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
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
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
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
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, the studio'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
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
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
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
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. Raphael Millet, Singapore Cinema (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006), 34, 36 (Call no. RSING 791.43095957 MIL); Lim Kay Tong, Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991), 132, 139. (Call no. RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
2. “Film Industry Here: Ups and Downs and Ups,” Straits Times, 22 May 1998, 4; “20 Years of Movie-Making with Many Award-Winners,” Straits Times, 23 February 1996, 2 (From NewspaperSG)
3. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 115, 124; Abi, Filem Melayu Dahulu Dan Sekarang (Shah Alam: Marwilis, 1987), 2–4. (Call no. Malay RSING 791.4309595 ABI)
4. Abi, Filem Melayu Dahulu Dan Sekarang, 2–3.
5. Millet, Singapore Cinema, 34; Hamzah Abdul Majid Hussin, Memoir Hamzah Hussin: Dari Keris Film Ke Studio Merdeka (Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 1997), 44 (Call no. Malay RART 791.4309 HAM); Salleh Ghani, Sejarah Filem Melayu (Kuala Lumpur: Variapop Group, 1989), 5. (Call no. Malay RSING 791.4309595 SAL); Abi, Filem Melayu Dahulu Dan Sekarang, 8.
6. Ong Sor Fern, “Screen Gems Return from the Dead,” Straits Times, 3 August 2005, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Abi, Filem Melayu Dahulu Dan Sekarang, 8; “Film Industry Here.”
8. “Page 15 Advertisements Column 2: Ramlee Ramlah,” Singapore Free Press, 11 June 1953, 15; “Film Industry Here”; Ghani, Sejarah Filem Melayu, 3.
9. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 115; Hussin, Memoir Hamzah Hussin, 44.
10. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 119; Ghani, Sejarah Filem Melayu, 5.
11. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 120; S. Bissme, “Movie Landmarks: The Unforgettable Movies,” Sun, 3 January 2001. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
12. Bissme, “Movie Landmarks”; Ong, “Screen Gems Return from the Dead.”
13. Millet, Singapore Cinema, 44–45.
14. “Oily Man on the Screen,” Straits Times, 14 February 1958, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 129–30; Bissme, “Movie Landmarks.”
16. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 124, 126, 132.
17. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 124, 126.
18. Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 135, 139.
19. “Film Industry Here”; Lim, 55 Years of Cinema, 139.
20. “20 Years of Movie-Making.”
The information in this article is valid as at 2018 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.