1912 coolies

Early representation

A-      A+

IN pre-Independence Malaya, visual communications in vernacular Tamil was rare and not easily accessible to the broader public.

While Tamil script (or language) is usually included in government produced graphics — for example, in posters warning about the communist insurgency or a wanted leaflet — representation of the Indian community is usually found in tourism artefacts.

This postcard, captioned “Tamil Beauty, Penang” and published by A. Kaulfuss is from the early 1900s . The Tamil woman featured on this postcard is a clear evidence of the objectification of the woman’s body through representation.

Her pose wrapped in white cloth and her lingering gaze against the pink tinge background exudes her strikingly exotic dark skin and sensuality. This also contributes to the notion of a “woman”, an Indian beauty.

Notably, depictions of men of the Indian or Tamil community in postcards are usually of lower working class workers or coolies. In this postcard from 1912, you see a group of Indians brought to Penang to work on road building and repairs.

Indians were brought in by the British East India Company to work as sepoys, labourers and policemen.

Both these postcards are traces of the early image-making and racial politics of the Indian community through visual culture. They serve as evidence for research and examination on who we are as Malaysians today.

Ezrena is founder of Malaysia Design Archive, a space to trace and document Malaysian design legacy. Find us on Facebook,

Instagram and Twitter.