibu Mertua Ku’ is still standing today, along Upper East Coast Road? It belonged to the Shaw Brothers. It no longer fronts the sea (due to land reclamation) and is now used as a childcare centre and kindergarten.
Thanks Pak Harris for sharing!
Even though you are a late-comer the amount of information, regarding those classic Malay films, you share with us, is second to none. You have done a wonderful job and I am sure, you must have done lots of research. Please keep up with this wonderful job.
As a matter of interest, how were you introduced to these films, hardly a few years ago?
When I was a young boy, aged 4 or 5, my mother brought me to watch those classic films at Empire Theatre (just wondering, whether this building is still around). We used to live in a timber-house with iron-roof, situated along Tampines Road, close to Jalan Hock Chye. Most likely, this area has been redeveloped, some long while ago.
I am thrilled to learn the Shaw Brothers’ house, at Upper East Coast Road, is still standing and now being used for a good cause. Is the same house, used for ‘Madu Tiga’ and also, in some other SB’s Malay films?
Thank you for your encouragement!
How I was introduced to these films?
A friend of mine was keen to know more about P. Ramlee’s music, so he had asked me to track down his films. I did and in turn became an ardent fan, not only of P. Ramlee’s music and films, but other figures associated with Malay Cinema of the 50s and 60s. (I was just watching “Ayer Mata”(1953) a week ago and took a liking to the songs in the film composed by Osman Ahmad.)
Following your comment, I did a check in the 1969 Street Directory. There was indeed an “Empire Theatre” close to where you used to live. It was at the junction of Lowland Road and Upper Serangoon Road. I believe it has been torn down to make way for one of the Kovan MRT station entrances and the neighbouring condominium.
Yes, ‘No. 440A Upper East Coast Road’ is one of the houses that appeared in ‘Madu Tiga’! Besides ‘Ibu Mertua Ku’ and ‘Madu Tiga’, it also turned up in many other SB Malay films — ‘Mogok’, ‘Masharakat Pinchang’, ‘Darah Muda’, ‘Neracha’, and ‘Mambang Moden’.
I’m also checking out which of the ‘Madu Tiga’ houses “survived the test of time”. Besides the Upper East one, there was one at Holland Hill (still standing), and one probably at Loyang (I’m not sure if it’s still around). All of them belonged to the Shaw Brothers.
Due to land constraint in this tiny island in the sun, many historical places and buildings had to give way to redevelopments, unfortunately.
It is sad to learn the ‘Empire Theatre’ (6th mile – ‘Batu 6’) had been bull-dozed. Now ‘Lowland Road’ is back in my memory and thank you. There is another SB cinema at the 5th mile (‘Batu 5’) which we frequented and I am just wondering whether or not it is still standing. I am not able to recall its name. Probably the cinema was swallowed by road-widening.
It is good to know, the houses that belonged to SB are still around. Historically, they are priceless.
Classic Malay films and songs of the late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s are indeed evergreen. Composers like Osman Ahmad, Ahmad Ja’afar, Yusof B and some others were really very experienced and talented. On top of this, we had a pool of remarkable and impressive singers like P Ramlee, R Azmi, Mohd Yatim and Jasni, amongst others. Also, we must not forget to mention Momo Latiff, Nona Asiah, Rubiah and Lena Abdullah, etc. The golden era of classic Malay films and songs will never ever be repeated. This lot of people put in their life and soul into whatever they did, more for the love rather than the money – (just like Tan Howe Liang, the first Singapore Olympic medalist and Tan Peng Soon, Singapore world’s greatest badminton player, ever). Those films and songs are heirlooms which are to be cherished and valued for generations to come.
One of the leading actresses in the early Malay films was Rokiah Ja’afar. Unfortunately, not much is known about her. Is there any chance you are able to research on this subject and share it with us, on this platform?
Fans of P Ramlee and company are lucky to have people like you, sharing with us the great information of yesteryear. We have to thank your friend for turning you into an ardent fan of P Ramlee, as well as, the golden era of Malay films and songs.
Thanks Pak Harris for your suggestions! I believe this website can indeed be a platform to share information on matters beyond just film locations. A review (and online-catalogue) of songs from old movies made in Singapore is on the cards for the future, probably a year or two later, after I’m more or less done with film locations.
Unfortunately, I’m not able to spare adequate time for research on film actors and actresses. I do apologize. I’m actually more inclined to find out more about the directors of the classic Malay films — Hussain Haniff, M. Amin, Omar Rojik, K.M. Basker and other expatriate film directors once employed by the Shaw Brothers, eg. Ramon Estella, Phani Majumdar.
Pak Harris, perhaps you will be keen to share with us your knowledge of personalities associated with the classic Malay films?
Do you keep a blog?
I appreciate your response.
Unfortunately, I do not keep a blog on those classic Malay films, since my knowledge about them is rather shallow. I only love watching them, especially anything that has to do with our Allahyarham P Ramlee & his versatile supporting actors and actresses.
I can proudly say I have watched virtually all of P Ramlee’s films but up to this day, the only Hollywood film that I ever watched is ‘Ben-Hur’.
It is hoped, once you have finished all your other more pressing projects, you will be able to research on the past of our other popular actors and actresses.
Meanwhile all fans and lovers, of golden era of Malay films and songs, are privileged to have someone like you, sharing your vast knowledge with us.