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Snail Mail

Snail Mail

Penang’s colonial era post boxes

According to the Royal Mail there are around 115,500 post boxes across the UK so that 98% of the population live within half a mile of one. Roadside post boxes were introduced following the introduction of adhesive stamps for pre-payment of postage in 1840. The growth in demand for postal services and the need for more convenient places where letters could be deposited led novelist Anthony Trollope, a General Post Office (GPO) official, to recommend cast iron pillar boxes and regular collection times. His scheme began in the Channel Islands in 1852 and since first installation boxes have usually carried the insignia or cipher of the monarch reigning at the time of placement. More than 60% of current British post boxes carry the EIIR mark of Queen Elizabeth II with those from the short 1936 reign of Edward VIII the rarest. About two dozen contractors have been engaged for their construction and the makers name is usually inscribed at the base.


Not India or Malaya but opposite Brighton’s Royal Pavilion in UK. 

Royal Cyphers

Royal ciphers (Source: Daily Mail)

By the end of the 19th century there were over 33,500 post boxes and many more throughout the British Empire which along with the railways, steam-ship travel and the telegraph relied on an efficient postal system for communication.

British manufactured post boxes are found in British Overseas Territories and some remain in Commonwealth countries such as Cyprus, India, Malta, New Zealand and Sri Lanka along with Hong Kong, the Republic of Ireland and other territories formerly administered by the United Kingdom. Most produced after 1905 were cast iron and cylindrical. In Cyprus pillar boxes painted yellow after independence are still in use. In Malta in the 1980s royal ciphers were ground off the pillar boxes in Valletta and Floriana but most others remained intact.

After the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China all post boxes were painted light green and the new Hongkong Post logo added. Of the 1,148 iron mailboxes across Hong Kong 59 still bear royal ciphers.

In 1867 the first stamps of the Straits Settlements colony, comprising the four individual settlements of Penang, Singapore, Malacca and Dinding, were issued followed by the individual Malay states. Penang Island, the earliest settlement, had been acquired from the Sultanate of Kedah by the British in 1786.


The oldest portion of Penang Island’s Georgetown has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2008 recognised as having:

‘a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in Eat and Southeast Asia’.

In addition to the well preserved pre-war buildings and shophouses there are eight colonial era post boxes of which  seven are still used for collection.


Upper Penang Road opposite the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. GR royal cipher (George V 1910-1936) and manufacturer’s name Andrew Handyside & Co. Ltd. at base.


China Street Ghaut outside the Customs Building. Ev11R royal cipher (Edward VII 1901-1910).


Beach St. VR royal cipher (Queen Victoria 1837-1901) and manufacturer’s name Andrew Handyside & Co. Ltd. at base.


MacAlister Road outside Penang State Museum. GviR royal cipher (George VI 1936-1952) and manufacturer’s name McDowall Steven & Co. Ltd. at base.


Penang Hill. VR royal cipher and manufacturer’s name Andrew Handyside & Co. Ltd. at base. Letter slot is sealed and it originally was located outside the fire station on Beach road.


One of two cylindrical postboxes on Ayer Itam Road without royal ciphers. Manufactured by Carron Company.


Dato Kramat Road junction of Siam Road. Rectangular post box with GR royal cipher possibly wall mounted previously.

The two other colonial post boxes I’ve seen in Malaysia are at Ipoh and Lumut but there are probably others to be discovered.


Ipoh railway station – the ‘Taj Mahal of Ipoh’. The second floor used to house the Majestic Hotel.


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Letterbox in Lumut with royal cipher removed. Inscribed ‘McDowall Steven & Co. Ltd. London & Glasgow. (Source: 

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Singapore Philatelic Museum. The ciphers on all post boxes were removed when Singapore gained independence in 1965. 

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Eastern Fantasies

Eastern Fantasies

Goodwood Park Hotel’s Eastern Fantasy & Raffles Hotel’s Shanghai Lily

Today a white Russian is a sweet tasting, 1960’s cocktail made from vodka, coffee liqueur and cream. Apart from vodka the drink hasn’t any Russian origin. Culturally more significant in the 20th  century were the White Russian émigrés. They were supporters of the Tsarist government deposed in the 1917 Russian Revolution and enemies of the ‘red’ Bolsheviks. Many were members of the armed forces, the nobility or pro-establishment public figures. Those who could escaped to Europe. When Vladivostok in the east fell to the communists most whites fled across the Chinese border to Harbin. In 1924 Peking recognised the new Soviet government leaving stateless those who refused the offer of Soviet citizenship. Many then headed to Shanghai and other treaty ports in China. Treated as second class citizens they ended up working in service, the lucky ones as policemen, security guards, private bodyguards, seamstresses, music teachers and language instructors. For those without marketable skills conditions were often pitiful as Charlie Chaplin noted on his 1931 visit to Shanghai:

‘I came across a number of titled aristocrats who had escaped the Russian Revolution. They were destitute and without a country; their status was of the lowest grade, the men ran rickshaws and the women worked in ten cent dance halls. When the second world war broke out, many of the old aristocrats had died and the younger generation migrated to Hong Kong where their plight was even worse.’

In Hong Kong most remained stateless managing to escape internment during the Japanese occupation. Traces of their stay remain through the Queen’s Café in North Point, Cherikoff’s bakery in Prince Edward and Hongkongers fondness for borscht soup. After the Second World War the White Russians moved on again to America, Australia, Canada or elsewhere.

In Shanghai one of the most famous White Russians was Georgii Avskent’ievich Sapojnikoff, an ex-officer in the Russian Imperial Army with a pronounced limp from his wounds in World War One. He worked as a cartoonist on the North China Daily News under the pen name Sapajou. The paper was regarded as the mouthpiece of the British controlled Shanghai Municipal Council and it was a measure of Sapajou’s social acceptance that he was a member of the exclusive Shanghai Club famed for having the longest bar in the world. For 15 years he published a daily cartoon along with several albums containing sketches of Shanghai life that are now highly collectible. Despite being a stateless refugee Sapajou was a dapper man about town popular with the ladies who regarded him as a distinguished Russian gentleman. After the war and the communist takeover of Shanghai in 1949 he was evacuated by the United Nations with other White Russians to a displaced persons camp on Tubabao in the Philippine Islands. Already seriously ill he died shortly after arrival.


Sapajou – self caricature of the artist at work.

Schifflong Bar (2)

The Long Bar in the Shanghai Club, cartoon by Friedrich Schiff. The mahogany L-shaped bar was 110.7 feet by 39 feet. It had a strict hierarchy with the Bund facing end reserved for the richest tai-pans.

Born in 1913 Vladimir Tretchikoff was another talented White Russian who became one of the world’s richest and most famous artists. Self-taught, Tretchikoff painted portraits, still life, and animals, the subjects inspired by his wandering lifestyle in China, Singapore, Indonesia and later South Africa. Popular with the general public, he was nicknamed the ‘King of Kitsch’ by art critics and is best known for his works that were turned into reproduction prints.

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Vladimir Tretchikoff (1913-2006) painting Miss Wong in 1950.

Orphaned at a young age he moved from Harbin to Shanghai working as an art director and illustrator for an American advertising and publishing company. After marrying a fellow Russian émigré the couple moved to Singapore where he worked for the Straits Times. On the outbreak of World War 2 Tretchikoff was a propaganda artist for the British Ministry of Information. Escaping the fall of Singapore in February 1942 his ship was sunk by the Japanese en route to South Africa. The 42 survivors rowed to Java but were captured and imprisoned in Serang. Tretchikoff was released on parole after convincing the Japanese he was a stateless anti-communist. In Batavia (now Jakarta) he met a Eurasian lady Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson who became his lover and one of his most famous models posing for Eastern Fantasy in 1943.

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Eastern Fantasy 1943 by Vladimir Tretchikoff. The traditional Indonesian kris (wavy dagger) and bible on the table symbolising mixed heritage are often overlooked.

At the end of the war Tretchikoff was reunited with his wife and daughter in South Africa after discovering they had been evacuated on an earlier boat. It was there in 1952 that he painted his Chinese Girl modelled by Monika Pon-su-san, who was working in a laundry near his home. The painting is one of the best-selling prints of the twentieth century believed to have sold more prints than either Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The original painting sold for £982,050 at Bonhams auction house in London in March 2013. Vladimir Tretchikoff died in Cape Town in 2006.


The Chinese Girl (popularly known as The Green Lady) 1952. Trechikoff was immensely popular with the public but scorned by art critics. Bonhams Magazine, Spring 2013 ‘Love it or loathe it’.

Vivian Bath, owner of the Goodwood Park Hotel in Singapore had bought Eastern Fantasy from the artist in 1948 for $450. The hotel on Scotts Road opened in 1900 as the Teutonia Club for members of the expatriate German community. During the First World War it was seized by the British government in Singapore and auctioned off in 1918 to the Jewish Manasseh brothers. In 1929 the building was turned into a hotel and during World War II was occupied by senior officers of the Japanese Imperial Army. After the war the Singapore War Crimes Court conducted trials in a tent on the hotel grounds and Ezekiel Manasseh’s Australian stepson Vivian Bath bought out the brother’s shares becoming sole proprietor.

In 1989 the hotel’s Rhineland style tower block was gazetted as a national monument and the Eastern Fantasy hangs in the tower’s boardroom. The life size painting’s model remained unknown until 1989 when a Dutch / Indonesian lady Mrs Leonora Schmidt then 74 visited the hotel -(‘Semi-nude portrait poser answered – 46 years later’, The Straits Times 21st October 1989).

Known to Tretchikoff as Lenka she met him in Java in 1942 posing for the painting the following year. She revealed another link with the hotel having worked there as an interpreter when it was the headquarters of British war crimes trials. She returned to Indonesia in 1949, married and went to live in Holland.

The Raffles Hotel on Beach Road is also a national monument re-opening in 1991 after two years of extensive renovation. The famous Long Bar was relocated from the lobby to a new adjoining shopping arcade losing its character in the process. According to the hotel’s publicity the polished wooden furniture, cane and rattan chairs and mechanically operated palm leaf fans were inspired by the décor of 1920’s Malayan plantations. The tiled floors make it easy to sweep up the shells of groundnut shells swept off the mahogany bar top. The bar also takes its inspiration from 1930’s Shanghai when the Shanghai Club on the Bund housed the original Long Bar now recreated at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.

Raffles Singapore 5

The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.

Like a western saloon the centrepiece of Singapore’s Long bar is a slightly risqué painting of a reclining female named by the hotel as Shanghai Lily. Shanghai Lily was in fact the character played by Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 Hollywood movie ‘Shanghai Express’.


Shanghai Lily & the Singapore Sling.

The Long Bar is one of the world’s famous bars but most of what is written about it is pure marketing fantasy. It took several visits to realise it was more a shopping arcade backdrop to take pictures sipping expensive, pre-mixed cocktails than a real bar. There are no longer any ship’s captains, rubber planters or remittance men letting off steam amongst the potted plants on the verandah.

The Goodwood Park Hotel relies on the reputation of its fine dining more than its bar scene and wandering around I couldn’t spot Tretchikoff’s painting. The hotel staff confirmed that Eastern Fantasy was owned by the hotel but sadly no longer on public display or available for private viewing.


‘A Countess from Hong Kong’ 1967 starring Sophia Loren & Marlon Brando. Charlie Chaplin’s final film based on the life of a former White Russian aristocrat. It was filmed entirely on sets at Pinewood Studios in UK and panned by critics on its release.






Chips with Everything

Chips with Everything

COLBAR: A taste of 1950’s Singapore



Colbar Eating House & Milk Bar.

Apart from their Chinese dishes the Colbar Eating House & Milk Bar in Singapore serves chips with everything. Opened in 1953 the café is popular with food bloggers who identify it as ‘British-Hainanese’. Serving mixed grill, pork chops, omelettes, cucumber sandwiches and fish and chips the British influence is obvious. Menu oddities include boiler prawn and chips, ox liver sandwiches and chicken merry land (fried chicken, fried egg, fried tomato, beans and chips with a battered banana on top). For non-locals the Hainanese influence needs some explanation.

In the 19th century Singapore was the main entry port for waves of Chinese immigrants recruited to work in Malaya’s plantations and mines. Many stayed and since the first official census the Chinese have always been the largest ethnic group in Singapore. Hokkien speakers arrived first followed by Teo Chews and Cantonese each forming their own clan associations and triad groups to protect their welfare and livelihoods. By the time immigrants from Hainan landed the only jobs available were as domestic servants or cooks for the army and hotels. The Hainanese quickly mastered western cooking including how to incorporate strange condiments like Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, HP sauce and mustard into their dishes.

One of the most famous of their clan was Ngiam Tong Boon, who created the Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar in 1915. During the depression of the 1930s many opened coffee shops (kopitiams) in the Beach Road area popularising their fusion food like Hainanese chicken rice, breaded pork chops and chicken pot pies. It wasn’t until the hotel boom of the 1960’s that genuine western restaurants with western chefs invaded the island and became fashionable.

Abbreviated from Colonial Bar the Colbar is a family run business opened by Mr & Mrs Lim on Jalan Hang Jebat that became an unofficial canteen for British Army troops garrisoned nearby. In 2003 the café once described by Time Out magazine as:

‘a glorified tin shed locked in a time warp’

was marked for destruction to make way for a flyover. It was saved by a petition, dismantled and re-located 300m away to its current site on Whitchurch Road in the Wessex Estate.

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Wessex Estate (Source:

The Wessex Estate is a quiet, tree covered neighbourhood opposite Queenstown’s high-rise blocks of flats built in the 1960s as a new town. The estate is made up of 26 apartment blocks and 58 semi-detached houses dotted around Westbourne Road, Weyhill Close, Whitchurch Road, Wilton Close and Woking Road. The blocks have the names of British army campaigns and battles including Arras, Corunna, Khartoum, Plassey & Quebec clearly printed on their facades. Built in the 1930s & 40s in the black and white style they housed British non-commissioned officers and their families during the Malayan Emergency. Of the 500 odd black and white houses that survive in Singapore less than 100 are privately owned the rest owned by the government. Managed by the Singapore Land Authority monthly rents vary from around S$5000 to S$25,000.

Wessex Semid Exterior 1

Typical black & white style block. (Source:

The Colbar café constructed from concrete and wooden boards sits on the Wessex village square, un-airconditioned and shaded by trees. Indoor and outdoor seating is available but most customers prefer to sit on the terrace under ceiling fans. Wooden planking from the original location has storyboards explaining the history declaring Colbar:

‘a gastronomical oasis for liver and onions or lamb chops’

Orders are placed at the counter and served by an old Chinese Uncle with a bottle of HP sauce automatically plonked down for western customers.

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The interior dining room usually empty. Overhead fans, formica table tops and photos of the Colbar Tigers an expatriate football club sponsored by the cafe. 

In UK the introduction of national service in 1949 for all men aged 17 to 21 coincided with the start of the Malayan Emergency. For national servicemen Hong Kong was the plum Far East posting. The threat of communist invasion wasn’t taken seriously, working days were short and there was plenty of sport and recreational activities. Singapore came second followed by Malaya provided you weren’t jungle bashing in the infantry.

Richard Vinen in his book: ‘National Service A Generation in Uniform 1945-1963’ described the meals served to army recruits:

‘Food – never notable for its quality in any part of the British armed forces – was revolting’. 

For young men brought up with wartime food rationing and austerity places like the Colbar served up what they had been missing at home together with a few safe Chinese dishes like sweet and sour pork and fried beef with ginger.

Colbar’s selection of Chinese dishes is similar to the cuisine developed by Chinese after the Second World War in the UK to suit British tastes. The rise in the number of Chinese restaurants is attributed to refugees fleeing from the Chinese civil war and also to British servicemen returning from Hong Kong with more exotic tastes. The food was mostly Cantonese with bread and butter, pies and chips wisely included on the menu.


A taste of home bacon, eggs, chips & beans – SG $14.

‘Milk Bar’ is painted in white on the Colbar’s roof tiles and just like the food the drinks menu hasn’t changed since opening. Lipton and Nescafe are the only tea and coffee choices along with Tiger beer, orange squash, Milo, Horlicks and a selection of milkshakes. In 1950’s Britain ‘teenagers’ were still a new concept associated with the post war boom and the rise of rock and roll. The British academic Richard Hoggart in his ‘The Uses of Literacy’ wrote about ‘Juke-Box Boys’:

‘young men between the ages of 15 and 20’ who ‘spend their evening listening in harshly lighted milk bars to the nickleodeons’.

Politicians debating juvenile delinquency called them ‘milk bar cowboys’ but many would soon find themselves in Malaya which after Korea was the most dangerous posting for national servicemen.

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The last time I visited Colbar on a Saturday lunchtime the outdoor seating was packed with dog walkers, expat, local families and students all tucking in. The clientele may have changed but the food has stayed the same stuck in a 1950’s time warp. I’m still curious whether Mr. Lim and his family eat from their own menu or if they really can’t believe what foreigners will pay for.

British Hainan (2)

 British Hainan, Carpmael Road, Singapore.