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Tracing the Legacy of Print and Press in Kampong Gelam

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What you see in Kampong Gelam today is a myriad of hip retail shops, cosy and chic restaurants, modern galleries, beauty parlours and spa, with nary a trace of the printing and publishing activities that used to flourish here. It is hard to imagine that this area was once the thriving hub for the intellectual production of manuscripts, newspapers and publications between the 1900s and 1950s.

The earliest recorded forms of intellectual production were the various manuscripts produced by court scribes that date back to as early as the 1830s. With the advent of print technology in the 19th century, the manuscript artform was gradually phased out.

The Golden Age

By the mid-1800s, Bussorah Street (then known as Sultan Road) had a number of local printers who printed Islamic literature and Korans which were distributed in the region. The Malay printing and publishing houses were established mainly by immigrants from Java. Two of the most prolific Malay printers in the mid to late 19th-century Singapore were Haji Muhammad Said bin Haji Arsyad of Semarang and Haji Muhammad Siraj bin Haji Salih of Rembang both from towns in Java, Indonesia.

Haji Muhammad Said specialised in book production and had published more than 200 Malay-language publications between 1873 and 1918. While Haji Muhammad Said was the most successful printer in his time, Haji Muhammad Siraj specialised in distribution. Setting up shop in 43 Sultan Road (Bussorah Street today and currently housing Alborz Carpets & Handicrafts), Haji Muhammad Siraj had the most developed network, taking advantage of railways and the expansion of postal service.

Apart from printers, there were also a number of prominent Malay-language publishers such as the Malay Press, Ahmad Press, Al-Latiffia Press and Warta Malaya Press, all of whom played an important role in promoting the Malay language, Malay literature and education scene for the Muslim community. Landmark publications included Utusan Melayu and Film Raya. Published by Utusan Melayu Press, Utusan Melayu was the first Malay newspaper to be wholly owned, financed, written and managed by Malays. Film Raya, a Jawi magazine which reflected the socio-economic conditions of the Malays during the 1950 to 1960s was published by Melayu Raya Press.

By the 1980s, the printing scene showed signs of decline. The emergence of larger printing firms in Malaysia and the region who could provide publications at lower costs were a contributing factor and resulted in an exodus of these firms.

A Legacy not Forgotten

In seeking to recover the legacy of the Malay printing industry in Kampong Gelam, the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in its 5th special exhibition titled “Mereka Utusan: Imprinting Malay Modernity, 1920s–1960s” held in 2017, established the importance of Kampong Gelam as the regional network of printers publishers and readers in its peak between 1900s-1950s.  It showcased not only the Jawi script that was used by publishers of that time but also the visual language of advertisements, editorial cartoons and comic strips in Malay publications.

Apart from displaying more than 100 artefacts from the Malay printing scene, an interesting part of the exhibition was the guided trail that consisted of stops at former printing and publishing offices in Kampong Gelam. A couple of the more prominent ones are featured here.

Royal Press

Image credit: National Heritage Board

Originally located at 745/747 North Bridge Road, it was founded by three brothers named Abu Talib Ally, Umar Ally and Abdullah Ally. In 1963, it opened an office in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and changed its name to Malaysia Press. The office in Singapore was closed in 1993 after the death of Abu Taleb Ally. Today it houses two heritage restaurants, Islamic Restaurant at 745 North Bridge and Sabar Menanti II Restaurant at 747 North Bridge Road.

HARMY Press & Al Amadiah Press

Image credit: National Heritage Board

The former home of the HARMY Press and Al Amadiah Press is now The Sultan Hotel,  a boutique hotel that has been restored to exude the old world charm and architecture of Singapore’s traditional conservation shophouses.

Old Metal Signplate
Old Metal Signplate bearing emblem of Harmy Press at The Sultan Hotel. Image credit: National Heritage Board

To get a glimpse of the craft of letterpress printing that led to Kampong Gelam’s publishing trade, join an experiential walk with Craft-walk.

Featured image credit: National Heritage Board

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