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Shariff Medan

Hailed as the “Father of Bangsawan”, Shariff Medan was a prominent bangsawan (Malay opera) performer, theatre producer and film actor.


Published: 12 Oct 2016

Time taken : ~10mins

Shariff Medan (born Shariff bin Ismail) was a prominent bangsawan (Malay opera) performer, theatre producer and film actor. Hailed as the “Father of Bangsawan” for his expertise in the genre, he went on to feature or star in a number of the very earliest Malay films, including Leila Majnun (1934). He wrote and produced numerous scripts for Cathay-Keris Films from the '50s to the '70s, and also wrote scripts for television and radio programmes.

Born in Medan, Indonesia, Shariff Medan grew up in Penang, and later Acheh, in a family environment affected by parental turmoil but experiencing early immersion in the world of bangsawan (Malay opera). Bangsawan had originally been entertainment for royalty but later spread to become a popular art form, particularly among Peranakans and rich Malays.

When he started out in bangsawan, Shariff took any part that required a child actor, including girl’s roles. Eventually he played the heroic character Orang Muda, who, together with the heroine Sri Panggong was one of the two main protagonists and attractions of the opera, and here his talents and popularity earned him widespread fame.

The 1920s were the golden age for bangsawan and artists could make a good living. Shariff himself moved with the operas and eventually decided to migrate to Singapore on a cargo ship, but found it initially hard to make a living. He didn’t return to bangsawan until 1931, whereupon he again worked and toured with opera companies.

In 1932, the film Samarang (Out of the Sea) by Ward Wing (Pathé) was set in Singapore and featured Malay bangsawan actors, one of whom was Shariff. This shifted Shariff's career for a new course and he went on to star in the first Malay talkie Laila Majnun in 1934.

The Japanese invasion caused a temporary hiatus for the bangsawan world, but some performers were co-opted as tools of Japanese propaganda. Post-war Singapore then also saw a decline in bangsawan activities, but Shariff again found work touring in Malaya, Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak, before returning to Singapore in 1952 with the Grand Jubilee Opera, eventually furthering his career in the Malay film industry. In the 1950s and 1960s he appeared in a number of Malay films, including his first co-starring role in the first full-length Malay film in colour, Buluh Perindu (The Magic Flute), screened in Singapore in 1953.

In 1954, he joined Cathay-Keris Films as a writer and producer, and he became a prolific scriptwriter for the company, writing almost all the scripts for Cathay-Keris Films. When Cathay-Keris Films studios closed in 1973, Shariff carried on with his creative endeavours as a writer and advisor for many radio and television programmes. He later went on to be cast in the 1970s Malay TV series Sandiwara. Shariff Medan passed away in 1997.

Photo credit: Sinema Malaysia



Born in Medan, Indonesia.


Starred in film Samarang (Out of the Sea).


Starred in first Malay talkie Laila Majnun.


Came to Singapore with the Grand Jubilee Opera.


Co-starred in first full-length Malay film in colour, Buluh Perindu (The Magic Flute).

1954 to 1973

Writer and producer, Cathay-Keris Films.

4 Aug 1997

Passed away in Kuala Lumpur.


TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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