Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Mapping 'The Whirligig of Amusements' in Colonial Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Mapping 'The Whirligig of Amusements' in Colonial Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

On Wednesday 8 June 1904, Wayang Kassim, the most prominent bangsawan (Malay theatre or opera) troupe in the region, performed the Javanese play Panji Semirang, translated into Malay, at the Novelty Theatre on North Bridge Road in Singapore to a packed house of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Europeans, including the Governor of the Straits Settlements, John Anderson. The evening also featured music from a Javanese band and the Town and Volunteer band. (1) Wayang Kassim consisted of between fifty and eighty artists with Malay, Asian, Eurasian, and European backgrounds. (2) The Singapore-based itinerant company was founded in 1883 by S. Kassim in Penang, and advertised itself as 'the only Malay Theatre that is patronised by all members of the community', (3) including many notable guests, such as King Chulalongkorn, in its tours throughout British Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and Siam (see fig. I). (4) The troupe performed different types of plays to attract an ethnically diverse audience, with a repertoire ranging from Aladdin, East Lynne, and Hamlet, to the Malay play Chelorong Cheloring, the Chinese play Sam Pek, Eng Tye, and the Hindi play Zulm-i-Vahashee. (5)

Singapore often hosted several different troupes simultaneously, illustrating that merchants and wage earners then had money and time to spend on leisure activities. That same evening, 8 June 1904, performances by Henry Dallas Musical Company, Harmston's Circus, and two cinematic exhibitions took place at other venues in the city. Wayang Kassim encapsulates many features of the Southeast Asian entertainment world: they were multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and travelled throughout the region (albeit not venturing as far as other itinerant companies). (6) S. Kassim bought a cinematograph in January 1905, which became part of Wayang Kassim's tour of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies for more than a year as the Paris Cinematograph. (7)

Southeast Asia was an interconnected region with considerable cross-border movement of people, goods, technologies, and ideas. (8) The cross-boundary Malay, Indian, and Chinese communities and businesses illustrate this interconnectedness. The Malays lived and moved across national borders in the region, being in Singapore, British Malaya, Dutch East Indies, southern Siam, Mindanao, and parts of Indochina. (9) The Chinese provided a workforce, created trade links in the region, and were an essential aspect of the commercial growth and development of Singapore in particular. (10) Singapore, labelled 'the second doorway of the wide world's trade' in Rudyard Kipling's 'The Song of the Cities', was the most important colonial port for commercial development in the region and an integral part of the British imperial structure with its trade and shipping network and strategic geographical position. (11) It was a diverse and cosmopolitan city; in the 1901 census, 52 different nationalities were recorded. (12) In her travel writings from 1897, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore describes Singapore as 'an ethnological center' that 'holds a whole congress of nations, an exhibit of all the races and peoples and types of men in the world'. (13)

In this article I assess the transnational and interconnected nature of Southeast Asia, and the role of Singapore as a hub for commerce, shipping, and entertainment, by surveying and mapping the regional circulation of amusement companies around the turn of the century. In total, I have found more than one hundred different itinerant entertainment companies which toured Southeast Asia during that period. (14) The article is primarily based on archival material from contemporary colonial newspapers in the region. It consists of three parts: a mapping of the movement of itinerant entertainment companies in Southeast Asia; a survey of the local entertainment world, including theatre, opera, circus, cinema, and music; and an evaluation of the profitability of these companies.

Mapping the transnational entertainment circuit

Industrialisation and urbanisation in the 1800s led to more developed transportation and communication networks, to increased leisure time, and higher demand for, and supply of, public entertainment. …

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