Plush seats and state-of-the-art surround sound are commonplace in Singapore’smany cinemas today, but at the turn of the 20th century, Singapore’s first publiccinema was just a pitched tent.
Arrival of the First Cinemas
Setting up his tent at an open space at the junction of Hill Street and RiverValley Road, Basrai, a travelling Parsi showman, is lauded to have been the firstto screen a public film in 1902. The films he screened included Miroir deCagliostro (Cagliostro’s Mirror), Le reve d’un astronome (Astronomer’sDream), and Photographing a Ghost. Because electricity was not yetavailable at that time, the films each had an entrance fee ranging from 10 to 50cents, and were projected onto the screen using limelight.
Tented cinema screenings carried on for another two years in open spaces alongVictoria Street and the foot of Fort Canning Hill till 1904, when Frenchentrepreneur Paul Picard came along. With funding from a jeweller, he openedSingapore’s first enclosed cinema – The Paris Cinematograph – in the Malay Theatrelocated at 320 Victoria Street. Picard’s cinema screened one-hour-long films onSaturdays during the showings of 6.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m. He played music toaccompany the silent films, and also marketed and managed the tickets: a thirdclass seat was priced at 10 cents, and a reserved seat, 50 cents. In 1905, theownership of the cinema changed hands to Mohamed Kassim of Wayang Kassim, who madechanges to the programme and overall improvements to the cinema.
Birth of a Cinema Fad
By the 1920s, technology had evolved enough to produce talkies (film withsound), and it was all the rage at the amusement parks that were then takingSingapore’s entertainment landscape by storm. Fairground cinemas encouraged thepopularity of cinema-going further with their showing of popular American,British, Chinese, and Hindi films – and with the advent of television stilldecades away, cinema remained the main visual entertainment for many Singaporeans.Notable cinemas that were built in this decade were the Oriental Theatre at 291New Bridge Road and Majestic Theatre at Eu Tong Sen Street.
By the time the Second World War arrived on our shores, the fad of cinema hadlong been encouraging the growth of film exhibition and production activities.Although the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945 disrupted the cinema business,the nation shrugged off the restraints of war later by turning to entertainmentfor relief.
By the 1950s, among the theatres that had sprung up were the Cathay; Metropole;Rex; Odeon; and Capitol, which in 1952 became one of the first to screen a full-length 3D movie, Bwana Devil. Many cinemas then were also equipped for liveentertainment such as magic shows, beauty contests, dance revues, musicals, andvariety shows. Movie ticket prices ranged from $1 to $3, and remained this waythrough to the 1970s.
In the 1970s, Asia’s largest drive-in cinema that could accommodate 900vehicles also opened in Jurong. c. 1971. Image courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Capitol Cinema was Shaw Organisation's flagship cinema after they purchased theCapitol building (later renamed Shaws Building) from the Namazie brothers in 1946.The tenancy of the building was returned to Singapore government in 1980s.c.1950s. Image courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
The Big Players
Between the 1920s and the 1990s, many prominent cinema players entered thescene and expanded their empires that still exist today.
View of Shaw House (right) and Lido Cinema from Orchard Road, Singapore. c.1969. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.
Shanghainese brothers Runme Shaw and Run Run Shaw arrived in Singapore andestablished the Shaw Organisation in 1924. At the end of the 1930s, the brothersowned more than 100 cinemas in Southeast Asia, and by 1965, had the widest cinemanetwork in Singapore with 19 cinema halls and another 30 other cinemas licensed toplay their distributed movies.The well-known REX cinema and favourite haunt of foreign workers at Mackenzie Roadwas also opened in 1946 by the Shaw Organisation. Today, Shaw continues tomaintain a strong presence in Singapore.
Cathay building with cinema on ground floor and residences abovec. 1953. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.
Similarly, Loke Wan Tho founded the Cathay Organisation when the Malaysiannative established the Associated Theatres Ltd in 1935. Despite coming from one ofthe wealthiest families in Malaya, Loke wasn’t interested in the family business –choosing instead to produce movies and own cinema chains. In 1953, his company wasrenamed Cathay Organisation, and it owned several cinema chains in Singapore,Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand. Today, Cathay continues to maintain a strongpresence in Singapore.
Goh Eng Wah, founder of Eng Wah Organisation, was another Malaysian native whowas interested in the cinema business. In 1945, 21-year-old Eng Wah, who had fledto Singapore because of the World War, set up a cinema at the Happy WorldAmusement Park with a friend and christened it Victory Theatre. The theatresurvived the war by screening Japanese propaganda films. Coupled with Eng Wah’sprevious success with Victory Theatre, he was further inspired to establish secondcinema, Happy Theatre. 1968 saw him setting up the Eng Wah Theatres Organisationand bringing in many Chinese movies from Hong Kong and Taiwan. It has sincerebranded itself as WE Cinemas.
Golden Village is a relatively newcomer: its operations only began in the early1990s. The product of a joint venture by Golden Harvest (Hong Kong) and VillageRoadshow (Australia), the operator today owns 11 multiplexes and cineplexes in thecountry.
The newest kid on the block is Filmgarde Cineplex, an independent cinema whichwas established in 2007. It offers both Hollywood and Asian blockbuster films, aswell as films of other genres with the objective of building a community of filmloving individuals in Singapore.
View of Sultan Theatre at Chong Pang village. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.
Among others, cinemas that have since disappeared are the Odeon cinemas, ChongGay, Sultan theatre, and Jubilee theatre. In their heydays, they enjoyedtremendous patronage but this waned as they lost out to competition from biggercinemas, or got bought over by these bigger cinema chains.
Jubilee Cinema at Ang Mo Kio aVENUE 8 (Ang Mo Kio Town Centre). Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.
114 years after the tented cinema first debuted here, Singapore today hastheatres that provide an alternative to traditional cinemas. The Projector, anewly restored Golden Mile Theatres that used to do well in its heyday, housesspecially curated programmes that showcase indie, foreign, cult favourites,classics, arthouse, horror, local flicks, retrospectives and special themednights. Its operations are made possible through crowd-funding and ferventsupport from local cinema-goers – a reflection of the burgeoning demand foralternative cinematic options.
The Projector.Photo Credit: Philip Aldrup
Among others, independent venues such as The Arts House, Alliance FrancaiseCine Club, The Screening Room, The Substation, and Moving Image Gallery at SAM @8Q also offer unique selections of films that are otherwise less accessible inmainstream cinema.
Filmgoers today are spoilt for choice in the search for the ultimate movieexperience. We’ve certainly come a long way since the days of a tiny tentedcinema!