Books about Malaya - philatelic, postal history & social history
Johor: 300 early postcards by Dr.Cheah Jin Seng - Review by
Dr.Gong Ngie Hee
Prof. Cheah Jin Seng's latest book will again be warmly welcomed by deltiologists and philatelists alike especially since there have been very few publications on the early picture postcards of Johor. This is the author's sixth book after Singapore: 500 Early Postcards ; Malaya: 500 Early Postcards ; Perak: 300 Early Postcards ; Selangor: 300 Early Postcards  and Penang: 500 early postcards .
The 192-page fully illustrated book has a foreword by H. R. H. Permaisuri Johor Raja Zarith Sofiah binti Almarhum Sultan Idris Shah, stating that 'Our heritage is something to be cherished and preserved. This book will be a sentimental journey for the older generation, and a reminder to the younger generation of how far we have come'. The book has similar dimensions (225 mm x 245 mm) and layout as the author's aforementioned publications with its mainly two-to-a-page full-size illustrations of postcards individually numbered for easy reference. It has been described on online websites as a 'richly informative visual guide to a formative period in Johor's history from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, in particular the changing landscapes and townscapes'.
The collection is comprehensively described in several chapters with mostly full-size illustrations of picture postcards, many of which are in colour. There are individual annotations of the title of the picture postcard, the cancellation (if any), the back (undivided or divided) and the publisher (if known), together with well-researched descriptions and historical backgrounds of the pictures and relevant postal history information where applicable.
The introductory chapter gives a brief historical summary of the Johor royal family and the early picture postcards. Various portraits and scenes are depicted, including the royal palace, the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque and village scenes. The earliest known outgoing picture postcard was published by G. R. Lambert & Co. with a coloured bi-view of the Sultan Abu Bakar mosque and the royal palace, and posted to Germany with a 3˘ franking on 24th April 1902. A further series of quasi-official picture postcards with various views and a blue embossed crescent and star (at upper left for pictures with landscape format) was issued in 1905-1909 and well described by Richard Hale in The Malayan Philatelist in 2010. The publisher was again most probably G. R. Lambert & Co. who was the only known Singapore publisher with postcard embossing equipment at that time. These postcards are easily distinguishable from the first Johor postal stationery postcard (PSPC) issued c. 1903 which had neither picture nor embossed star and crescent but had an embossed coat of arms.
The first chapter on the collection itself starts with royalty, royal visitors and government. There are portrait postcards of Sultan Sir Abu Bakar, the first sultan of modern Johor, and interesting views of the Istana Besar (royal palace), the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque, the Sultan Abu Bakar Mausoleum and Istana Tyersall, the Sultan's majestic castle in Singapore which was unfortunately damaged by fire in 1905. Sultan Sir Abu Bakar was succeeded by his son, Sultan Sir Ibrahim whose long reign from 1895 till 1959 produced many picture postcards with royal portraits and who is variously depicted in full regalia, military uniform or western suit and, dashingly, in his Mercedes racer and Rolls-Royce. There are heartwarming pictures of the Sultan and Sultanah soon after their 1931 wedding and a couple of intriguing c. 1900 postcards of the Sultan in his hunting gear with a dead tiger! There are unusual Thai postcards depicting the Johore Military Force and the Royal Barge (the Sea Belle) commemorating the visit of King Rama VI in 1924. Government personalities are represented by portraits of the Menteri Besar and State Treasurer as well as that of Sir John Anderson K.C.M.G., the Governor of the Straits Settlements (1904-11). There are also views of the Johore Military Camp, the Johore Volunteers, the Johore Infantry, Johore Troops and headquarters of the Johore Military Dept.
The second chapter deals with the Johor-Singapore Causeway (JSC) which was completed in 1923, bringing to an end the era of steam launches and passenger ferry services. There are views of the pre-JSC era which include the Abu Bakar Pier Station for the ferry service, the ongoing construction of the JSC itself and finally the grand opening on 28 June 1924 which was attended by dignitaries. A range of picture postcards from the JSC opening till the 1960s are shown, including the rolling lift bridge over the Lock Channel which was destroyed in 1942 and never rebuilt again. There is a Japanese military photograph taken soon after the fall of Singapore and showing the centre of the JSC under repair after being partially blown up by the retreating British armed forces and another 1942 Japanese 'victory' picture postcard taken from the Johor end of the JSC. There are also two extra-wide panoramic postcards of the Johor end of the causeway inclusive of railway track, cars and rickshaws.
The third chapter focuses on Johor Bahru, the capital. Picturesque scenes of the Johor Strait and graceful views (with an aerial view by the RAF) of the town from various locations highlight her strategic location and charming townscape. One of the earliest 'upper class' hotels was the stately Johore Hotel with two c. 1905 scenes and which later became the new Johore Hotel c. 1950. The Railway Station and the Johor Bahru Market were favourite themes with the publishers but there are also scenes of the Police Station, the Post Office, the General Hospital and various schools, colleges and government buildings. A few street scenes, hardly bustling with activity in those days. are shown, including Jalan Ibrahim, the road to the Istana Besar and the Scudai Road. On the darker side, however, there were many gambling farms (outlawed in Singapore, hence the nickname 'Monte Carlo of the East') offering popular gambling games exclusively to the Chinese and a government-run opium (chandu) monopoly shop in Skudai. There is also a scarce, albeit rather drab, postcard of the prison in Jalan Ayer Molek (later relocated to Kluang) which probably had little tourist appeal!
The fourth chapter on the towns, people, economy, flora and fauna looks further afield at towns like Muar (Bandar Maharani), Batu Pahat, Kota Tinggi, Mersing and Endau . In contrast to the capital, there were fewer picture postcards of these towns, but the author has managed to put together a good range of interesting representative scenes from each town. These include the bridge and famous waterfall at Kota Tinggi as well as kampungs, street scenes, mosques, market scenes, estate scenes and river/beach scenes. There are a couple of unusual Japanese postcards depicting Japanese world explorer Sugano Rikio inspecting pre-war rubber plantations managed by the Japanese in Malaya. Miscellaneous pictures include a toddy collector, a rickshaw man and even a trapped tiger in Langat Rubber Estate!
The final chapter discusses the history of deltiology and philately in Johor. The first PSPC with embossed Johor coat of arms is discussed, together with 1905 multiview postcards (with the blue embossed crescent and star), a 1926 Sarawak picture postcard featuring Sea Dayaks uncommonly used in Johor and a 1943 'Selamat Hari Raya' Japanese Occupation home-made greetings postcard. A scarce 1914 registered picture postcard to Germany, overfrankings and uncommon frankings are also illustrated and described.
The appendix has illustrations of a 1939 Johor map, the score sheet of the Johor state anthem and an interesting invitation card to the state banquet (with toasts, menu and musical programme) held to celebrate the 1955 Diamond Jubilee of Sultan Sir Ibrahim, his 82nd birthday and the coronation of Lady Marcella Ibrahim as Sultanah. The appendix concludes with a list of further reading, acknowledgements and a short résumé of the author.
Published by Editions Didier Millet Pte Ltd (ISBN 978-967-1061-77-0) and attractively priced at USD 29.90, Johor: 300 early postcards is now available at leading bookstores and for online purchase at Amazon.com from 3rd January 2017.