The History of Tiger Beer Advertisements in the 1930s
Exploring 1930s Singapore through old Tiger Beer advertisements. Tiger Beer ads were not just about the brand, they were about the people too.
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Writer’s note (Why did I putting myself through the pain of writing this)
For history majors in NTU, the final year project provides us a glimpse into writing a real academic research paper. My friends have likened the process to giving birth to a child and I myself have dubbed it the “Fuck You Project”, because well, the process of writing it got me swearing quite a bit.
However, I’m not here to discuss the pains of writing FYP. Instead, I was inspired by a conversation with a friend about the inherent gap between the mainstream public and academic circles. Academic language/jargon can be quite taxing to read and most people aren’t interested in reading 10,000 word-long articles, so I think there needs to be a bridge between the two. (I firmly believe academic knowledge should not be exclusive to university students/professors.)
So ya la, as a result of that convo, here I am trying to discuss my FYP topic in a distilled manner with chill, casual Singlish. I am aware my Final year thesis is nothing like the rigorous academic papers my profs write, but I thought it’ll be cool to put the stuff I’ve learnt during my research out there for mainstream readers to look at and learn something new. Unlike a history paper, I’m not gonna go in depth into analysis, historical context and inquiry. (wah this is gonna be tough.) Instead, I’ll just focus on the interesting bit of my findings and let the ads themselves tell the story. Essentially, I hope this article will be easy to read and that you’ll find the topic quite interesting, as I did when I was researching it la.
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Okok, you very luo suo. So what did you research on?
Simple answer: Tiger Beer advertisements from 1930s to 1950s.
Long answer: My thesis uses Tiger Beer advertisements to trace the various identities that the brand assumed during the period and show how these identities were often reflective of Singapore’s journey to nationhood. It gets a bit more complex than that, but I’m not gonna delve deeper as I’ve a personal word limit on medium articles and I need to sleep early. Hence, for this article, I’m gonna focus on discussing Tiger Beer advertisements from 1932–1938, i.e. pre-WWII era.
Background on Tiger Beer
Most Singaporeans have probably tasted Tiger Beer at least once in their life. We often view it as a Singaporean brand — since it’s made in Singapore and is often branded as a local product. It’s also found everywhere la. They usually sell it in coffeeshops and you can always see uncles drinking it. But if you’re atas and want to exprience the finer things in life (?), you can order it at the Ritz Carlton bar too.
Honestly ah, Tiger Beer is not my favourite beer. But because it’s affordable and I’m a college kid, I drink it. I don’t think it’s any Singaporean’s preferred beer too— no one I know loves it. But somehow, the ang mohs and my foreign friends say it’s good leh.
So why do ang mohs/foreigners like it? One answer is that there exists three different grades of Tiger Beer — the cheapest and lowest grade caters for the army, the average grade for the local market, and the highest hobs quality is reserved for premium overseas export. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but my friends who have completed National Service often claim this to be the case. If it is indeed true, then we are presented with a beer that has become synonymous with Singapore and yet even in local legend assumes a variety of identities. Woah, you never knew Tiger Beer could be this cool right.
Anyway, if I’m not wrong, I think business majors now call this multiple identity strategy thing ‘market segmentation’. But did you know that Tiger Beer also employed a similar strategy in its advertising during the 1930s? In fact, from 1932 to 1955, the beer was constantly assuming different identities as modern Singapore surfed the transformative waves of inter-war depression, wartime occupation and the formation of the Federation of Malaya…
So hold on… Tiger Beer is so old!?
Ya, it’s pretty darn old. That’s why I can write a history paper right.
In fact, Tiger Beer started when Singapore was facing the effects of the great depression. In 1931, Heineken International and Fraser and Neaves (F&N) were detemined to collaborate and establish a brewery in Singapore. Founded as a joint venture between them, Malayan Breweries Limited was to be the company that managed Singapore’s pioneer brewery, the Tiger Beer brewery. In 1932, the Tiger Beer brewery began its operations at Alexandra Road. It aimed to provide quality beer that would rival that of European beers, by using the ‘finest malt, hops [and] yeast’.
Ah la. So Tiger Beer actually has quite a long history in Singapore. Don’t cb this national treasure k.
Orh. So… what were 1930s Tiger Beer ads like?
Tiger Beer advertisements varied through the years. Sometimes they’d be just the words “Tiger Beer” located at the bottom of the page. Sometimes, they’d have fancy illustrations with the famous slogan “Time for a Tiger”. But after going through archives of newspaper adverts, these are a few of the notable trends I observed:
A. Tiger Beer was promoted as a drink for health
Most Tiger Beer print advertisements in the 1930s promoted Tiger Beer as a health-enhancing product. I know it’s a bit weird la, because beer is prolly the last thing you’d associate with ‘healthy’ today. But this sort of health pitch by alcohols were quite common in the past, with Guinness having slogans like ‘Guinness is good for you’ in their ads. There are several possible reasons for the health proposition, such as the impact of prohibition on alcohol ads as well as rise of nutritional science during the period.
Nowadays, if you ever hear that ‘alcohol is good for health’, it’s prolly a silly quote from your drunk friend la.
B. Jawi Tiger Beer Advertisements
The second interesting bit of my research is my discovery of Tiger Beer advertisements in the Jawi newspaper, Majilis. Maybe it’s just me la, but it’s so strange seeing ads of Malays/Muslims in songkoks drinking Tiger Beer. Haram sia.
So, why such controversial advertising ah? I’m not too sure tbh. What’s worth noting however, is that unlike Tiger Beer advertisements’ common appearance in English and Chinese newspapers during the 1930s, the ad campaign in this Jawi newspaper only appeared from 2 November 1933 to the end of the month. So this implies that the campaign was probably badly received by the community and had to be retracted (i.e. the pepsi Kendall Jenner ad equivalent of the 1930s Singapore?)
C. There was a different Tiger Beer for every race
The third thing that fascinated me about this period was that Tiger Beer had presented itself differently to each ethnic group in Singapore.
Most of us know that Singapore was divided into different ethnic communities in the 1930s — i.e. where you stay, what type of job you have and who you hang out with, was often segregated by race during this period. But we tend to forget the media landscape was also quite different then. English papers such as the Straits Times were read by mainly affluent Europeans and a few English-educated asians; while the Chinese community read Chinese papers such as the Nanyang Siang Pau. So ya la, got different newspaper advertisements for each ethnic group/socio-economic group. Hence, these advertisements can also tell us a thing or two about each ethnic group.
So what do I mean when I say they presented themselves differently? For one, in English newspapers such as the Straits Times, Tiger Beer had explicitly promoted itself as a premium drink for the modern, well-to-do gentleman/ businessmen. In the advertisements below, we can see how Tiger Beer was portrayed to be quite atas, with white-collar job guys endorsing it.
In contrast, advertisements that catered for other racial groups — who were usually less affluent — did not depict the product to be ‘premium’, but turned to other themes such as tradition and family instead. For instance, print advertisements that catered for Chinese communities promoted the product as a family drink, like in the ad below. (I know it’s kinda weird, because drinking beer with your parents is not a exactly a family friendly thing today. But hey, its the 1930s. So beers with fam ftw.)
Moreover, contrary to its English ads that emphasised the brand’s modernity, Tiger Beer’s Jawi advertisements often portrayed traditional themes in Jawi advertisements. The advertisement’s depiction of Malays as traditional may be due to the Malay community’s insistence on preserving their traditional and semi-rural way of life. What do I mean by the Malay community being portrayed as ‘traditional’? For example, unlike English and Chinese men who were depicted in modern attires such as suits, Malays were always shown in traditional garments such as sarongs and songkok caps. Also, like the ad below, they were also portrayed to be engaging in cultural activities such as sepak raga — a traditional pastime of the Malay community.
Talk about racial stereotypes man.
D. Differing aesthetics of advertisements
The last thing I observed was this visual difference between ads appealing to different ethnic groups la. What do I mean by this? Just take a look at the two advertisements below.
The English ad looks like a western cartoon — it uses minimalistic, clear lines and the human figure has exaggerated proportions. Just google “1930s cartoons” and you’ll see how it resembles one of those western cartoons.
On the other hand, the Chinese advertisement uses a very different artistic style in its illustration — the portrait of the woman looks quite realistic and actually… doesn’t it remind you of those vintage Shanghai girl Chinese advertisement calendars?
I’m not great with my art vocab la, but what I’m trying to say is that they look visually very different even though both of them are Tiger Beer ads. Thus, we can see how 1930s advertisements were often adapted to cater to each racial community not only through thematic means, but also through visual appeal. Studying these ads allows us to not only understand the distinctiveness of each ethnic communities, but also get a glimpse of their cultural ties to the homeland.
Tiger Beer advertisements’ differentiated themes and aesthetics suggest that there was a vast segregation between various racial communities in Singapore, especially between the Europeans and the rest of the racial groups during the interwar period. The exclusive proposition of Tiger Beer as a premium good in English advertisements highlights how they English-speaking community was affluent relative to other groups. Moreover, the Chinese and Malay communities kept their own distinct cultures and traditions, so there seemed to be limited interaction between each community, or at least suggested from the advertisements.
I hope this little bit of history was interesting for you la. Most of us think Singaporean history is boring, so this was my attempt to see it from a different perspective. (This gives beer-tinted goggles a new meaning lol). Hope you enjoyed the short read. I’m gonna get myself a can of Tiger and sleep. Ciao!