Cathay-Keris Studio

Cathay-Keris Studio, one of two key producers (the other being Shaw Brothers) in the once-thriving filmmaking industry in Singapore, was formed in 1953. During its time, the studio produced many black-and-white Malay movies, and had co-productions with French and Hong Kong filmmakers. Cathay-Keris also produced Singapore's first Chinese-language film, The Lion City. It ceased to produce movies in 1973.

The development of Malay films in Malaya is often thought to have begun in the 1930s, based on the fact that two Malay films, Nelayan and Laila Majnun, were made during this period. The popularity of Malay movies was evident shortly before the outbreak of World War II (WWII), when Indonesian movies began to catch on with Malayan viewers. The 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 WWII, Cathay, which by then had already owned a network of cinemas in Malaya, took advantage of the growing popularity of Malay movies by forming Cathay-Keris.

In 1953, Cathay's chairman Loke Wan Tho teamed up with Keris Film Productions' managing director Ho Ah Loke to form Cathay-Keris Studio. Cathay-Keris was to challenge the dominance of Malay Film Productions (owned by Shaw Brothers) in the Malay film industry. Before the LokeHo partnership, 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. After the breakup of Rimau, Ho formed his own company, Keris Film, in 1952. Loke collaborated with Ho in the production of Buloh 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.

Cathay-Keris Studio operated 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 shifted 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.

Malay-language films
Cathay-Keris made a series of black-and-white Malay-language films, including Pontianak in 1957 directed by Rao and starring "Kebaya Queen" Maria Menado. 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 was even sold to an American television station. Sequels Dandam Pontianak (1957), Sumpah Pontianak (1958), Pontianak Kembali (1963) and Pontianak Gua Musang (1964) followed to cash in on Pontianak's success. Orang Minyak, another horror classic based on a Malay folklore, was also produced. In 1958, Basker directed Selendang Delima, a movie inspired by a bangsawan (Malay opera) stage production. In 1961, the movie Hang Jebat caused a controversy when the warrior Jebat, who turned against the Malaccan sultan, was portrayed as a hero by director Hussein Haniff. Hussein also directed Dang Anom and Dua Pendekar.

Unfortunately, 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 was on the decline and Cathay reported a loss of $1.5 million during its first eight years of operation. To keep pace with changes, Cathay-Keris started to produce Chinese-language features in 1959. The Lion City, Singapore's first Chinese-language film, was screened in November 1960. A special screening on 6 December 1960 was attended by the Yang di-Pertuan Negara Inche Yusof bin Ishak and his wife.

Ho's departure
In 1960, Ho pulled out from 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, which included the first two classic Pontianak movies. In 1961, Ho took over Merdeka Studio in Kuala Lumpur and made numerous films under its banner.

High-budget productions
In 1962, Cathay-Keris partnered a team of highly decorated 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, contained English, Mandarin and Japanese dialogue. In June 1963, Cathay-Keris produced Malam-di-Tokyo, its first overseas film shot in Japan. Unfortunately, these glamorous productions did not bring about the much-needed box-office success for Cathay-Keris.

Final days
Facing competition from television and the loss of the Indonesian market due to the Indonesian Confrontation, Cathay-Keris retrenched 45 studio staff in 1965, and a further 17 staff in 1966. In 1967, Shaw closed down its Malay Film Productions. A few years later, in 1973, Cathay-Keris produced its last film, Satu Titik Di-Garisan, marking an end to Malay film production in Singapore. For the next few years, the studio focused on production of advertisements, public relations filmlets and news reports before stopping operation in 1977.

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia

Abi. (1987). Filem Melayu dahulu dan sekarang. Shah Alam: Marwilis, pp. 1–8.
(Call no.: RSING 791.4309595 ABI)

Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema. Singapore: Landmark Books for Meileen Choo, pp. 115–141.
(Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM) 

Millet, R. (2006). Singapore cinema. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 3447, 5253, 5557, 6267.  
(Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 MIL)

Salleh Ghani. (1989). Sejarah filem Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Variapop Group, pp. 1–5.
(Call no.: RART Malay 791.4309595 SAL)

Uhde, J., & Uhde, Y. N. (2000). Latent images: Film in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 79, 2128.
(Call no.: RSING 384.8095957 UHD)

Bissme, S. (2001, January 3). Movie landmarks: The unforgettable movies. The Sun [Electronic version].

Father of the Malay movie industry. (2004, December 5). Sunday Mail [Electronic version].

Holmberg, J. (1996, February 23). Cathay: 20 years of movie-making with many award-winners. The Straits Times [Electronic version].

Ong, S. F. (2005, August 3). Screen gems return from the dead. The Straits Times [Electronic version].

Ong, S. F. (2005, July 15). No spotlight for Ms Cathay. The Straits Times [Electronic version].

Screen siren . (2005, April 10). Sunday Mail [Electronic version].

Tong, K. (1998, May 22).  Film industry here: Ups and downs and ups. The Straits Times [Electronic version].

Further resources
Hamzah Abdul Majid Hussin. (1997). Memoir Hamzah Hussin: Dari Keris Film ke Studio Merdeka. Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
(Call no.: RART Malay 791.4309 HAM)

M. Amin. (1998). Layar perak dan sejarahnya. Shah Alam: Fajar Bakti.
(Call no.: RSEA 791.4309595 MAM  -[ART])

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.

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