This film is held by the BFI (ID: 10563).


Title cards. Shots filmed from a vessel as it enters the harbour. Singapore is 'the seventh largest port in the world'. Passenger cargo boat arriving at the port, five European travellers disembark. Male traveller taking in the view. Views of harbour buildings of 'European and Asiatic merchants'. Native boats working in the harbour. European tourists viewing Raffles Place: Sir Stanford Raffles 'bought the swampy island of Singapore in 1819 for the East India company and set up a free port to extend British trade'. Map of south east Asia with Singapore at its centre. Shipping routes are highlighted on the map. Map of Singapore Island highlighting its suitability for a settlement. Long shot looking from the city out to sea. Trading ships in the 'free port' of Singapore. Goods being unloaded from ships in the harbour. An elephant hoisted out of a boat by a crane. Men loading goods in a warehouse. A large boat being repaired in a dry dock. Workers in a boat repair shop at the harbour; these locals 'have the opportunity to learn skilled trades'. The island of Pulau Brani: workers on the deck of a ship (local men are overseen by a European); workers smelting tin-ore in a factory; 'Chinese girls' making rubber-soled shoes in a factory (the Chinese 'make up almost three-quarters of the population of Singapore'). Raw latex being fed down a pipe into the tanker of a ship. Latex being tapped from rubber trees. Coconut plantations and pineapple fields. The drainage system that has been implemented to help cure malaria. Locals building drains to reclaim swamp land for building. Men spraying mangrove swamps to prevent malaria. Downpour in the streets of Singapore. One of Singapore's reservoirs. Map of Singapore, highlighting the reservoirs, residential areas, the business centre, government buildings, docks, the homes of 'well-to-do Asiatic citizens' in Kallang, and the houses of 'European officials and businessmen' beside the estuary. Large houses in the suburbs, one of them is 'enriched with fantastic oriental decoration'. Shots filmed from a boat in the harbour of the 'crowded quarters' on either side of the Singapore river: 'Chinese, Malays and Indians make up most of the population, there are only about ten-thousand Europeans'. Shops in a city street 'covered with Chinese signs'. Motor vehicles and tri-shaws in the city streets. Laundry hung across a street between its buildings. A mosque at the end of a street. A Hindu temple that stands next to a gas holder: 'the mixture of east and west and typical'. Multi-storey offices of international businesses on Collyer Quay. Panned shot from one of these office roofs looking at the 'busy heart of Singapore'. Government buildings in Empress Place. Porter carrying travellers' bags on to a boat, followed by the European travellers. Shots filmed from a boat as it pulls away from the harbour. Credits.



Singapore – A Story of a Port (1951) is one of the latter films made by the company Gaumont-British Instructional, which specialised in educational films, many of them concerned with the countries of the British Empire. The company was founded in 1933 as a subsidiary of the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. It worked closely with academics, and it is notable that the main billing in this film goes to its ‘supervisor’, G.C. Cons, head of the Geography department at Goldsmith’s College, and a pioneer in the field of geography films for schools (Briault, 1960, 123). This film was produced by Frank Wells, son of the author H.G. Wells. Itwas directed by Brian Salt, who was also responsible for the G-B Instructional film, Citizen of Singapore (1950), and was prolific in a variety of non-fiction film types, filmed in the UK as well as abroad. Salt is also remembered for directing the 1958 film, Toto and the Poachers, a children’s feature set in Africa (Moss, 2006, 34).

Singapore, situated at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, was home to a Malay fishing village and the indigenous Orang Laut people prior to European settlement. It was in 1819 that Sir Stanford Raffles ‘founded’ modern Singapore, working on behalf of the British East India Company. The Company purchased the island outright in 1824. The city quickly attracted migrants, and town planning was an early concern. Lieutenant Philip Jackson’s ‘Plan of the Town of Singapore’, drawn up in 1822, laid out the city as a series of ethnic subdivisions: a European town, the Chinese Kampong for the Chinese, the Chulia Kampong for Indians, and the Kampong Glam for Muslims, Malays and Arabs (Eng, 1992, 164). Although this concept of racial segregation was later abandoned, the effects of this layout can still be witnessed. Raffles had recognised the suitability of the location for a trading post, but it was not until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the extension of British influence in the Malay states in the late nineteenth century that Singapore confirmed assured its status as a world port (Turnbull, 1989, xii).

Following World War II there were debates about Singapore’s future status. Some groups, in both Britain and Singapore, advocated that the island should become part of a new federation of Malay States (Turnbull, 1989, 216-19). In Britain, Singapore’s importance in terms of international trade and geopolitics was of concern, and governmental authorities eventually decided that it should not form part of this union, instead regarding Singapore as a ‘military base and centre for the spread of British commerce and influence in the region’ (Stockwell, 2001, 485). Singapore was nevertheless affected by events taking place in nearby countries. The uprising of communists in Malaya in 1948 and the victory of communists in China the following year led to a clamp-down on political opposition within Singapore (Turnbull, 1989, 233).

Following the War, Singapore suffered food shortages and chronic overcrowding. However, by 1947 trade exceeded pre-war levels and social services had improved (Turnbull, 1989, 228, 234). This also had the effect of quietening the more radical opposition parties, and the most successful of Singapore’s political groups in the 1948 and 1951 elections was the Progressive party, who co-operated with the British in their aims (Turnbull, 1989, 231). The Colonial authorities advocated that Singapore should move towards self-government in stages, gradually opening up a new Legislative Assembly to more local politicians (Stockwell, 2001, 477).

In 1951 Singapore reported a record trading year, the economy benefiting from the effects of the Korean War (Turnbull, 1989, 236). The population retained its diverse mix: in 1947 Singapore was comprised of approximately 78% Chinese, 12% Malays and Indonesians, 7% Indians, and 3% Europeans, Eurasians and other minorities (Turnbull, 1989, 229). 



The main emphasis of this film is laid out in its title: Singapore is defined in relation to its maritime activities. As the reviewer for Film User puts it, this film regards the city as a ‘Traffic junction for both passengers and merchandise’ (FU, July 1951, 358). Indeed, the viewer is provided with the point-of-view of one of these passengers. The film opens with shots filmed from a boat as it arrives at the port. The commentary informs us that what we are witnessing is what the average passenger would see: ‘almost all travellers get their first sight of Singapore from the harbour’. It then shows a party of travellers descending the steps of passenger boat. One in particular is focussed upon, and we see him stop to take in the sights. The film then returns to what could be described as point-of-view shots, as we are led along this traveller’s journey into the city. Significantly, the traveller whose view we assume is a white, wealthy-looking male. It is a western view of the city that we are given. After we have seen what Singapore has to offer, the travellers (and the viewer) return to a boat. The film’s final point-of-view shot has us looking back at the harbour as the ship pulls away.

Film User described this film as being of ‘much value for the geography lesson’ (FU, July 1951, 358). Political geography is the documentary’s main subject, but with a bent towards commerce and urbanisation, rather than the backgrounds of the people of Singapore. The commentary is fact-based, its dispassionate tone enhanced by virtue of the fact that (as with many GBI films) there is no backing music used. We learn that Singapore is the ‘seventh largest port in the world’ and that Sir Stanford Raffles bought the island in 1819 ‘to extend British trade’. A summary of the products that are handled at the port is given; a roll-call that underlines the importance of trade between the countries of the Empire. The benefits of this commercial activity are also outlined. We are informed that the port has provided locals with the chance ‘to learn skilled trades’ (at which point a Chinese boat-builder is shown). The film’s educational mission is furthered by its occasional use of maps, which point out trading routes and the suitability of the location for a port. Only after it has detailed tin-making, shoe-making, the tapping of rubber trees, the steps made to check the spread of malaria, and the island’s reservoir system, does the film turn to the Singaporean people. We learn that the city has ‘varied races and religions’, and we also learn something of wealth distribution amongst its ‘one million inhabitants’. The differences in creed and in wealth are both conveyed with images of architecture. To illustrate the different religions we are shown the exterior of a mosque and a temple, and to illustrate the differences in status we are shown representative buildings (with a bias towards wealthy residences) and also the location of particular districts on a map.

Given its story-telling method, it is perhaps fitting that the film gets no closer to the people of Singapore than the ‘average passenger’ would. In fact, out of all those shown in the film, the closest attention and greatest amount of screen time is given to the European tourists. The film even admits to the cursory nature of our visit: ‘The travellers come via Singapore, change ships, and leave again’. The circular nature of the film’s story helps to disguise the fact that, in terms of its coverage of the Singapore’s trade and infrastructure, the film has shown us more than a typical visitor would get to see. Moreover, the camerawork is not restricted to simple point-of-view shots. Some sophisticated techniques are employed. In particular, good use is made of panning movements. On occasions the cameraman moves from what can at first appear to be a fairly innocuous image towards a more revealing aspect of Singapore, which in addition sheds light on the original choice of image. For example, one shot begins by showing the corner of a slightly run-down building, and then pans towards a busy harbour street with people unloading goods. It then provides us with a final contrast, settling on a view towards ‘the great office buildings of European and Asiatic merchants’. The filmmakers also show a talent for telling juxtapositions. For example, while filming the Hindu temple they also capture the gas holder that stands nearby. Unfortunately, however, and in keeping with the GBI tendency towards simplification for the sake of clarity, Singapore’s distinct ‘mixture of east and west’ is not elaborated upon by the commentary.

Richard Osborne (February 2010)


Works Cited

Briault, E. W. H., ‘Obituary: George Joseph Cons’, The Geographical Journal, 126/1 (March 1960), 123.

Eng, Teo Siew, ‘Planning Principles in Pre- and Post-independence Singapore’, Town Planning Review, 63/2 (April 1992), 163-85.

Stockwell, A.J., ‘Imperialism and Nationalism in South-East Asia’, in The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume IV: The Twentieth Century, ed. by Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 465-89.

‘Singapore: Study of a Port’, Film User, 5/57 (July 1951), 358.

Turnbull, C.M., A History of Singapore 1819-1988, 2nd edn (Singapore: OUP, 1989).




Technical Data


Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
SALT, Brian
Production Company
Gaumont-British Instructional



Production Organisations