LIVING HISTORY

Singapore social

The New World amusement park lives on in this reconstruction of its 4m-high entrance arch. The park was the place to go for a night out. On its site now are City Square Mall and City Square Residences.
The New World amusement park lives on in this reconstruction of its 4m-high entrance arch. The park was the place to go for a night out. On its site now are City Square Mall and City Square Residences.ST PHOTO: TED CHEN
DJ Paul Van Dyk blew the crowd away with a two-hour set on the second night of annual rave fest Zouk Out, held at Sentosa’s Siloso Beach on Dec 9, 2012.
DJ Paul Van Dyk blew the crowd away with a two-hour set on the second night of annual rave fest Zouk Out, held at Sentosa’s Siloso Beach on Dec 9, 2012. ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

AMUSING TIMES

Shakespeare proclaimed there were seven ages of man. If all Singapore were a stage, there are seven stages of enchantment. They are:

1 THE COLONIAL QUARTET

The Singapore Cup for horse racing was instituted in 1842, three years before the birth of The Straits Times. The prize money: a princely $150. The races quickly became a fixture on the annual social calendar and were covered extensively in The Straits Times. Cricket matches were also covered, as were the weddings of the rich, the famous and the powerful.

But balls were far and away the highlight of the year. They were anticipated for months and were occasions for the restrained gaiety of the times. Everybody who was anybody was there, with reporters discreetly taking notes on what people wore and what was served at the table. The more important ones made it to Page 1, like the Sultan's Ball, held at the Singapore palace of the Johor royal family. A report on Jan 15, 1895, described the entrees served: Findon haddock mayonnaise, chicken and beetroot mayonnaise, Aspic pate de foie gras and pigeon and egg pie. The ball "proved one of the most brilliant and successful events in the social life of the colony", the report said.

At the Queen's birthday ball, The Straits Times noted on July 31, 1875, that the dancing to the music of 1/10th Regiment went on until 3am in the "chastely-decorated" ballroom of Government House, now known as the Istana.


The New World amusement park lives on in this reconstruction of its 4m-high entrance arch. The park was the place to go for a night out. On its site now are City Square Mall and City Square Residences. ST PHOTO: TED CHEN

Revenues from entertainment duties fell almost $560,000 in 1947-1948, a drastic drop from the period immediately after the Japanese surrendered to the British. When Singaporeans were ready to spend again, they moved indoors, to cinemas, shopping malls and what were called the Chinese singing cafes, which sprang up during the Japanese Occupation and became a phenomenon.

But not all were happy. A reader wrote to The Straits Times on April 23, 1980, complaining that disco dancing brought "accompanying vices" such as "illicit sex" and "cultural perversion".

Carefully catalogued at the end of such reports were the guest lists, with names printed in the order of their importance. An omission spoke volumes, too.

The Straits Times also saw a role for itself in developing Singapore's entertainment scene. Reviewing the first public concert by the newly formed Singapore Philharmonic Society in 1891, the newspaper grandly proclaimed the Society had "justified its existence" and thanked it for the "innocent amusement" provided.

2 ISLAND OF 'CIVILISATION'

In November 1896, The Straits Times lamented the lack of a general social club in Singapore for "all the ordinary common or garden men among us". Dismissing the Singapore Club as "merely a tiffin and 'morning cocktail' club" for the "heads of firms and other deities", it saw the Cricket Club as only an Athletic Club. And the Tanglin Club was "but a Dancing and Bowling Club".

It was not until Jan 17, 1914, that it began a regular column on the entertainment scene. "Singapore Amusements", a thrice-weekly column, provided summaries of ongoing social events such as plays, comedies, films and visits from overseas entertainers and circuses.

By 1926, Singapore's drawing power was in evidence. Just like the F1 night race today, there were events then that drew people from the region. Social activities for the European community, such as dances and formals, were more abundant in Singapore than in the states of Peninsular Malaya. One such event was the Race Week at the Turf Club.

"Many people from upcountry find it convenient to visit Singapore, to renew old friendships and generally to enjoy the amenities which we have to offer… Our friends in the back blocks look forward to these little excursions as bringing them, for a few days, back to something like civilisation," The Straits Times reported on May 7, 1926.

  • 1942

    THE SURRENDER

    The last of the Commonwealth forces withdraw across the Causeway to Singapore on January 31. Simply pushing out an eight-page broadsheet on normal-sized paper places great strain on the staff, who have to balance work with civil defence duties.

    The Japanese land on the north-west coast of the island during the night of February 8. Most of the media and communications workers leave Singapore on the same day. Editor George Seabridge ees with only the clothes on his back.

    By February 13, The Straits Times is a single-sided sheet distributed for free by staff, or sent to ARP (air raid precautions) stations.

    Misled by ofcial wartime propaganda, most Singaporeans are shocked at the rapid fall of Singapore to the Japanese.

    Singapore is renamed Syonan, the Light of the South. The Japanese operate their own Englishlanguage newspaper The Shonan Times from The Straits Times offices.

    1943

    THE SYONAN SHIMBUN

    The Shonan Times is run by Japanese ofcers from the Propaganda Department who often threaten to behead anyone who spells the Emperor’s name or title wrongly. The paper mostly runs notices, regulations and announcements, and operates on Tokyo time, two hours ahead of Singapore.

    The Shonan Times is replaced by The Syonan Shimbun, operated by The Syonan Shimbun Association headed by Japanese-Americans who control all English and Chinese newspapers. A Malay publication Warta Malaya, edited by Indonesians and subject to Japanese supervision, also runs from The Straits Times’ premises.

3 LEISURE GOES LOCAL

Making a living was the overriding preoccupation of Singapore's immigrant society. Opportunities for leisure were few, and "ethnic vices" such as gambling and smoking opium exerted a strong pull among migrant workers.

So when The New World amusement park in Jalan Besar opened, with kiosks, a ferris wheel, merry-go-round and football ground, The Straits Times applauded, predicting its success.

"Prominent Straits Chinese are connected with the venture, which is being launched on substantial lines, and they should be successful. Singapore can well support an amusement park of this description," reported The Straits Times on July 28, 1923. For the first time, entertainment had gone local.

There was similar enthusiasm for Singapore's first talking picture, The Rainbow Man, a popular musical comedy that was screened at Alhambra cinema in Beach Road in November 1929.

On Aug 29, 1932, The Straits Times reported the opening of the Island Club in Thomson Road, Singapore's first non-racial country club, by Governor Cecil Clementi. It offered mostly golf but tennis courts were being laid and the club hoped to build a swimming pool.

Its founding president, Mr S. J. Chan, a Peranakan lawyer, hoped it would provide "fertile ground for the growth of a deeper understanding among the different races of this city". He noted that many large donors to the club were "providing for the future". They did not even play golf.

For the elite, a new column called "The Social Spotlight" made its debut on Jan 3, 1935. It was written by a woman reporter and covered parties and performances at established venues such as Raffles Hotel and Sea View Hotel. It carried fashion and costume reviews. A year later, renamed "Spotlight", the column evolved to cover private parties.

4 THE MOVE INDOORS

"Singapore is not so amused" was the wryly amusing headline of a report on leisure spending on July 13, 1949. Revenues from entertainment duties fell almost $560,000 from 1947 to 1948, a drastic drop from the period immediately after the Japanese surrendered to the British.

When Singaporeans were ready to spend again, they moved indoors, to cinemas, shopping malls and what were called the Chinese singing cafes, which sprang up during the Japanese Occupation and became a phenomenon. "Legacies of enemy occupation are usually unpleasant. A welcome exception, however, and one that has come to stay, is the Chinese evening singing cafe," says a report on March 2, 1952, headlined "Pretty girls who sing in the evenings". Noting that they were second only to cinemas in popularity and had initiated tens of thousands of Chinese into the world of modern Chinese and Western music, the article quoted a songstress, Ms Pak Ying, as saying that Singapore audiences could be grouped into four categories.

Thirty per cent had eyes only for feminine beauty; an equal number came for the singing; and 20 per cent for the scintillating dresses of the songstresses. As for the remaining 20 per cent, "they have nowhere else to go and must while away time", Ms Pak said.

The favourite songs of the celebrity cafe-singers were recorded for three companies - Parlophone, Pathe and Pagoda - in Mandarin, modern Hokkien, Cantonese and even Thai.

Amusement parks and cafes eventually lost ground to cineplexes, shopping malls and game arcades as tastes changed. But a royal visit could still cause a flutter. On Oct 11, 1952, The Straits Times reported that the "Duke of Kent danced the conga at a students' social at Raffles Institution. Following this, he danced a quick-step with 18-year-old Mabel Lee Soo Bee, a student from Singapore Chinese Girls School". The Duke was visiting Singapore with his mother and the conga, from Cuba, was the rage.

"These socials are a regular part of school life in Singapore and last night's dance was not specially put on for the Duke," said the report. The reminders of that visit remain, etched in granite at Kent Ridge, named after the royal visitors.

By the late 1950s, as Singapore moved to self-rule, there was a boom. "Never before in the history of Singapore had there been so many concerts, variety programmes, drama and other forms of live entertainment as in seven days of the Loyalty Week," The Straits Times on Dec 8, 1959, quoted Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as saying at the opening of a variety show. The National Loyalty Week was held to encourage a sense of loyalty to the new state of Singapore and saw the adoption of key national symbols, including the state flag and the national anthem and the installation of the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara or head of state.

"This must be an all-time record in public entertainment in Singapore," Mr Lee said, adding that the lesson from the spontaneous enthusiasm of the people to the show was that entertainment need not be spicy, sexy and degenerate before it could attract mass audiences.

5 NIGHTCLUBS AND THE HOME ‘COCOON’

Tropicana, Singapore's first nightclub, launched a "new era" in entertainment when it opened in 1968, where Pacific Plaza building now is. Aimed at world travellers, executives and socialites, the four-storey complex housed a theatre-restaurant called the Orchid Lantern and two cocktail lounges. The Lantern boasted a 14-member company, a bevy of Japanese showgirls and twice-nightly performances. Among its famous visitors was the late American crooner Frank Sinatra. Jazz greats Duke Ellington and Count Basie once performed there .

"Plush carpets line all public areas from wall to wall. Chandeliers in the main foyer on the ground floor are said to be "reminiscent of the stately mansions of Europe...(and) offer a touch of grace and elegance as (people) mount the spiral staircase to the Orchid Lantern," The Straits Times reported. A rock garden, water fountains and thick royal red carpets "enhance the sophistication of the foyer".

When the Tropicana closed in 1989, it was still profitable, but many other nightclubs competed with it for business. The acts were risque, with topless shows featured at Neptune Theatre Restaurant in Collyer Quay, Goodwood Park Hotel and Mandarin Hotel, apart from Tropicana. The novelty, however, had worn off by the late 1970s.

Tropicana's closing also marked the end of an older, more esoteric era of novelty-gazing at amusement parks.

"Turnstiles stand still at fun parks," said The Straits Times on Feb 12, 1972, in an article that featured Lo Hock Lee, who once had top billing as The World's Fattest Man. "His waistline then was a prodigious 1191/2 inches, and people paid to prod it. Now it is down to a modest 70 inches and Hock Lee's performances (are) finished."

Cinemas continued to flourish despite television but a new insularity emerged. It was an unforeseen effect of Singapore's successful housing programme. Piped water, phones, radio and television were turning people into homebodies, fostering isolation and hampering a sense of community.

In January 1979, Acting Minister for Social Affairs Ahmad Mattar called for an "activities plan to get flat dwellers out of their 'cocoons'". Community clubs - venues for cultural, sports and recreational activities - stepped in to help enhance social bonding and neighbourliness.

6 THE DISCO WAVE

After building up in the 1970s, the disco wave crested in Singapore in the 80s, going mainstream with events for youth organised at neighbourhood community clubs. In one week in December 1979, there were at least 10 "disco nights", said The Straits Times. Soft drinks were served and community centre officials kept an eye on things. A People's Association spokesman said the dancing allowed young volunteers to get "a respite from their many responsibilities".

Young people flocked to them.

But not all were happy. A reader wrote to The Straits Times on April 23, 1980, complaining that disco dancing brought "accompanying vices" such as "illicit sex" and "cultural perversion". "Disco dancing must give way to cultural dances of Singapore, like the lion dance, the pencak silat or Indian classical dancing if our community centres are to survive as one of the purveyors of our country's culture," he wrote.

The 1980 census exposed a new trend: "an alarmingly large" number of "better educated" women were not marrying. The Government stepped in, setting up the Social Development Unit (SDU) in 1984. The SDU organised social gatherings, group outings and short trips for young singles. It also revived "tea-dances" which had been popular in the 1960s. The discos cashed in, slashing their entry prices between 2 pm and 6pm on weekends to attract young people.

A debate arose, on whether the trend was healthy: Were these dances the "innocent and necessary safety valve youngsters claimed them to be or are they a bad influence on young, impressionable minds''.

"While the SDU functions are squeaky-clean, their disco counterparts are smoky, filled with young teens and loud music," The Straits Times reported on May 21, 1989, in "It's Saturday afternoon fever". It went on to quote Dr Paul Cheung, a prominent sociologist, who worried about the "sexual vulnerability" of the youth. The discos, however, maintained they were offering "healthy fun", which served to keep kids "out of trouble".

In the 1990s, nightspots evolved to adopt an omnibus approach. They were discotheque, videotheque, karaoke, cafe, pub, wine bar and boutique, all rolled into one. Zouk, an $8-million club, opened in March 1991.

In 1997, entry to tea dances and discos for those under 16 years old was banned, primarily to prevent gang recruitment.

7  HEALTH CLUBS AND SPEED-DATING

At the turn of the 20th century, gyms and fitness clubs mushroomed, mainly in and around downtown and the central business district. They were ideal venues for young professionals to exercise, people-watch and mingle, The Straits Times noted on July 19, 2003. Members were in the 25-40 age group, making the health clubs a social gathering ground.

Speed-dating also came into vogue. The stigma attached to being single began to dissipate.Five reporters went "speed dating" and wrote about their experiences on Feb 14, 2008. Most were either apprehensive or cynical about speed-dating. At the end of it, "while the women don't seem to be converts, the men, despite their scepticism, are singing a different tune". Only one of the five went on a follow-up date.

The 2000s also brought back the old favourite: tea-dance, though with a twist. This time, it was heartily embraced by foreign workers and maids, making it the rage at discos they frequented.

Home-grown music festivals also bloomed, like ZoukOut, the first all-night dance and music festival to be staged in Singapore, in 2000. In 2002, a $600-million "Durian" emerged by Marina Bay. The Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay brought Singapore a step closer to becoming a global city for the arts.

The night scene lit up with numerous options. Besides Zouk, another mega entertainment complex to come up was St James Power Station, next to VivoCity. More than 2,500 people partied at its official opening, The Straits Times reported on March 13, 2007.With the addition of the glitzy Singapore Grand Prix in 2008 and the two integrated resorts, Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands, in 2010, there's no longer any scope on the island for boredom that The Straits Times reports once complained of. • ST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Singapore social'. Print Edition | Subscribe