A Pavilion of Memories


The Pavilion Cinema at Orchard Road, Singapore in 1959 (above and below).

One of the oldest shopping centres at Orchard Road, Specialists’ Shopping Centre was home to Hotel Phoenix Singapore and, more famously, the John Little departmental store. It was originally named Specialists due to the concentration of medical specialists in its early days, and it was built in the site of the Pavilion Theatre in the early seventies.

Owned by OCBC Bank, the 30-plus years old mall and hotel were finally demolished in 2008 to be replaced by Orchard Gateway, a new mall with restaurants, offices, hotel rooms and a library linked between two towers. (Source: rememberSingapore blog).


The 1870s photograph from G.R. Lambert & Co. shows a view of Orchard Road.  This road began as a country lane lined with bamboo hedge and shrubbery.  The road got its name from the nutmeg, pepper and fruit orchards that lie on both sides of the road.

How far back is it worthwhile or meaningful for any purpose to track the history of Orchard Road to post on this heritage blog?  For that matter, how was the description of the City of Singapore in the 1930s?

“Remembering gives purpose to our past. Remembering brings gratitude for all that others have done for us. Remembering strengthens out community. Remembering provides us perspective for where we have been and where we are going. Remembering re-ignites hope for what can be”.  ~ Sandy Koenig

I wasn’t born in 1930, so the description of a place as written over 80 years ago would be helpful to research from old books, magazines, newspapers and other recorded material resources which younger generations could learn from their prevailing situation, circumstances and conditions at that time.

In the book “Stolen Childhoods:  The Untold Story of the Children Interned by the Japanese” by Nicola Tyer:

Singapore in the 1930s was a dynamic and glamorous city with a worldwide reputation for exciting nightlife.  Run as a British colony since its foundation in the early nineteenth century by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, its status as a free port meant prices were low and the good life came cheap.  Crammed onto the small island were a multitude of nationalities – Indians, Malays, Chinese, English, Dutch, Germans.  These races, each with their own quarter, contributed to the island’s reputation for gaiety and diversity.  The hub of Singapore’s shopping aea was the opulent tree-lined Orchard Road with its boutiques displaying samples of their expensive goods – handbags, gloves, perfumes – in glass cabinets along the pavements.

So how different was Orchard Road then and now through the eyes of foreign visitors and tourists to Singapore so many decades apart?

To blog to express from recollection of a place or event so many decades later would be very different from the past written records as and when these incidence happened, current affairs and the memories are still fresh in the mind.

My memories of Pavilion Cinema in 1959 when I was 11 years old. Mary Sim, my English language tuition teacher who was my elder sister’s colleague brought my sisters and I to watch a midnight show at Pavilion Cinema.

It was the first midnight movie and the first and last visit to Pavilion.  The memories and experience of Pavilion was vague and it was soon forgotten.

I think it was an Indian movie “Mother Earth” or something.  As I was small in size as a child, I did not have a seat to buy the ticket and shared the seat with my sister.

Pavilion was sandwiched in between a row of shops in Orchard Road.  The grey building was dark and there were few street lamps. Most shops were closed at midnight at 1.00 am when the show ended. Public buses have also stopped operation, but Mary drove her car and did not have to worry about public transport to watch the midnight show at Pavilion.

With the help of “memory aids” from old digital newspapers from NewspaperSG, I learn many stuff about Pavilion which I did not notice.

According to the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser dated 25 February 1935:

Morning cinema performances on Sundays are likely to become the fashion in Singapore, judging by the success of the experiment carried out at the Pavilion Theatre yesterday where “Our Daily Bread” is being shown.

There seems to be a large class of cinema-goers to whom a morning show appeals and there is every likelihood of the management of the Pavilion Theatre repeating the experiment next Sunday.

Yesterday’s morning performance commenced at 11 am and was over in good time to enable those who attended to get home for lunch.  Sunday morning performances are popular in other countries and the Pavilion Theatre’s experiment has proved that there is also a public for them in Malaya.

In July 1940, Pavilion Theatre was closed for 5 months to install up-to-date air-conditioned cinema hall.

Alterations to the cinema included a change of seating accomodation upstairs and arm-chair seats were provided.

For its modernisation, the theatre concentrated on showing British comedies.  The management felt that at those times of anxiety, cinema patrons wanted comedies as film entertainment.

In 6 October 1927, the success of The Jazz Singer, a Warner Brother’s a half-silent, half-talking musical signaled the beginning of the end of silent films in 1931 to begin movies with sound as “talkies”.

In a letter to the Straits Times dated 18 August 1951, L. WEBB JONE, Singapore wrote:

“Our Cinema”

May I express the hope that the Pavilion Cinema, Singapore will always remain a cinema, run on the same circumspect line as in the days of the late Mr Joe Elias?  It is the one place left, apart from the Victoria Theatre, where one is not swamped by magnitude, and the management shows an admirable restraint in the handling of film ballyhoo.

To many residents it has become “our cinema”.

In 1951, one of Singapore’s oldest cinemas, the Pavilion’s owners of the theatre advertised for tenders for the lease for five-year periods to use the building for another purpose.  On 15 August 1951, the owners of the theatre, the trustees of the late Mr. J. Elias, advertised for tenders for the lease of the Pavilion for five-year period.

The Pavilion was closed when the premises was used for some other purpose and not as a cinema.

Car Parks in Orchard Road

To visualize the location of the Pavilion Cinema and the road traffic in Orchard Road 62 years ago, please read the news in The Straits Times dated 29 March 1952.

The City’s Traffic Police have laid down new parking laws for cars outside the Pavilion Cinema in Orchard Road.

No parking is permitted as from today on the roadside opposite the cinema, or in Emerald Hill Road, or immediately in front of the cinema.

Vehicles leaving the car-parking space on either side of the cinema must turn left, and go to the end of the dividing island near Grange Road, before turning about to go into the city.

Cars may only be parked in the diagonal spaces painted on the road.  When the park is full, they must be parked opposite the Cold Storage in Orchard Road.

Orchard Road looking from Pavilion Theatre with Singapore Cold Storage on the left, and Cathay Building in the background.
Street hawkers were re-sited at temporary hawker centres such as the old Glutton’s Square opposite Cold Storage.
“Shaws give up cinema lease of Pavilion”

It was reported in The Straits Times on 1 Novemeber 1959 that Shaw Brothers organization has decided to give up the lease on the Pavilion Theatre in Orchard Road, one of the oldest cinemas in Singapore with effect from 1 December 1959.

Mr Run Run Shaw told The Sunday Times that the theatre was losing money.

“The costs of running the theatre have increased, while box office takings have dropped,” he said.  “So we have decided to give it up.”

Mr Shaw said that about 40 people employed at the Pavilion have been given notice terminating their services.

Shaws have been running the Pavilion for the past seven years.  The building belongs to the Elias estate.

Built soon after the World War I, it was originally named Palladium until 1931 when it acquired its present name.

A Pavilion of Memories“, the blog topic (borrowed from my favorite Straits Times journalist Tan Bah Bah in my young days) was published an interesting article of the same title and published on 21 February 1993.  Courtesy of the excerpt on this blog.

Older Singaporeans who have a good knowledge of the history of Orchard Road will recall the old Pavilion cinema, which used to be where the Specialists’ Centre is today.

A grey building tucked in a row of shops and restaurants, it ranked with the likes of Capitol and Cathay as the first wave of cinemas showing first-run English films.

This may come as a surprise to some.  But old landmark cinemas like Lido and Orchard are considered second-wave because they came later.  And the architectural styles of the two generations of cinemas were indeed different.

First-wave cinemas were usually more stately.  Second-wave ones tended to be louder and more modern in design.

Pavilion was, if not a grande dame, at least a princess-royal whose high point, as far as I am concerned was that “It’s Great To Be Young”, a sleeper-turned-box-office-hit, was shown there.

This is what the authoritative Halliwell’s Film Guide says of the film:  “It’s Great To Be Young in 1956.  A popular teacher falls foul of the new headmaster who tries to disband the school orchestra.  Very acceptable but totally forgettable star comedy starring John Mills, Cecil Parker and Jeremy Spenser.

For soppy appeal, the film can be compared with The Bodyguard, the Whitney Houston- Kevin Costner good looks superstar showpiece masquerading as cinema – despised by the critics but gleefully lapped up by the public.

Somehow, restless Chinese high-school students, fired at that time by anti-colonial sentiment and slogans, admired the film’s anti-establishment theme.

They might not have fully understood John Mill’s stiff upper-lip brand of English.  But Chinese subtitles and an instinctive feel for issues of growing up moved the kids to stomp and clap at every note of defiance from Jeremy Spenser’s trumpet (Mills played the part of the new principal and Spenser, one of the band members who later became the leader of the “rebellion”.)

And just one or two years down the road, some of these youths were ready for the more serious business of burning buses, breaking street lamps and chanting “ompah Merdeka”.

English-stream students from one missionary school could also empathise in a way with the character in It’s Great To Be Young.  Their own principal was about to be transferred and when he was posted to another school later, they staged a strike.

How many times has it happened: Someone whom many admire and like as a leader is asked to go and the inspired ones are left in the dark and in an angry stupor as to the whys and the wherefores.  Thus, although the Pavilion was reputed for showing English (as distinct from American) films, it played an inadvertent role as one of the stepping stones in the social awakening of today’s older Singaporeans.

And in more ways than one.  The Pavilion bar and restaurant, which was next to the theatre, survived till the early 1980s.

It was a famous watering hole for British expatriates.  They would catch Twice Round The Daffodils or whatever Pinewood Studios production would be showing at the theatre, pop over to the pub at the first level to down their pintas and then adjourn to the second for their bangers, fish and chips.

As they dined, Queen Elizabeth II and her predecessors watched with much amusement from their framed glory on the wall.

Nationhood brought a more mixed crowed – meaning more locals – to the bar.  Not, according to a Pavilion old-timer, merely to talk trivia, show off their designer trinkets or boast of their latest Azura Red Bean commodity killing.  But to let off steam on current affairs.  The more heated the debate, the faster the drinks went down.

Yet, said the veteran drinker, the Pavilion was not really a rowdy place.  It was an oasis in the hurly burly of Orchard Road – where you could discuss an issue like the Barisan Socialis boycott of Parliament without having to raise your voice.

But the controlled calm of the bar did not last long towards the last years of its existence.  Impressed travel agents suddenly “discovered” its charm and started to dump their busloads of tourists onto the place.

Finally, it was progress – land acquisition for a wider Orchard Road – which consigned the Pavilion to history.

Briefly, but so briefly, the name reappeared in the Pavilion International hotel, which has since been renamed the Regent.

The concept of movie-going has changed so much in the meantime.

Bringing a family to the cinema was cheaper, even  if one had to take a bus all the way from Paya Lebar to Orchard.  There was romance and fun in both the idea of making the trip downtown and the escapism of losing oneself in a first-class cinema like the old Pavilion.

In an age of neighbourhood cineplexes and multiplexes, going to the movies is, of course, as convenient as taking a stroll to the coffeeshop – casual shorts, sandals and all.  I welcome that.  But I must say I also miss having to dress up.

Also, I also miss dearly the cinemas which had character, or at least names with a touch of class.

Frankly, I do not know what to do with a cinema named Central, I do not even know where it is.

But Pavilion, Garrick, Galaxy, Diamond, Queen’s, Roxy, Globe, Silver City, Victory, Atlantic, Mercury – those were real cinemas.

The discerning comments and current affairs of the day in Tan Bah Bah’s article was burrowed surreptiously to reflect the disturbing  current affairs of young Singaporean students in 1956 in the “Pavilion of Memories”.

An old postcard of Orchard Road, Singapore c 1930

2014-10-31 15.10.52

The location of the former Pavilion Cinema in Orchard Road. Same place, Different times. Different purposes of the heritage building with rebuilt modernised designs, features and functions to suit the times in Singapore.

2014-10-31 15.11.20

2 thoughts on “A Pavilion of Memories

  1. I was 6 years old in 1958 when I watch my once and last movie at The Pavilion. It was ‘great to be young’. I recalled that following that afternoon movie, my parents brought me across to the magnolia snack bar across to have an ice cream and a chicken pie. My memory of that cinema was really a very grand cinema after Capitol. When it was closed, the dilapidated building remained for almost a decade before it was demolished

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