This film is held by the BFI (ID: 20495).


ACTUALITY. A view from above of native boys diving for coins from their boats in Singapore harbour and climbing back again (51 ft).



In August 1900, a notice from the Warwick Trading Company appeared in The Era explaining that ‘Mr Rosenthal, who has secured such splendid results of the South African War, has been recalled, and is now on his way to China, where he will join our other photographer, Mr Semour, who left India for China on June 22 last. These two gentlemen’, the notice added, ‘will form our [Warwick] War Staff in China, and we hope to receive the first consignment on Genuine Chinese War Film Negatives the latter part of September’ (Era, 11 August 1900). Film historian John Barnes later added that Rosenthal, one of the most famous early cameramen, left England for Shanghai in the second week of August. With the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, Barnes suggested that ‘all eyes were now turned towards China’ as the ‘Boer War no longer held the centre of attention’ (Barnes, 1997, 87).

On 10 November 1900 The Era advertised Coolie Boys Diving for Coins as part of its first set of ‘Genuine Chinese Films’. ‘The following Series are the only Animated Pictures taken in China since the trouble began’ the Warwick notice wrote, ‘and were secured by us at great Expense and much Risk to our Photographers’ (Era, 10 November, 1900). The films did not include scenes of the Boxer Rebellion, instead featuring a number of ‘circular panoramic views’ of Shanghai secured by Rosenthal’s new panoramic tripod head, and this scene from Singapore harbour. However, Barnes suggested that ‘so much interest had been stirred up by the uprising that audiences seem content just to view everyday scenes of this distant land’ (Barnes, 1997, 88).

The notice for Coolie Boys Diving for Coins offered some information on the production. ‘When the ship left Singapore our photographer had an opportunity of taking an interesting view of Coolie boys diving from the boats, which crowd around the steamer, and pick up the coins thrown to them by the passengers, before the same can sink to the bottom’. The notice concluded that ‘the dexterity with which these boys again enter their boats and paddle about is wonderful and bespeaks of long practice of these beggar urchins’ (Era, 10 November, 1900).

The depiction of boys collecting coins in the water was often repeated on early film. Early cinema historian Joe Kember references Boys Scrambling for Coins under the West Pier, Brighton (1896) and Mud Larks (1903) as examples, noting the shifting relationship between the camera operator, the boys on screen, and the audiences. He further notes how Coolie Boys Diving for Coins ‘added the appeal of exotic travel (and a level of racial stereotyping) to the formula’ (Kember, 2006, 7). Coolie Boys Diving for Coins was certainly not alone in positioning this familiar scene within a colonial context. Further examples include an H.M. Lomas film from Burma also entitled Coolie Boys Diving for Coins and one from Ceylon, entitled Coolie Boys, Diving for Coins, Columbo. The company catalogue described the latter by stating that ‘these quaint little brown boys crowd around vessels in Colombo Harbour, calling “Have a dive, have a dive!” They are marvellous divers, going after coins and securing them as they sink through the clear water. A steam launch rather “upsets” their performance. A most amusing scene’ (Herbert, 2000, 262, 248). 



Coolie Boys Diving for Coins positions a scene, popularised in early film generally, within a distinctly colonial context. As with similar films, it uses attractions that, as Joe Kember argued, ‘were more broadly characteristic of several early genres, among them the intriguing spectacle of a chaotic flurry of limbs projected on-screen, the prevailing “Mischievous boy” and racial stereotypes (derived in part from contemporary conventions in the music halls)’ (Kember, 2006, 7). It reflects a popular interest in early film for foreign vistas and performances. The film not only displays these foreign subjects on screen, it also actively stages their performance, and literally offers them money to act to the camera. The camera operator is active within the film, throwing the coins, and generating this performance from the local boys.

Warwick’s description for Coolie Boys Diving for Coins provides further context to the scene, as it states that the boys ‘crowd around the steamer, and pick up the coins thrown to them by the passengers’ (Era, 10 November 1900). This additional narrative information broadens the scale and slightly alters the process of identification within the film. It is now not simply the cameraman who is privileged by his agency, but the regular tourists, passing and viewing this scene, while the viewer in England is now positioned not only alongside the cameraman, but also the (unseen) travelling tourist. The film creates a pronounced division between the colonialist (now represented by the large steamer) and the locals (scavenging for coins in their small boats). Furthermore the scene is now presented, not as an isolated manufactured instance, but as a common response to the passing steamers.

Tom Rice (September 2009) 


Works Cited

Barnes, John, and Richard Maltby, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, 1894-1901, Volume 5: 1900 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).          

The Era, 11 August 1900.

The Era, 10 November 1900.

Herbert, Stephen, A History of Early Film (London: Taylor and Francis, 2000).

Kember, Joe, ‘The Cinema of Affections: The Transformation of Authorship in British Cinema Before 1907’, The Velvet Light Trap, Number 57, Spring 2006, 3-16. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
1 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
51 ft

Production Credits

Production Company
Warwick Trading Company