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16 Postcard Memories from a Malaysian Past

A series of early picture postcard books displays the beauty of bygone Malaysia. Stephanie Vincenti speaks with avid collector Professor Cheah Jin Seng, who enabled these beautiful images to be shared in this evocative literary collection.

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The past is a wonderful place to visit for those with an inquisitive mind and an eye for the beauty of eras gone by. Images can be unearthed from a different time of people once so important but now forgotten, places almost unrecognizable as they are reconstructed into a different likeness or perhaps reassuringly similar to how they were over 100 years ago.

Technology is so accessible in today’s society, with every important event, person, and place documented, but when we look to the past, visual aids can be more limited. It is therefore a worthy endeavor to retain and preserve any historical artifact that helps to illustrate a bygone era.

The beauty and significance of well-preserved pieces of historical interest are admirably represented in the collection of early picture postcard book series by Professor Cheah Jin Seng. An endocrinologist by profession, he has been a collector of beautiful original postcards for more than 30 years. Originally purchasing them for the stamps attached, he then realized that the postcards held their own beauty and link to important records – people and places – in Malaysian and Singaporean history. In fact, it was when publisher Didier Millet approached him to contribute to an article discussing stamps of Singapore that the conversation turned to publishing the picture postcards themselves.

There are five books of early picture postcards by Prof. Cheah Jin Seng in a series which focuses on Malaysian and Singaporean imagery. The postcards themselves date back from the late 19th century to the 1970s, with books including pictures from the states of Perak, Selangor, and Penang, and two more general books encompassing the whole of Malaysia and Singapore. Each book displays either 300 or 500 postcards, with every one chronicling and showcasing just how Malaysia and Singapore have transformed over the past 110 years.

It is enchanting to observe early images of many famous or popular sights of Kuala Lumpur as shown in Selangor: 300 Early Postcards. Scenes are depicted of familiar locations, some seemingly unchanged while others now transformed. Locations include the Batu Caves in the early 1900s, shortly after Thaipusam began to be celebrated there, Petaling Street when it was filled with gambling and prostitution dens, Central Market circa 1940, before its modification in the 1980s, and the Sultan Abdul Samad building over the early part of the 20th century.

A brief description is given beside each of the postcards to enable the reader to know what or who is depicted and what time period the image represents. This assists as a helpful guide to lesser known sights and can provide additional information to those which are commonly known, but perhaps whose history is not intently explored.

Obtaining this wonderful collection of picture postcards has involved Prof. Cheah Jin Seng contacting dealers all over the world including in the UK, USA, and Singapore, but he credits the advent of the internet with making it a lot easier in recent years to locate good quality original postcards.The cost of the postcards can vary considerably depending on the condition, rarity, and quality. A common postcard can be obtained for RM25 while prices increase if the postcard is rare.

The biggest rise in value will depend on the stamp; if the stamp is rare, then the amount requested will escalate considerably. A rare picture postcard with an uncommon stamp or postmark can be worth upwards of RM1,000.

Although he has dedicated time and invested financially to the collection of these beautiful picture postcards in the hope that they can be enjoyed and preserved for years to come, Prof. Cheah Jin Seng has kindly donated many of them to various organizations which can exhibit and maintain them in their current superb condition. The postcards from “Selangor: 300 Early Postcards” are now held at the Royal Library of HRH The Sultan of Selangor and the postcards from Singapore: 500 Early Postcards are held by the Singapore Philatelic Museum who exhibited the collection in 2006/2007 when they were first donated.

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Overall, the collection is a beautiful homage to a time before skyscrapers and shopping malls, a fond look back at the “Old Malaysia” of yesteryear.

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Source: Senses of Malaysia March-April 2015

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