Maria Menado, Kasma Booty, P. Ramlee, Neng Yatimah, Osman Gumanti and several others sit in silence. It‘s already late into the night when this ad hoc meeting finally convened. Despite their respective hectic daytime acting schedules, the film stars readily agreed to this brain storming session. Something must be done to capitalise on their growing popularity.
At the same time, the Malay Film Production actors and actresses are united in their desire to form a coalition that can help voice their grouses and rights. The burning question in their minds is the choice of vehicle that would best serve their needs.
The pin drop silence at Jalan Ampas Studio room lingers on for a little longer. Suddenly, one of the members chances upon the latest English language Movie News magazine on the table and gets a brain wave. Unable to contain her excitement, she nonchalantly blurts out: “Let‘s start our own Malay language movie magazine!”
All eyes turn to her and within seconds, the hitherto sombre atmosphere changes into one reminiscent of a classroom packed with students on the verge of a long vacation. Excited chatter fill the air and opinions start flying in fast and furious as everyone eagerly contributes.
Finally, after an hour of lively discussion, a unanimous decision is reached to start a Malay film magazine which would feature, among others, interesting movie-related articles, attractive photographs of movie stars and designated columns for fan club and competitions.
The Malay actors and actresses couldn‘t have chosen a more opportune time. It‘s the early 1950s and the entertainment print media had just started showing signs of phenomenal growth.
Then someone raises the question of initial capital for the venture. Almost immediately, purses and wallets are taken out without any objections from their owners. Everyone chips in $100 each with the exception of Jamil Sulong who forks out double that amount.
Before adjourning, they agree to name the new magazine Bintang as everyone present that night is after all a star in his/her own right. P. Ramlee gets the vote to head this new enterprise. Being the leading actor in the Malay film industry then, his colleagues are confident that his name would go a long way towards helping to boost sales.
At the recent Mereka Utusan exhibition at the Malay Cultural Centre in Singapore‘s Kampong Glam, I had the chance to view several early Bintang magazines. Printed solely in Jawi, the first issue saw the light of day on March 10, 1953. The magazine covers are colourful with each one featuring a popular actress from the Shaw Brothers Malay Film Production Studio in Jalan Ampas.
Right from the beginning, the Malay-Indonesian Books and Magazine Store (MIBS) was given the right to publish the fortnightly magazine. MIBS, owned by Amir Haji Omar, was chosen mainly because it was the largest Indonesian bookshop in Arab Street and had an impeccable printing and publishing record in Singapore at that time.
Furthermore, its owner was deeply involved with the influential Malay Language Board which had a large pool of young and talented Malay writers who hail from all over Malaya. Amir‘s close relations with the famed Malay writer Harun Aminurashid secured the deal for MIBS beyond any doubt.
Bintang‘s entry into the Malay entertainment magazine scene had an immediate impact on its competitors. 5,000 copies of the inaugural issue were snapped up overnight much to the surprise of the management who had doubts about the initial response.
News vendors and booksellers all over Singapore, especially those in Geylang Serai, scrambled for copies of the magazine as soon as it was released for sale. Thousands of fans across the causeway were left disappointed as not a single copy managed to reach even Johor Bahru. Newspapers gave the magazine rave reviews and attributed Bintang‘s phenomenal success primarily to P. Ramlee‘s star power.
The already established magazines in this segment, Filem Raya and Utusan Filem dan Sports, began feeling the impact when Bintang‘s subsequent print runs were increased in stages, reaching 20,000 copies per issue at its peak. The increased printing volumes also enabled Bintang to bring the fight to its rivals in other parts of Malaya, especially in Kuala Lumpur and other major towns.
As rival Malay entertainment magazines started to see their sales dropping drastically, they began threatening to cancel agreements with transport companies, such as Hock Cheong Transport Company, if their lorries and vans played a part in distributing Bintang magazine.
Things became so serious for the fledgling company that the publisher had no alternative but to bribe individual drivers to help ship Bintang magazines without the knowledge of their employers. A few months later, the Bintang magazine management decided to rely on the efficient postal services to resolve its transportation woes permanently.
Bintang fan base started to grow phenomenally once its distribution problems were over. Initial feedback from readers was positive. Many praised the magazine‘s features which were insightful and completely different from those carried by other entertainment magazines.
These unique stories only appeared in Bintang as the film stars, who were also shareholders, happily gave the magazine‘s in-house team of writers regular scoops about all the latest developments in the Malay movie scene or the juiciest rumour that had yet to hit the grapevine.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Halfway through the exhibition, my interest is piqued by a particular section that highlights the plight of early entertainment journalists, especially those attached to Bintang. The writers had to use rented rooms at Geylang Serai‘s Ghim Peng Hotel as their office during the day and turn the place into lodgings come nightfall. Among those in Bintang‘s stable of writers at that time were A. Samad Said, S. Roomai Noor, H. M. Rohaizad and Zubir Said.
Unfortunately, a series of poor management decisions and escalating costs resulted in a major management revamp in 1955. P. Ramlee was reported to have lost confidence in the magazine and passed the reins to Salleh Haji Ali who used to manage Melayu Raya Press.
Once at the helm, Salleh began instituting many drastic changes to turn the magazine‘s fortune around. He renamed the magazine Majalah Bintang and replaced the chief editor with Fatimah Murad, his former colleague at Melayu Raya Press.
After scrutinising Majalah Bintang‘s contents, Fatimah came to the conclusion that their female readers were not receiving adequate attention. She took on the pseudonym Kak Tim and created her own column designed specially to tackle queries from the fairer sex called “Kak Tim Menjawab Persoalan” (Kak Tim Answers Questions).
At around that same time, Salleh frowned upon the idea of his staff members working from hotel rooms. Labelling it as utter nonsense, he quickly moved the entire team to a proper office located in Tembeling Road, near the bustling Geylang Serai Market.
Despite the many changes, Majalah Bintang remained steadfast in highlighting the plight of the Malay film stars. Its columns continued to debate the roles played by Malay movie production houses like Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation.
Among the many Majalah Bintang magazine excerpts seen on display include the manifesto of the Malay Artistes Association, which was headed by P. Ramlee at that time. The declaration, which sought to improve the fortunes of its members, was made during a period of major upheaval in the local movie industry. During that time Malay actors and actresses started accusing Shaw Brothers of being capitalists. The film stars alleged that their employers didn‘t look after them well.
Things finally came to a boil on March 16, 1957 when the Malay actors and actresses held a picket at the Jalan Ampas Studios. In a show of solidarity, local silver screen stars from all walks of life organised “Malam Suka Duka“ (Emotional Night) performances in various parts of Singapore including the Happy World Stadium, Pulau Berani and Madrasah Al-Fatah Islamiah. Their main aim was to raise funds for their Malay colleagues who were picketing.
Majalah Bintang published a feature titled Suka Duka Selama Kami Bermogok (Emotions While We Picket) in May 1957, describing public response as nothing short of phenomenal. It reported that support from fans poured in from all corners of Malaya as well as neighbouring Brunei and Indonesia.
Fortunately the disagreement was short-lived and peace reigned supreme once again in Jalan Ampas several months after the picketing started. The undying support from the fans didn‘t go unnoticed by the magazine. The magazine‘s Teman Bintang (Bintang Fan Club), which provided an avenue for film stars to correspond with their adorers, was given more space and attention. The loyal fans were also rewarded with a series of competitions which offered lucrative cash prizes of up to $150.
The last few frames of the exhibition are dedicated to Majalah Bintang’s twilight years. The magazine, like all good things, saw its last issue published in November 1961. The management had decided to call it a day in view of spiralling printing costs and increasing competition from the growing number of Malay entertainment magazines.
Today, vintage Bintang and Majalah Bintang magazines are highly sought after by film and movie memorabilia collectors who value its contents which chronicle the heydays of the Malay film industry as well as the challenges faced by the stars long after the curtains fell.