Singapore has been known to be the stopover for many a traveller, but did you know that it was the stopover for many a non-human traveller too?
In the 1930s, Singapore was catapulted into Hollywood as the stronghold of wild wild east, no doubt perpetuated by Frank Buck’s blockbuster Bring ‘Em Back Alive (1932) , based on his book of the same title, published in 1930.
Although pet-keeping (and consumption) habits predated colonialism in the region, the rise of the animal shows, circuses, zoological gardens and pet shops in Europe and America in the nineteenth century encouraged an international trade in live animals, of which Singapore became a key node of.
During his visit to Southeast Asia in 1878, American zoologist William Hornaday remarked, ‘had I been a showman or collector of live animals, I could have gathered quite a harvest of wild beasts in Singapore.’ From tigers, rhinoceroses and orang-utans costing above $100 to tapirs and slow lemurs costing $2, the trade in wild animals ranged from the large and exotic to the small and common.
American animal collectors, especially, came to be very prominent in this trade, and often operated out of Singapore. For instance, in his memoirs, American animal collector Charles Mayer, described how – by going directly to Palembang to collect animals – he successfully broke Mohammed Ariff’s monopoly on animal trade in Singapore, which were stored in a house in Orchard Road before being shipped to American circuses or Australian zoos in the late nineteenth century. Frank Buck, of Bring ‘Em Back Alive fame, had a similar system in place during the interwar years, maintaining a compound in Katong while he travelled to Borneo, Malaya and Netherlands Indies to collect wild animals. With the range and diversity of animals Buck collected from the region for zoos in Japan and America, it is little wonder that the newspaper coverage of his assignment in 1924 described the Katong residence as a “zoo” and the entire consignment as a “travelling zoo.”
The Americans were not the sole participants in this trade though, even if they seem to be the most prolific writers. Roland Braddell traces it to Haji Marip in 1880, and points out several Chinese dealers, such as Chop Joo Soon, active in Rochore Road in the early 1930s. William Basapa also exhibited a small display of animals in the New World in 1924, though he only established a zoo in the far outskirts of Ponggol, end of Track 22 in the following year. Herbert de Souza also operated a zoo/animal supply business in East Coast, which continued till his death in 1962.
Join us for the screening of Bring ‘Em Back Alive, set in a Singapore where animals roamed (in cages) and were transported all over the world.
 William T. Hornaday, The experiences of a hunter and naturalist in the Malay peninsula and Borneo (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 8.
 Charles Mayer, Trapping wild animals in Malay jungles (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1922), pp. 25-30.
 Frank Buck and Edward Anthony, Bring ’em back alive (New York, Simon and Schuster: 1930).
Roland Braddell, The Lights of Singapore (London: Methuen & Co., 1934), p. 135.
“The New World”, The Straits Times, 2 August 1924, Page 10; Sharp,The First 21 Years, p. 23.