In 1937, movie magnates – brothers Runme Shaw and Run Run Shaw – announced plans to set up film production facilities in Malaya for the making of Malay films. Local newspapers reported that a suitable site at Gopeng, Perak, was found for the studio. Sound recording equipment was acquired from Hong Kong, and two directors from China were recruited to produce a Malay feature with an all-Malay cast. However, it is unclear if these plans materialised into a theatrical release.
In 1940, the brothers began building a $20,000 studio on Moulmein Road in Singapore for producing Malay and Cantonese pictures. Equipment and technicians from Hong Kong were then imported to begin work on a Malay film featuring local Malay actors and actresses as well as popular Malay kronchong (an Indonesian musical style) singers. Directed by Chinese filmmakers Hou Yao and Wan Hoi Ling, the film, titled Mutiara (Pearl), starred local Malay comedian Haron and Tina, a singer from Medan; it was the first Singapore-made Malay talkie produced by Shaw. The film premiered at the Alhambra Theatre on 20 July 1940.
As far as can be established, Hou Yao and Wan Hoi Ling produced some seven Malay films for Shaw before World War II. These include Bermadu (Polygamy), Ibu Tiri (Stepmother) and Terang Bulan di Malaya (Full Moon Over Malaya), among others.
In 1941, Shaw embarked on the construction of a new studio at No. 8 Jalan Ampas, off Balestier Road. The film production facility, called Singapore Film Studios, reopened after the war. The first postwar Malay film, titled Singapura Diwaktu Malam (Night Time in Singapore), premiered on 15 November 1947. Directed by B. S. Rajhans and based on a play by Bachtiar Effendi, the musical comedy was shot in Singapore, Muar and Segamat, with Siput Sarawak and Bachtiar Effendi as leads.
Shaw’s local Malay film enterprise was formally incorporated as Malay Film Productions on 23 August 1949. The studio’s productions were mostly helmed by Indian directors such as B. S. Rajhans, B. N. Rao and L. Krishnan, who were assisted by Chinese and Indian technicians. Shaw also hired Filipino directors such as Ramon Estella. Hussein Haniff was one of the few Malay directors at the time, but more Malay directors and scriptwriters were later added to the fold, with P. Ramlee being the most famous.
Malay Film Productions produced more than 150 Malay films during its heyday. The films were heavily influenced by bangsawan (Malay opera) and the traditions of Indian cinema.Some of the successful films released include Hang Tuah and Penarek Beca (The Trishaw Puller). The company was, however, plagued by frequent labour strikes and declining profits in its latter years, and liquidated in 1967.
1. Malay talkie to be made in Perak. (1937, June 9). The Straits Times, p. 12; Malay talkie to be produced in Ipoh: Venture by Shaw Brothers. (1937, June 9). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Films to be made here. (1940, April 16). The Straits Times, p. 11; Malay films to be made in new Singapore studios. (1940, April 17). The Straits Times, p. 10; Chinese star for local film productions. (1940, April 16). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Bren, F. (2013, August). Woman in white: The unbelievable Wan Hoi-Ling. 通讯, 65, 10–15. Retrieved from the Hong Kong Film Archive website: http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/HKFA/archive/newsletters/65/65_news_e.pdf; Malay film a success: Difficulties of Chinese director. (1940, July 22). The Straits Times, p. 8; First Singapore-made Malay talkie. (1940, July 15). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Law, K. (2014). Reexamining and reconstructing the legend of Hou Yao (abridged version) (pp. 57–58, 150). In Transcending space and time: Early cinematic experience of Hong Kong: Book II pioneer filmmaker Hou Yao. Retrieved May 12, 2015, from Hong Kong Film Archive Leisure and Cultural Services Department website: http://www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/CulturalService/HKFA/documents/2005525/2007294/ebrochure_02.pdf
4. ‘Mutiara’ begins season. (1940, July 24). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 2; Midnight premiere for Singapore-made film. (1940, July 22). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Bren, Aug 2013, pp. 11–12.
6. New film studio in Singapore planned. (1941, June 18). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7; Washermen to move out from film studio. (1941, July 4). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Barnard, T. P. (2008). The Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film. In P. Fu. (Ed.), China forever: The Shaw Brothers and diasporic cinema (p. 156). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Call no.: RSEA 791.43095125 CHI.
7. First post-war Malay film shown. (1947, November 16). The Straits Times, p. 3; Produced locally: Films in Singapore. (1947, November 12). The Singapore Free Press, p. 6; Untitled. (1947, August 29). The Straits Times, p. 5; Page 6 Advertisements Column 1. (1947, November 19). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Registry of Companies. (1949–1973). Malay Film Productions Ltd (Microfilm no.: ROC 743-06). Available from the National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/.
9. Barnard, 2008, pp. 155–158; van der Heide, W. (2002). Malaysian cinema, Asian film: Border crossings and national cultures (pp. 134–137). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. Call no.: RSEA 791.43 VAN.
10. Barnard, 2008, p. 170; van der Heide, 2002, p. 134.
11. Barnard, 2008, pp. 155–162; van der Heide, 2002, pp. 134–137; Barnard, T. P. (2010). Film Melayu: Nationalism, modernity and film in a pre-World War Two magazine. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 41(1), 55–60. Call no.: RSING 959.005 JSA.
12. Barnard, 2008, pp. 160–166.
13. Page 19 Advertisements Column 2: Malay Film Productions Limited. (1967, October 25). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2014 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.