From a Malay anti-Hitler song to Chinese opera tunes, Singapore’s pre-war records go online

From a Malay anti-Hitler song to Chinese opera tunes, Singapore’s pre-war records go online

As part of its new Sounds Of Yesteryear initiative, the National Archives of Singapore is uploading digital versions of 52 rare records from Singapore - including one by the country's oldest existing opera troupe and a song about fried bananas.

Sounds of Yesteryear (Chap Singa record)
Singapore's pre-war records from labels such as Chap Singa are being digitised for online streaming as part of a new initiative by the National Archives of Singapore. (Photo: Howard Law)

SINGAPORE: A soft, crackling, hissing noise fills the air. And then, through the speakers come the sound of rumba rhythms, followed by a sweet, female voice crooning: “Goreng pisaaang… Pisang goreeeng…”

The catchy Malay love song about fried bananas was recorded in 1939 by a popular singer from Singapore named Miss Julia and the David Lincoln Keronchong Orchestra.

And here, inside the National Archives of Singapore’s (NAS) Sound and Moving Image Laboratory, Goreng Pisang is the latest blast from the past being given a digital upgrade.

Sounds of Yesteryear (old records)
The National Archives of Singapore has over 3,500 shellac and vinyl records dating from the early 1900s to the 1980s. (Photo: Howard Law)

As part of a new initiative titled Sounds of Yesteryear, the NAS has been digitising versions of pre-war tunes recorded in Singapore between 1903 to 1941. Through the course of the year, 52 of these unique shellac records - a precursor of vinyl records - are being uploaded to its website.

The online initiative is part of their efforts to make archival materials more accessible to the public, said NAS assistant archivist Jessica Yeo.

“From all the early recordings, you can see that many artists actually came from around the region, say Penang or Jakarta. Many were drawn to Singapore, which was a recording hub at that point in time.”

Among the songs currently available online are two of Singapore’s earliest Malay recordings, which were done in 1903, as well as a 1920s snippet from a Chinese opera performed by Lao Sai Tao Yuan, Singapore’s oldest Teochew opera troupe, which is still around today.

There's also a 1916 record titled Boria Heap-Heap-Horrey, which bears a sticker that says “censored” - a sign it had been cleared by censors during the Japanese occupation.

Meanwhile, among those scheduled to be released later this year is an unusual anti-Nazi propaganda song from 1941 titled Kebuasan Hitler (The Cruelty Of Hitler), performed by a famous pre-war Malay opera singer named Miss Fadillah.

The records were produced by local recording companies such as Chap Singa, Chap Kuching, and Quek Swee Chiang, as well as internationally known labels such as Columbia, Gramophone, and His Master’s Voice (or HMV).

Sounds of Yesteryear (Majulah Singapura)
Among the highlights at the National Archives of Singapore's record collection is this copy of Majulah Singapura, which was given to then-Minister for Culture S Rajaratnam. (Photo: Howard Law)

The pre-war records are only a fraction of the NAS’ collection of 3,500 shellac and vinyl records, which extends to the early 1980s.

Other interesting recordings from later years include that of the 1960s teenage singing trio The Tidbits, who won the first Talentime contest. There is also the very first pressing of Majulah Singapura - the actual copy that was presented to then-Minister for Culture S Rajaratnam.

“We’re digitising these records because they are part of our heritage, and our whole aim of preserving these is to make sure they are kept for future generations and accessible to Singaporeans,” said Yeo.


According to NAS audio-visual preservation specialist Shanker Thangavellu, digitising these fragile records is a delicate process. It may take from between an hour to two hours, or even longer depending on the record's condition. 

The process includes manually cleaning a record of mould, dust and dirt using a very fine brush, and air-drying it.

Thangavellu pointed out that shellac records, which were used until the 1950s, are more brittle than the popular vinyl that came after. “They can warp but also break when they’re not kept properly, and most of the records are quite badly scratched,” he said.

Once it’s time to digitise, the record is played on a turntable hooked up to a computer, which records the playback as faithfully as possible.

“We keep the sound authentic without any tweaking, so you will have all these crackling, hissing, fish-frying kind of noise,” he said.

Sounds of Yesteryear (shellac cleaning)
Cleaning shellac records before digitising them is a delicate process as they are often brittle. (Photo: Howard Law)

But while digitising records seems fairly straightforward, the original recording process was a complicated one. The singer and band had to do it in one take, singing through a recording horn. They are not able to hear the recording immediately as master records had to be sent elsewhere for mass production.

“There were no record pressing plants in Singapore back then, so the master-pressings were shipped overseas, usually to India, for production,” said Yeo.

Majority of the fragile paper sleeves these records were originally kept in had simple, generic designs.

Occasionally, though, even these sleeves offer a glimpse to the past. One such record, from Chap Singa, features photographs of two singers by the names of Miss Maimoon and Miss Tijah.

“We seldom see photographs of performers so this was interesting - Miss Tijah was a very famous bangsawan performer during the 1920s and 1930s,” she said.

Sounds of Yesteryear (website)
The National Archives of Singapore is uploading one pre-war record a week for public streaming.

But while one can’t glean much from record sleeves of the past, sometimes hearing the songs themselves are enough.

That’s been the case for Thangavellu, for whom listening to these records as part of work has been a joy.

“I love records and have my own collection. So whenever I hear these kinds of old stuff, it’s fantastic. You’re hearing a sound from the 1920s or 1905 or 1915 or 1903 – history is being heard on a material called shellac, which is amazing.”

Source: CNA/mm