Journal Article

Watching the astonishment of the native: Early audio-visual technology and colonial discourse



In this paper, I give an overview of early exhibitions of phonographs, kinetoscopes and cinematographic devices in colonial Singapore. Beyond giving an overview of the different exhibitions, the paper also sets them in the context of the colonial discourse prevalent in Singapore and many parts of the world. In the newspaper discourse these new technologies from Europe and United States were depicted as an illustration of ‘Western’ progress and civilisation. These technologies, be it railways, roads, steamships, telegraphs or cinematographs, were used to impress and astonish the colonised, and functioned as a way to signal Western power in colonial territories, something Brian Larkin calls the colonial sublime. Newspaper reports frequently commented on the amazement and perplexity of the local, ‘native’ population when encountering public exhibitions of phonographs, kinetoscopes and cinematographs. This was largely a constructed narrative as it helped create and emphasise differences between coloniser and colonised, and justify colonial structures. The paper demonstrates how new technological devices within a few years were exhibited by people from different Asian backgrounds, and thereby diminished perceived and constructed differences between European and Asian people.

Show more


  • Type:
    Journal Article (peer reviewed)
  • Journal:
    Early Popular Visual Culture, Vol 15, Issue 1.
  • Pages:
  • Published:
  • Language:
  • DOI:

About the Author

Nadi Tofighian

Nadi Tofighian is a researcher and lecturer at the Section for Cinema Studies at the Department of Media Studies. He has previously been a lecturer at Linnaeus University, Örebro University and at De La Salle University Manila, and a postdoctoral ... Read more


Tofighian, N. (2017). Watching the astonishment of the native: Early audio-visual technology and colonial discourse. Early Popular Visual Culture, 15(1), pp. 26-43. Available at: [Accessed 7 Dec. 2022]. doi: 10.1080/17460654.2016.1237882.