Cinema with a grim and glamorous past

When The Cathay opened in 1939, the building - then 16 storeys high - was the tallest in South-east Asia and housed Singapore's first air-conditioned cinema. Today, it is the only cinema here that is a national monument.
When The Cathay opened in 1939, the building - then 16 storeys high - was the tallest in South-east Asia and housed Singapore's first air-conditioned cinema. Today, it is the only cinema here that is a national monument.ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
Above: The Cathay's facade was gazetted a national monument but in 2006, its interior was developed into a mall, a cinema, and private residences. Left: Many shops are now shuttered, likely victims of a retail slump.
The Cathay's facade was gazetted a national monument but in 2006, its interior was developed into a mall, a cinema, and private residences.
When The Cathay opened in 1939, the building - then 16 storeys high - was the tallest in South-east Asia and housed Singapore's first air-conditioned cinema. Today, it is the only cinema here that is a national monument.
Many shops are now shuttered, likely victims of a retail slump.

From places of worship to educational institutions and the former residences of prominent figures, 72 buildings have been gazetted as national monuments. Each is a yarn woven into the rich tapestry of Singapore's history. This is the 23rd in a weekly series revisiting these heritage gems.

While the youth of today may know The Cathay as yet another shopping mall with a cinema, beneath its modern glass exterior lies a storied past.

The now 17-storey building was once Singapore's tallest skyscraper, containing the city-state's first air-conditioned cinema. It morphed into an air raid centre during World War II, and later a Japanese propaganda broadcast station.

Today, only the iconic art deco curved facade with the vertical "Cathay" logo remains, having been gazetted a national monument in 2003. The rest of The Cathay in Dhoby Ghaut was reconstructed in a $100 million makeover completed in 2006. It is now home to a mall, a cinema and private residences.

Last Saturday, The Cathay underwent more upheaval when a fire broke out in a cinema projector room, forcing the evacuation of patrons. One employee was hospitalised. The cinema resumed operations on Tuesday.

The Cathay is the only cinema that is also a national monument, though other commercial buildings such as Raffles Hotel and Ford Factory have also attained the status.

But some in the architecture community pinpoint the building as a flawed example of conservation.

Today, only the iconic art deco curved facade with the vertical "Cathay" logo remains, having been gazetted a national monument in 2003. The rest of The Cathay in Dhoby Ghaut was reconstructed in a $100 million makeover completed in 2006. It is now home to a mall, a cinema and private residences.

Assistant Professor Yeo Kang Shua, an expert on architecture and sustainable design at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, said: "It is, in my opinion, not a good case of conservation. Only its facade was kept. The million-dollar question is, why wasn't more of the building kept?

"The current building has no relevance to the facade."

A Cathay spokesman said that three factors contributed to the building's current identity: its history, its status as a forerunner in the movie entertainment industry during its heyday and its location within the arts and cultural district.

"The Cathay positions itself as a mall that provides entertainment and leisure options for consumers while embracing this slice of heritage," he said.

On the second floor, a heritage gallery showcases the history of the Loke family, which founded the Cathay Organisation. Among the artefacts on display are old camera reels, cinema seats and cutlery used in the former Cathay Hotel.

The mall also supports the local arts scene as well as local designers and home-grown businesses, including tenants like Naiise, Chota, The Assembly Store and the Assembly Ground.

But when The Straits Times visited the mall recently, many of the stores were shuttered - likely victims of the retail slump.

It was a different story when the curtains were raised on the Cathay Building - as it was known then - on Oct 3, 1939.

Dato' Loke Wan Tho, the son of self-made China business magnate Loke Yew, saw the potential for the film business in Singapore and opened the cinema with his mother, Mrs Loke Cheng Kim. Both were founders of Cathay Organisation, which still owns The Cathay today.

The first movie it screened was a Technicolor adventure film called The Four Feathers.

Designed by British architect Frank Brewer, the original 16-storey building reached a height of 79.5m, making it the first and tallest high-rise building in South-east Asia. Pilots landing at Kallang Airport used it as a landmark when making the final approach for their landings.

During World War II, the building was first occupied by the British administration. The ground floor was used as an air raid centre when the first bombs fell on Singapore.

Later, the Japanese military moved its broadcast station and propaganda office there. The Japanese would occasionally display the severed heads of looters and other criminals outside the building.

After the war, the building was converted into a cinema and the Cathay Hotel, and later an office building. It was closed for an overhaul in 2000 and reopened six years later with the front facade restored to its 1939 glory.

Many Singaporeans have fond memories of the old building.

On the Facebook page of irememberSG, one reader recalled how the Cathay Restaurant served "the best ornee (yam paste)". Another remembered sipping a drink from the American fast-food chain Orange Julius, which opened its first outlet in Singapore at the cinema in 1982.

Others had memories of watching films such as The Ten Commandments and Blue Hawaii in air-conditioned comfort there.

As Ms Brenda Woo noted, it was a luxury to watch a movie at The Cathay. She said: "Back then, people were easily contented."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2017, with the headline 'Cinema with a grim and glamorous past'. Print Edition | Subscribe