Trading Diaspora and Screen Connections: Ho Khee-yong Family and Kong Ngee Enterprises in Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang and Ipoh 1930-1970

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project draws on recent scholarship in film studies and diaspora studies to address the business history of creativity. Grounded in primary historical sources, it aims at rediscovering the institutional networks and human links between HK and Singapore within its multi-cultural environment of filmmaking and film-consumption. To achieve this, it investigates the shared film heritage of HK and Singapore from the 1930s to the 1960s through the lens of a border- crossing, vertically-integrated enterprise–Kong Ngee– in its South China and Southeast Asian context. Situated in a critical and contested time and space, Kong Ngee filmmakers not only created films catering to the taste of the post-war baby boomers, they responded to competing visions of city and nation-building in Asia.

Kong Ngee was founded by Hakka community leader Ho Khee-yong in British Malaya. Using familial and native-place connections, the patriarch founded a chain of pawnshops in mining towns on the Malayan Peninsula. In 1937, Ho set up Kong Ngee in Singapore and ventured into the realm of film distribution, lining up film agents in China with cinema owners who sojourned on the Malayan Peninsula. This alliance was crucial for the growth of the early film industry in Southeast Asia–a region fragmented along ethnic and linguistic lines. These intricate webs of dialect-group connections helped the Ho family move between different colonial hubs and navigate regime changes. After WWII, the brothers constructed a chain of new theatres scattered in Johor, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, and Penang–mostly mining towns with mainly Chinese communities conversing in Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese. In 1955, Kong Ngee began to produce dialects films in HK.

Based on primary sources from HK, Singapore, and Malaysia, it examines the historical ties that through which people, ideas, film products, and cultural practices circulated between South China and Southeast Asia. These ties will be considered as a synergistic process consisting of actors, agents, and audience; identity claims and class projections; at the junction of communal, regional, and international influences. HK and Singapore are rich sites for the study of these political mediations not only because of their unique position along the geopolitical rifts of the Cold War, but also because of their rapid post-war industrialization amidst rising nationalism across various ethnic communities in Asia. This project will bridge business history with film studies, adding new dimensions and fresh data to ongoing debates about Sinophone studies, diaspora theory, and creating a critical historiography of Chinese-dialect film.
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …


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