Paper Tigers

Today’s Poster is often listed online as ‘Defend Singapore’. It’s apparently a British Empire issued poster, with Chinese text (and no English in the main message).  According to the details on the bottom margin, it was designed and printed in Singapore.


In the 1930s, Singapore, a British possession, part of the Straits Settlement, had a massive expansion in its naval facilities, supported by army and air force resources. The idea was as a deterrent to Japanese aggression. Unfortunately, despite the naval facility, there was no fleet available to use it, once the European war was well underway, with the result it was rather like a scabbard without a sword.

This poster will have been produced in the late 1930s, or even 1940-41 as the Japanese threat became more real, and as an exhortation to the Chinese speaking population of Singapore. The text, 大英帝國之雄姿 (in reverse) translates as ‘The Heroic British Empire’ or ‘The Heroic Great British Empire’ (not as sometimes given ‘For King and Country’).

The (intended to be) reassuring giant soldier in the foreground, backed by heavily armed battleships and a flight of aircraft is all about military might. Artistically, it’s interesting how the subjects become simpler and less figurative as they recede in the image. The aircraft – the reason we’re here – are almost paper cutout shapes. It is all entirely martial, no element of civil activity or commerce, and probably no internal threat of control, with the absence of police. But we must be careful of over-reading the story from a hugely different cultural and times basis.

When produced, it may have had credibility, but the sudden catastrophic collapse of resistance to the Japanese invasion in February 1942 caused massive hardship and deaths to the population of many nations and cultures now under Japanese dominion. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the re-occupation by Lord Mountbatten’s British forces, the locals had an eye on de-colonisation, and scant belief in any poster heroism. This poster proved a tragically empty statement and a very empty promise.

James Kightly, Vintage Aero Writer.

I would particularly like to thank Dr Kate Bagnall and Min Guo, who very kindly clarified the actual text. One of the great things about social media was being able to contact Kate on Twitter (where she tweets as @baibi) and be able to receive generous expert help.

The poster was found on the ‘First Dibbs’ sale website here, other listings are available.

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