An Interview With The Authors Of Xin Ke
As part of its efforts to build film literacy and trace key milestones in Singapore’s film industry development, the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) commissioned the research and publication of a bilingual English-Mandarin book on Xin Ke (新客), Singapore’s first known feature film. The authors, Yvonne Ng Uhde and Dr Jan Uhde, previously produced the groundbreaking Latent Images: Film in Singapore (Oxford University Press, 2000, and Ridge Books, 2010). This time they collaborated with filmmaker and film researcher Toh Hun Ping to access research materials in the Chinese language.
When people think of black-and-white films, most of them think of Charlie Chaplin or P. Ramlee, closer to home. How did you find out about Xin Ke and whose idea was it to write a book about it?
Yvonne Ng Uhde & Jan Uhde: The idea that more should be known about Xin Ke, especially in the English language, came about when Jan and I were writing Latent Images: Film in Singapore (Oxford University Press, 2000, and Ridge Books, 2010). That was when we realised that basically all of the primary research material about Xin Ke – comprising mainly newspaper articles and periodicals from the late 1920s – existed only in the Chinese language and, moreover, written in the archaic form of the period. For those who did not know the language, such as ourselves, trying to learn more about the film without seeing the texts being properly translated into English, was practically mission impossible.
After the second edition of Latent Images was published, when we were certain that Xin Ke had indeed been the first locally-made feature film in Singapore and Malaya, the impetus to write a book about it grew stronger and we started to look for people who could help us in this project. We were very fortunate in being able to team up with filmmaker and film researcher Toh Hun Ping to access research materials in the Chinese language. We’re grateful for the support of the Singapore Film Commission (SFC), who made it possible for us to write a book about Xin Ke in English and Mandarin so that more people can know about the film. We also thank our lucky stars in being able to work with the wonderfully capable publishing house, Kucinta Books, whose expertise in so many areas, including editing and translation work, has helped create a book for which we can all feel happy and proud to be a part of.
Seeing as Xin Ke was the first feature-length Chinese film and that it was dismissed as being poorly made, was it difficult researching and gathering material for the book? What were some of the problems you encountered?
Toh Hun Ping: It was indeed a challenge to research and gather materials regarding a lost film from the 1920s. There’s already existing (published) research done on the film, by literary historians such as Fang Xiu and academics such Prof Hee Wai Siam. What we are doing for the book is built on their findings, and this concerns verifying their references and digging out the primary resources to check for accuracy. Moreover, we scoured newspapers, periodicals and books of the time (mid-1920s) in the hope of uncovering more information or contemporaneous reportage on Xin Ke, its cast and crew, and the film production scene in Singapore and Malaya then. This research involved months spent at libraries – the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Library, Singapore’s National Library, British Library, Hong Kong Central Library, Chongqing Library, National Library of China in Beijing and Shanghai Library – laboriously poring over pages of print materials and reels of microfilm. Many of the resource materials are either not digitised or not “OCR-ed”, and thus not searchable via a database.
The key challenge was deciding which newspaper, periodical or book to search into, and also which period to search into, so that the likelihood or finding materials on Xin Ke and its related contents was high. It was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Many hours of searching often resulted in nothing, which could be rather disheartening. But that’s in the nature of research work.
Besides preserving a piece of Singapore’s history and culture, and shining a light on whom we are (goals that are all very worth perusing, I must add), what else do you hope to achieve by writing this book?
Hun Ping: To have a “bridge” between the English and Chinese film research circles….
Yvonne & Jan: To elaborate on Hun Ping’s point, one of the most frustrating problems when working on the Xin Ke book was the scarcity of research materials, in English, about the film. The English-language press of the 1920s did not seem interested in reporting about a local feature film made in the Chinese language, even if it was the first in British Malaya. The English-speaking world of the colonial rulers and the local elites, and the Chinese-language world of the overseas Chinese, were quite distinct from each other. We realised that there could not be a wider discussion about Xin Ke without its Chinese reference materials being translated into English and without our main chapters in English being translated into Chinese.
We hope that publishing the book in both English and Chinese will serve as a bridge to connect readers and researchers of the two different languages and enable them to have access to the same information. In so doing, we hope fruitful discussions and exchange of ideas may be generated not only within each language group, but also between them.
Can you tell us a bit more about the process of writing Xin Ke? How long did it take before it was finally completed? Bearing in mind that you had to work with a translator and an illustrator, was it a full-time project that everyone was working on simultaneously, or was it something you worked on intermittently and separately?
Jocelyn Lau: Just like in the Xin Ke filmmaking company headed by Liu Beijin in 1926 and 1927, everyone on this book team juggled multiple roles. In many senses of the word, producing this book was a full-time job, undertaken by very talented, motivated and committed people from the different industries.
The Uhdes are based in Canada for much of the year. The researcher Hun Ping and the rest of the team members are mostly situated in Singapore. Two of the four persons who worked on the English/Chinese translations are our own team members – Hun Ping himself, and Lucien Low. Lucien was also responsible for translating the English chapters, after they had been written, into Chinese. Dan Wong and his team provided more than 40 illustrations for the book. But unlike in 1927, these days there’s email, there’s Google Drive, there’s WeTransfer, and there are even free calls on Skype and WhatsApp, so physical limitations in project work are very much a thing of the past. In fact, apart from the one meeting with Dan to discuss the details of the project, all communication over the subsequent one-and-a-half years was conducted via email and text. The book launch this coming Saturday, 31 August, will only be the second time that Dan and we are all meeting again in person!
Tell us a bit more about the producer of the film, Liu Beijin. I read that he had high hopes for the film. He sounds like a resourceful individual, setting up an office in Pekin Street, renting a house at Meyer Road to serve as a studio, and even buying French cinematographic equipment!
Yvonne: Liu Beijin was born in Singapore in 1902 to a prominent overseas Chinese family in Muar, Malaya (now Malaysia). He was also the paternal uncle of Liu Kang, Singapore’s pioneer artist, and the granduncle of the prominent Singapore architect Liu Thai Ker. Although he was born into a life of luxury, Liu Beijin was said to have been courteous to, and well-liked by, everyone, young and old.
Liu Beijin had a deep interest in film, and he also believed that film as an art form could change society for the better. Thus, he set up the Nanyang Liu Beijin Independent Film Production Company, which was one of the earliest filmmaking companies in Nanyang (Southeast Asia), and the first in Singapore. He then went about recruiting the crew and cast, and seeking out the script, studio and equipment to make his film, Xin Ke, a melodrama about a fresh immigrant from China, who comes to Malaya in search of better fortunes.
We have devoted an entire chapter to Liu Beijin’s life and the background to his film production efforts in our book. We have even included an extract from an oral history interview with Liu Kang, in which the late artist talks about his uncle. You are welcome to our book launch this Saturday to learn more!
I also found out that when the film was screened in Victoria Theatre on 4 March 1927, only six out of nine reels were shown, with the last three reels being withheld by the British. Would you say that this was probably the first example of censorship in Singapore? Is there any hope at all of retrieving the lost reels? It would be interesting to watch the film in its entirety.
Hun Ping: That’s a good question. It is not at all the first example of film censorship in Singapore – and we’ve discussed this topic, in our book, in the section on film censorship. But it’s probably a “yes” for the first locally produced feature film, i.e. to be censored by the authorities.
We don’t think there’s any hope of retrieving the “censored” three reels. There might still be a very slim chance that the other six reels might be located in film vaults or hidden elsewhere around the world. However, we consider it fortunate that two versions of the film synopses and the 1926 film intertitles are still extant, and we have reproduced them in full in our book.
In your opinion, what are some of the possible reasons that so few local Chinese films were produced then? It was only two decades later before we saw the next major Chinese production!
Hun Ping & Yvonne: Film-making was a capital-intensive endeavour and involved many risks. By the 1920s, only a handful of filmmakers from overseas managed to shoot films in Singapore. There was also a dearth of talent familiar with the rather novel medium and its technology here. The residents here were mainly consumers of film. Only personalities like Liu Beijin, who had financial clout, were daring enough and ultimately able to pull it off. The fact that Liu Beijin’s groundbreaking attempt failed to a certain extent might have discouraged aspirant local filmmakers or investors to follow in his footsteps.
Also, there were already many, many Shanghai-produced Chinese films being imported into Singapore and Malaya. Although many of these were inferior productions, local cinemagoers could still enjoy a number of quality and entertaining Chinese films. There wasn’t a strong need or consciousness to “go local”, nor was there a demand for films that were uniquely local or “Nanyang-based” then. Even in the field of Chinese literature, consumers and writers here saw themselves as sojourners and were content with creating and consuming writings based upon experiences, thoughts and events in and about China. The shift towards localisation started from around the mid-1920s and only gained momentum in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Lastly, what are some of your favourite local black-and-white films? I must confess to growing up on a steady diet of Pontianak and Orang Minyak Malay films as a child.
Hun Ping: Films by Hussain Haniff. He’s a truly a film artist and auteur, and very versatile too. I’d recommend that everyone watches Hang Jebat (1961), Dang Anom (1962), which are re-interpretative period dramas; Masok Angin Keluar Asap (1963), Gila Talak (1963), both irreverent social comedies; and Chinta Kaseh Sayang (1965), an unconventional, almost “feminist” drama about infidelity.
Yvonne & Jan: On our part, some of P. Ramlee’s films, which are on a more intimate scale, and which often reflect on issues faced by the Malay community at the time, linger on in the memory. One example is P. Ramlee’s directorial debut, Penarek Beca (1955), about a poor trishaw driver who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter. This contemporary social drama launched Ramlee’s career. Another film that deals with the topic of love between the different social classes of society is the much darker Ibu Mertuaku (1962), a tragic tale of the doomed romance between a musician and a rich woman’s daughter. Among P. Ramlee’s most charming films are his comedies, including the hilarious Madu Tiga (1964), about a man who has three wives in secret but the wives eventually find out. In all these films, P. Ramlee directs, acts and sings in them too, revealing a versatile talent that shows why he is still one of the most beloved Malay film icons of the 1950s and 60s.