SING50

10 things to know about the 60s

The Straits Times and Business Times are organising an all-star concert in August to celebrate 50 years of popular music in Singapore. In the first of a five-part series, RACHEL CHAN looks at the entertainment scene in the past 50 years in the run-up to the concert

1 Tea dances

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Contrary to the name, no tea was served at tea dances. Rather, tea dances were the forerunner of what is known today as “clubbing”. If you were a teenager or young adult back in the day, chances are you would spend your Sunday afternoons at dance halls and clubs checking out members of the opposite sex and dancing to live music played by popular local bands such as The Silver Strings, Keith Locke & The Quests and Bobby Lambert & The Dukes.

Popular venues included Golden Venus (formerly located at Orchard Hotel), Prince’s Hotel Garni (now Park Hotel Orchard) and South East Asia Hotel (formerly in Waterloo Street).

Non-alcoholic drinks were served at these dances and the cover charge was $3, a princely sum in those days.


2 Shanty by The Quests

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Shanty, an original composition by The Quests in 1964, was the first song by a local band to reach the top of the Singapore charts, displacing The Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better. It held the No. 1 spot for 12 weeks.

The guitar instrumental number was composed by bass player Henry Chua for the band’s first single.

The success of Shanty cemented The Quests’ status as the most successful local band of the era. They were mobbed by fans when they toured Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The group were conceived in 1961 by Chong Chow Pin (better known as “Jap”) and Raymond Leong, who were schoolmates at Queenstown Secondary Technical School. They roped in neighbour Lim Wee Guan as drummer and Chua to play the guitar, even though they did not know how to play either instrument.

Over the years, members came and went: Reggie Verghese replaced Leong; Jamaican British Keith Locke and Vernon Cornelius joined the band as lead singers. Chua left and was replaced by Sam Toh. The Quests disbanded in 1970, with seven singles, six EPs and four LPs to their name.


3 Debut of television

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On Feb 15, 1963, Television Singapore, the nation’s first television station, was launched. Programmes were telecast in monochrome until colour TV was introduced in 1974.

TV sets were a luxury item and scarce – 2,400 families had television sets in their homes – and it was common for families to go to community centres and neighbours’ homes to watch television.


4 Wang Sha and Ye Feng

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The iconic comedy double were said to be the Laurel and Hardy of the East and were among Singapore’s first television stars.

They were talent spotted at a Teochew crosstalk show in New World Amusement Park and invited to host the weekly Chinese Variety Show on television launched in 1963. Wang Sha (also known as “Ah San” – Hokkien for skinny) and Ye Feng (also known as “Ah Pui” – Hokkien for fatty) incorporated dialects, pasar Malay and pidgin English into their skits and songs, pioneering a distinct brand of Singapore humour.

The duo can be said to be the predecessors of today’s comedians Jack Neo and Moses Lim.

Ye Feng, whose real name was Xiao Tian Cai, died of a heart attack at the age of 63 in September 1995. Wang Sha, whose real name was Heng Kim Ching, suffered from chronic lung disease and died at the age of 73 in January 1998.


5 Talentime

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Long before American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent, there was Talentime. Singapore’s most-watched talent show for several decades started out in 1946 as a modest initiative by Radio Malaya deejay Kingsley Morrando to discover local talents.

In the early days, Talentime was held before a live audience at Victoria Memorial Hall. After Talentime came on the small screen in 1964, it attracted a bigger audience. Prizes grew from just a handful of dollars to include a trip to the United States (travel was considered a luxurious novelty then), a new car and musical instruments.

The competition attracted not just singers, but also novelty musicians who could make music with a saw, warble like a bird and tap dance. Winners were offered recording contracts and singing gigs by entertainment venues.

One winner who became a household name was 21-year-old sociology undergraduate Eunice Sim, who won in 1969 with her cover of Julie London’s Cry Me A River.


6 Pop Yeh Yeh

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The Malay pop music phenomenon, whose definitive period was from 1965 to 1971, had the distinct “twangy guitar sound” borrowed from American psychedelic surf rock and British pop.

Pop Yeh Yeh bands were called “kugiran” – which was a malapropism of kumpulan (group), gitar (guitar) and rancak (lively) – and were usually made up of three guitarists, lead, rhythm and bass, and a drummer.

The term was said to have been coined by Radio Television Singapore deejay Mohammad Ismail Abdullah. The unique thing about Pop Yeh Yeh songs was that they were sung in the traditional Malay asli format, with a very slow tempo. But once the lyrics were removed, the instrumentals were Western and one would not be able to tell that it was a Malay song. Prominent Pop Yeh Yeh bands included A. Ramlie and The Rhythm Boys, Jeffrey Din and The Siglap Five, The Swallows and The Clifters.


7 Lee Dai Sor on Rediffusion

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Post-World War II baby boomers were glued to their Rediffusion sets whenever Cantonese raconteur Lee Dai Sor came on, regaling listeners with his narration of swordfighting epics, ghost stories and detective mysteries, replete with sound effects.

Lee was probably the most successful of the three great dialect storytellers of the era. His colleagues Ng Chia Kheng recounted tales in Teochew and Ong Toh in Hokkien.

Born Lee Fook Hong in Telok Blangah in a family of nine children, he started his radio career in 1938 when he joined Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM). At the height of his career, he hosted up to 20 programmes every week on Rediffusion, as well as programmes for local and Malaysian radio stations. He died in 1989 at the age of 76.


8 Cliff Richard and The Shadows concert in November 1961

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This was the musical event credited for inspiring many teenagers to form their own bands. Richard and his band played to a sold-out crowd of 8,000 at the Singapore Badminton Hall.

There was no Internet then and aspiring musicians such as Reggie Verghese, Chong Chow Pin, Henry Chua and Lim Wee Guan of The Quests picked up their guitar skills through imitation and practice.

Later in the decade, other famous foreign bands, such as The Rolling Stones and The Monkees, played in Singapore.


9 P. Ramlee

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Touted as the Renaissance man of Malay entertainment, P. Ramlee was an actor, director, composer and singer whose career spanned from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.

He was born Teuku Zakaria in Penang in 1929 to an Acehnese father and kick-started a successful career at the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Films Productions film studio in Jalan Ampas, Singapore.

Ramlee acted in 66 films, directed 35 feature films, of which he wrote 33, and composed more than 360 songs. His films grossed millions of dollars and won more than 30 awards.

He made his directorial debut Penarek Becha (Trishaw Man) in 1955, featuring his song Azizah, which became one of his most famous hits. Some of his best-loved films were made in the 1960s, including Ali Baba Bujang Lapok (Ali Baba And The Moldy Bachelors, 1961), Ibu Mertuaku (My Mother-In-Law, 1962) and Madu Tiga (Rivals Three, 1964).

He died a pauper in 1973 of a heart attack at the age of 44.


10 National Theatre

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The historic performing arts venue in Fort Canning Park was funded by a unique a-dollar-a-brick campaign.

Designed by local architect Alfred H.K. Wong, its five-pointed facade and fountain represented the five stars and crescent on the national flag.

The public raised $856,000 of the $2.2 million eventually required to complete the building. The theatre featured a 150-tonne cantilevered steel roof overhanging an open-air auditorium with a seating capacity of 3,420.

National Theatre opened on Aug 8, 1963, when it hosted the opening ceremony of the first Southeast Asia Cultural Festival. Over the years, it hosted National Day rallies as well as performances by the Russian Bolshoi Ballet, Louis Armstrong Jazz Band and The Bee Gees.

It was torn down in 1984 as it was deemed structurally unsafe and to make way for a flyover.

Sources: National Library Board, The Straits Times, The New Paper, New Nation, singer-songwriter Art Fazil, blogtoexpress.blogspot.sg, Apache Over Singapore by Joseph Pereira, Mr Audie Ng leader of 1960s band The Silver Strings.