Planning a Trip to Singapore’s Past: Travel Ephemera at the National Library
Old postcards, maps and travel brochures offer a glimpse of what Singapore used to look like. Manager Yashodha Nadarajan travels back in time with the collection of travel ephemera at the National Library.
When I was younger, planning a holiday abroad meant dropping by travel agencies to pick up brochures, postcards and maps, and cutting out interesting newspaper articles or advertisements.
Because of the Internet, we don’t really do this anymore of course, which is a little sad. I still find travel ephemera – brochures, postcards, maps – very inspiring. To me, flipping through a brochure with beautifully vibrant, professionally taken photographs still beats endless Instagram scrolling. It’s even more exciting when you finally reach these destinations and you see your postcard come to life. What’s also great is that after the trip, these brochures are as much a memento of the holiday as the photographs taken there or the old train tickets and museum passes saved.
Beyond a nostalgia value, old travel brochures are useful in other ways as well. Postcards and brochures from long ago allow us to travel back in time – with no time machine needed. These travel ephemera are a snapshot of a moment, depicting iconic buildings, bustling street scenes and cultural events that have long since disappeared.
The National Library’s collection of travel ephemera is a fascinating window into our past, showing how different Singapore was compared to now. Tourists coming to Singapore today are spoilt for choice if they are looking for a five-star hotel. In the 1930s though, the pickings were much slimmer. Back then, the three leading hotels here were the Adelphi and the Raffles in town and the old Sea View hotel in Tanjong Katong.¹
The old Sea View Hotel was often featured in travel brochures from the 1930s.² It was popular with those recovering from illness and seeking peace, calm and relaxation surrounded by coconut trees at the seaside resort.³ Sadly, the old Sea View Hotel was closed down in 1964.⁴
Travel ephemera also enables us to see slices of life from long ago. New Year celebrations in the early years of Singapore were very different from the ones we enjoy today. I had no idea that sporting events such as the New Year Sea Sports were held annually at the Singapore Harbour, off Collyer Quay in the 1930s.⁵ Boating events featured boats known as “Malay Koleks” and other yachts.⁶ There were also swimming competitions, and other aquatic events such as diving, koleh tilting (koleh being a kind of boat) and tub racing which seemed to be added attractions to the event.⁷
While flipping through some of the old travel guides and postcards of early Singapore, I realised that many street scenes and trades have vanished from our lives completely. Take for instance, the ice-cream seller peddling his wares from his bullock cart. Although we still have itinerant ice-cream sellers around today, they move around either on motorbikes or tricycles. It would certainly be interesting to encounter one on a bullock cart now!
People often travel to sample local cuisine so it’s no surprise that old brochures promoting Singapore do the same. I’m intrigued by a particular brochure in our collection with the tagline “While most other countries have a national dish, Singapore has fourteen”. (Judging from the postcard, I’m guessing chicken rice is one of them.)
They say that the past is a foreign country. Thanks to the travel ephemera collected by the National Library, anyone can embark on an exciting journey – no passport needed.
If you are interested in travel ephemera, look up the John Koh Collection: Singapore and Malaya Travel Ephemera. The John Koh Collection: Asia postcards, photographs and envelopes, 1931–1976 is a tremendous resource for old postcards. (These two collections have not yet been digitised so you will need to visit the Library to view them in person.) From your laptop or mobile phone, you can check out the Lee Kip Lin collection at PictureSG with its extensive photographs of Singapore from several decades ago.
Yashodha Nadarajan is a Donors manager with the National Library, Singapore. She handles donations of various subjects and formats such as manuscripts, photographs, books and maps.
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 Joshua Chia Yeong Jia. “Old Sea View Hotel”. Singapore Infopedia. Published 2019. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1181_2007-08-29.html
 Souvenir of Singapore, 73; A. C. Willis, Willis’s Singapore Guide (Singapore: A. C. Willis, 1936), 30–31. (From BookSG)
 Roots. The Sea View Hotel. https://www.roots.gov.sg/collection-landing/listing/1046764
 Biggest-Ever Auction of 60-Year Old [sic] Hotel’s Property,” Straits Times, 4 May 1964, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
 New Year Sea Sports, 1939. From PictureSG, New Year Sea Sports, 1939: general view | PictureSG (nlb.gov.sg)
 “New Year Sea Sport in Singapore Harbor”, Malaya Tribune, 3 January 1934, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
 “New Year Sports”, Straits Times, 31 December 1930, 13. (From NewspaperSG); Merry Scenes at Sea Sports, Straits Times, 2 January 1930, 15. (From NewspaperSG)