Cathay-Keris Studio



Formed in 1953, Cathay-Keris Studio was one of two key film producers (the other being Shaw Brothers) during the peak of filmmaking in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s. The studio produced many black-and-white Malay films, and later also had co-productions with French and Hong Kong filmmakers.1 In 1960, Cathay-Keris produced Singapore’s first Chinese-language film, Lion City. The company ceased film production in 1973.2

Background
The development of Malay films in Malaya is often thought to have begun in the 1930s, as two Malay films – Nelayan (1938) and Leila Majnun (1934) – were made during this period. The popularity of Malay movies was apparent shortly before the outbreak of World War II, when Indonesian movies began to catch on with Malayan viewers.3 Shaw Brothers, noting this trend, joined the bandwagon and produced four Malay films – Mutiara, Ibu Tiri, Bermadu and Tiga Kekasih – between 1938 and 1939. After the war, Cathay, which by then owned a network of cinemas in Malaya, took advantage of the growing popularity of Malay film by forming Cathay-Keris.4


Establishment
In 1953, Cathay’s chairman Loke Wan Tho teamed up with Keris Film Productions’ managing director Ho Ah Loke to form the film production company, Cathay-Keris Studio.5 Cathay-Keris was to challenge the dominance of Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions in the Malay film industry.6 Before the partnership with Loke, Ho was already a partner in Rimau Film Productions, a company he had formed with Gian Singh, the latter a distributor of Hindustani films that were screened in Cathay cinemas.7 After the breakup of Rimau, Ho formed his own company, Keris Film, in 1952, situated on Tampines Road. The following year, Keris Film released its first film, a musical entitled Ramlee Ramlah.8 Loke collaborated with Ho in the production of Buloh Perindu (Buluh Perindu), which was released in 1953 under the banner of Keris Film Productions. The film is believed to be the first Malay-language film shot in colour.9


Cathay-Keris Studio was located at 532-D East Coast Road, adjacent to Cathay’s Ocean Park Hotel. The former Japanese Army barracks at the site were converted into offices and a canteen, and two studios were built. The studio facilities of Keris Film Productions were also moved to the new site. Due to a shortage of skilled workers, Cathay-Keris started with only one film director and about 60 staff. Experienced directors such as L. Krishnan, B. N. Rao and K. M. Basker were later recruited from Shaw’s studio, and they helped to train the crew and technicians on the job.10

Malay-language films
Cathay-Keris made a series of black-and-white Malay-language films including Pontianak in 1957, which was directed by Rao and starred “Kebaya Queen” Maria Menado.11 The tale about a female vampire was a massive hit and ran for three months at the Cathay cinema. The film was dubbed in Cantonese for the Hong Kong market, and even sold to an American television station.12 Sequels Dandam Pontianak (1957), Sumpah Pontianak (1958), Pontianak Kembali (1963) and Pontianak Gua Musang (1964) followed to cash in on Pontianak’s success.13 Orang Minyak, another horror classic based on a Malay folklore, was also produced in 1958.14 In 1958, Basker directed Selendang Delima, a film inspired by a bangsawan (Malay opera) stage production. In 1961, the movie Hang Jebat caused a controversy when the legendary warrior Jebat, who turns against the Malaccan sultan, is portrayed as a hero by director Hussein Haniff. Hussein also directed Dang Anom (1962) and Dua Pendekar (1964).15


Challenges
The distribution of Cathay-Keris’s Malay-language films was very much restricted to the modest Singapore and Malaya markets. Due to barriers on Singapore films in Indonesia, it was difficult to distribute the films there. Locally produced films also faced stiff competition from Indonesian, Hindustani and English-language films, which were produced in colour and deemed more superior. Demand for Malay-language films declined, and Cathay reported a loss of $1.5 million during its first eight years of operation. In 1959, Cathay-Keris started producing Chinese-language features. Lion City, Singapore’s first Chinese-language film, was screened in November 1960. A special screening on 6 December 1960 was attended by Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State) Yusof bin Ishak and his wife.16


Ho’s departure
In 1960, Ho pulled out of Cathay-Keris and left for Kuala Lumpur. Before his departure, he and Loke drew lots for the films they had produced. All the films that Ho took were later discarded, including the first two Pontianak movies. In 1961, Ho took over Merdeka Studio in Kuala Lumpur and made numerous films under its banner.17


High-budget productions
In 1962, Cathay-Keris partnered a team of French filmmakers to produce Your Shadow is Mine, but the film was a box-office disaster. In June 1962, Cathay-Keris co-produced A Star of Hong Kong with Cathay’s Hong Kong studio. The film, starring Hong Kong star Yu Ming and Japanese leading man Akira Takarada, features English, Mandarin and Japanese dialogue. In June 1963, Cathay-Keris produced its first overseas film, Malam-di-Tokyo, which was shot in Japan. Unfortunately, these productions did not bring about the much-needed box-office success for Cathay-Keris.18


Final days
Facing competition from television and the loss of the Indonesian market due to the Indonesian Confrontation (1963–66), Cathay-Keris retrenched 45 studio staff in 1965 and a further 17 staff in 1966. In 1967, Shaw closed down Malay Film Productions. In 1973, Cathay-Keris produced its last film, Satu Titik di-Garisan, marking an end to Malay film production in Singapore.19 For the next few years, the studio focused on production of advertisements, public relations film-lets and news reports before stopping operation in 1977.20




Author

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia



References
1. Millet, R. (2006). Singapore cinema. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 34, 36. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 MIL); Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 132, 139. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
2. Tong, K. (1998, May 22). Film industry here: Ups and downs and ups. The Straits Times, p. 4; Holmberg, J. (1996, February 23). 20 years of movie-making with many award-winners. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 115, 124. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM); Abi. (1987). Filem Melayu dahulu dan sekarang. Shah Alam: Marwilis, pp. 2–4 (Call no.: Malay RSING 791.4309595 ABI)
4. Abi. (1987). Filem Melayu dahulu dan sekarang. Shah Alam: Marwilis, pp. 2–3 (Call no.: Malay RSING 791.4309595 ABI)
5. Millet, R. (2006). Singapore cinema. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 MIL); Hamzah Abdul Majid Hussin. (1997). Memoir Hamzah Hussin: Dari Keris Film ke Studio Merdeka. Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, p. 44. (Call no.: Malay RART 791.4309 HAM); Salleh Ghani. (1989). Sejarah filem Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Variapop Group, p. 5. (Call no.: Malay RSING 791.4309595 SAL); Abi. (1987). Filem Melayu dahulu dan sekarang. Shah Alam: Marwilis, p. 8. (Call no.: Malay RSING 791.4309595 ABI)
6. Ong, S. F. (2005, August 3). Screen gems return from the dead. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Abi. (1987). Filem Melayu dahulu dan sekarang. Shah Alam: Marwilis, p. 8. (Call no.: Malay RSING 791.4309595 ABI); Tong, K. (1998, May 22). Film industry here: Ups and downs and ups. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Page 15 advertisements column 2: Ramlee Ramlah. (1953, June 11). The Singapore Free Press, p. 15; Tong, K. (1998, May 22). Film industry here: Ups and downs and ups. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Salleh Ghani. (1989). Sejarah filem Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Variapop Group, p. 3. (Call no.: Malay RSING 791.4309595 SAL)
9. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 116, 124. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM); Hamzah Abdul Majid Hussin. (1997). Memoir Hamzah Hussin: Dari Keris Film ke Studio Merdeka. Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, p. 44. (Call no.: Malay RART 791.4309 HAM)
10. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 119. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM); Salleh Ghani. (1989). Sejarah filem Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Variapop Group, p. 5. (Call no.: Malay RSING 791.4309595 SAL)
11. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 120. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM); Bissme, S. (2001, January 3). Movie landmarks: The unforgettable movies. The Sun. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
12. Bissme, S. (2001, January 3). Movie landmarks: The unforgettable movies. The Sun. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg; Ong, S. F. (2005, August 3). Screen gems return from the dead. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Millet, R. (2006). Singapore cinema. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 44–45. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 MIL)
14. Oily Man on the screen. (1958, February 14). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 129–130. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM); Bissme, S. (2001, January 3). Movie landmarks: The unforgettable movies. The Sun. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
16. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 124, 126, 132. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
17. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 124, 126. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
18. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 135, 139. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
19. Tong, K. (1998, May 22). Film industry here: Ups and downs and ups. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 139, [List of films under Cathay Keris Productions]. (Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
20. 20 years of movie-making with many award-winners. (1996, February 23). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2006 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Heritage and Culture
Arts>>Performing Arts
Performing arts
Motion picture studios--Singapore
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Leisure and entertainment
Arts
Arts>>Film>>Film direction and production
Ethnic Communities
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