Chinatown memories live on

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[Source:  The Straits Times, 31 March 1983]

An exhibition on Chinatown, tracing its growth and development was held from 1 April to 10 April 1983 at Thong Chai Medical Institution, Wayang Street.  Organised by the Archives and Oral History Department, this is the first comprehensive exhibtion on Chinatown and held in its own environs.  A book, jointly published by the department and Times Book International, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community.  Fiona Hu remembers her carefree days as a Chinatown girl.

Whenever anything happened to grieve He Jie there would appear a faraway look of resolution in her eyes, and she would then tell us of her intention to return in her coolie quarters.  The thought of it frightened and dismayed us.

She had lived with us for years, fed us, carried us and had been that ever-comforting presence.  Unthinkable, nay, inconveivable for her to return to that place she was constantly speaking of, and that mysterious sisterhood she claimed would care for her.

That unknown but menacing image was, I believe, my first real association of Chinatown.

Left to my own devices I was happy enough to roam about this part of old Singapore.  As far as I was concerned from the mamak stall at Upper Chin Chew Street evolved the first provision store.

A five-cent coin in those days purchased a precious packet of sours.  The strips of preserved mango were my favourite, to be savoured slowly to produce a delicious shudder.

Also clipped tantalisingly to strings against the wall were the Dell comics, which saw me through many a rainy afternoon and the Chinese movie magazines which I pored over to marvel at Lin Dai’s limpid eyes and absorb the latest gossip involving Betty Loh Ti and Peter Chen Ho.

Once in a long while, I would actually go to the big screen at Majestic Theatre.  With widening eyes I watched almond-eyed Li Lihua brew a nasty potion for her ailing husband, surreptitiously dusting some power into it.

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Then with mounting horror saw the contorted features of the husband as the poison started to take effect.

Cinema-going in Chinatown was not complete without a brown bagful of warm chestnuts to clutch on to and relish during such moments of melodrama.

It was a short walk from Upper Chin Chew Street to the shops lining South Bridge Road.  Along the five-foot way were cobblers who obliged with instant repairs and women who had just picked out their week’s selection of vegetables.

In the early 60s traffic was already considerably heavy, so a careful threading brought me across into the commercial district of South Bridge Road.

The pawnshop always seemed formidable, a place one never went to unless the family fortune was at stake.

On the way to the bookstore it was usual to hear shopkeepers clicking their abacuses with easy confidence – more remarkable than the touch of the modern calculator.

Glancing past the dazzle of the goldsmith shops and the foreign herbal smell of Chinese medical halls, I could see the Chinese bookstore into which I would eagerly burrow.

Sheer pleasure it was to finger those pastel and fragrant erasers, and gaze fascinatingly at miniature globe sharpeners and smooth-tipped new pencils.  There was that bunch of fragile web-thin leaf bookmarks to slip into favourite pages.

It was then, too, that I bought a Made-in-China fountain pen that functioned reliably for many years till the ink can dry and refused to flow despite all manner of pumping and coaxing.

Childhood recollection are strangely indelible.  One other commitment to memory is the elevator which seemed characteristic of Chinatown.

Until the invention of the bubble lifts which look outwards, most times one is caged within.  Not so the old Chinatown elevators.

Before its arrival, there was a gasping abyss below, a devouring darkness.  Attached to the elevator was a thick black snake and each time the snake began to slither one knew that the elevator was on its way.  One was made very aware of its ascent and descent.

In her 80s now, but still amazingly alert.  He Jie lives in Chinatown but not in any of the coolie quarters she gently threatened us with.

If wisdom is indeed visible, then there is wisdom in every etched wrinkle, and yes, beauty in one so simple, so good.

One often wonders what Chinatown was like when she first arrived from Guandong as a yong girl.  That, surely, is another story.

Down lanes that lead back in time

Behind the crowded streets and high-rise towers of modern Singapore lie alleys untouched by the influences of time and caught between two worlds.

[Source: The Straits Times, 29 January 2001]

Far-removed from the city’s shiny skyscrapers, towering office blocks and orderly housing estates are Singapore’s quiet back streets.

Behind the bustling coffeshops, provision stores and old shophouses is a world that rarely enters the consciousness of most Singapore residents.

Even fewer of the 7.6 million tourists who came here last year would have left having glimpsed that other world.

It exists in the back lanes of Chinatown, Little India, Geyland and Bugis, and is known only to those who live and work in those areas.

The narrow alleys provide a stark contrast to the ultra-modern, ultra-efficient face that this city-state shows off to the world.  There is contrast, too, between the back lanes, some of which reek of urine, and the front street that the general public usually sees.

As people rush to buy Chinese New Year goodies from Chinatown shops, a middle-aged man relieves himself against the wall of a back lane – unconcerned by the occasional passer-by  This is not an unusual sight, nor is it isolated to men.

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At night, foreign workers shower in the relative privacy of a dimly-lit lane in the Geylang area.  Wearing towels for modesty, five or six men take turns at washing under a hose connected to a tap inside one of the houses.

At all hours, stray cats roam around as if they own the place.

Motorbike riders use the lanes for free parking, while residents and shopkeepers use them as storage space for stacks of chairs and other unwanted furniture.

Icons from the past, like old Khong Guan biscuit tins, are recycled as letter boxes, for example.  They are a striking contrast to the modern furniture inside some of these old houses, not a few of which are home to trendy young Singaporeans

A walk down these streets is akin to a journey back in time, to a place that Singapore forgot, or would like to forget.  Except, in some ways, these roads lead back to the very heart of Singapore, old and new.

Do-it-yourself tour of Chinatown

Singaporeans shop at People’s Park and think they have been to “Chinatown,” says a tourist guide.  But a good proportion of them have never really seen the true Chinatown.  Today, we take you on an armchair tour of the area.

Story:  M. H. Yong,  Pictures:  Wan Seng Yip

[Source:  The Straits Times, 8 March 1980]

“About 40 per cent of Singaporeans have never really seen Chinatown,” said our tourist guide, shaking his head sadly.  “They go shopping at People’s Park and think they’ve been in Chinatown.”

Guilty, I thought to myself.  I have lived all my life in Singapore, yet the guide was able to show me a thing or two.

Playing tourist in your own city is easy.  All you need is a couple of hours and a pair of sturdy legs.  Start early in the morning (about nine) before the streets get too crowded and the sun too hot.  Wear cool, comfortable clothes (preferably cotton), sensible sandals, and be prepared to walk – for Chinatown can only be explored on foot.

Begin your tour at New Bridge Road and stroll down Pagoda Street to look at the old shophouses.  The buildings here are over 100 years old and the architecture is particularly interesting when you compare it with that of other Chinatowns.

Stained glass

New York’s Chinatown, for example, tries very hard to be Chinese and even the phone booths have pagoda-type roofs, in contrast, our Chinatown is actually European in architecture and one or two 19th century stained glass windows can still be seen.

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James Seah in Chinatown, New York.

This photo was taken during my first trip to USA. It was tracked by Facebook to revive my 8-year-old “memory-aid” which I had forgotten about it. Thanks to Facebook as a user-friendly personalised service to all Facebook users to share. Pls watch out for your favorite photos and share them on your FB timeline

Chinatown in Singapore is more authentic with the feelings of an untouched places compared to Chinatown in New York.

Turn right into Trengganu Street and here, at the Temple Street corner, is where gourmet cooks to to when they’re planning to have turtle or eel on the menu.  They make their selectionsw here, from tanks filled with these creatures, and take them home alive in plastic bags of water.

Just beyond, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a vegetable market, with more than 30 varieties of vegetables, all looking absolutely fresh and astonishingly clean.  Some little old ladies in a corner ae even plucking the roots off bean sprouts.

At the corner of Trengganu and Smith Streets, a crowd gathers to watch the butcher slaughtering pythons and iguanas.  “Python meat, $5 a pound, good for asthma and eyesight,” he offers, and it must work too, for he’s often sold out by 10.00 a.m.

Turn left now into Smith Street, sort of the Harley Street of Singapore, with its 300 varieties of medical herbs and weedsw.  Here lies the cure for almost any illness under the sun, if only you knew the right formula.  Rabbits and guinea pigs are sold here too, mainly to school labes, and sometimes there are white mice.  “Swallow a live mouse and cure an ulcer,” tempts the stall-holder.

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Even if you’ve never been to Chinatown, you surely must have heard or seen pictures of the roadside letter writer and fortune teller.

Brolly man

But what about the umbrella repair man?  Now, there’s a rare sight.  He’s tucked away in a nameless lane to the right of Smith Street, near the South Bridge Road end, and will mend your brolly for a couple of dollars.

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Make your way through this backlane and on to Sago Street, a marklet of the freshest fish and biggest prawns you’ve ever seen.  Even shark’s meat is available, but only little sharks, not the “Jaws” variety.

A colourful clog factory is here on the left, though, of course, no true Singaporean would be caught dead in a pair of Chinatown clogs.  Still, they make original gifts for foreign friends.

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Next door, you’ll find an example of a typical Chinatown staircase – dark, narrow and so steep it’s like climbing Batu Caves each time you wnt to get home.  A most gloomy contrast to the splendid paper palaces across the street, with their paper limousines parked outside, and sometimes even a waiting Concord, also of paper.

All to be burned at a funeral ceremony.  What the Chinese lack in this life, they’re certainly determined to enjoy in the next.

Once, though Banda Street, you’re on Sago Lane, where the grannies of Chinatown go to have their hair done.  Behind a makeshift curtain of flour sacking, the roadside hairdresser gets to work, styling a bun or pigtail with smooth starch, or removing facial hair with thread and powder.

Lanterns

If, like me, you’ve always been curious about the famous Death Houses of Sago Lane, now’s the time to have a good look.  They’re the last two houses on the right, near the South Bridge Road end.  You can tell these funeral parlours are in use when you see lanterns hanging outside.  Opposite is a casket shop and a stall selling clothes for mourning.

For many people, the highlight of the tour must be the Popiah Man.  No, he doesn’t sell “popiah” (though you’re probably quite hungry by now), he makes he skins and does so with much skill and aplomb.  Swinging an enormous lump of dough, he presses it lightly on the charcoal hotplate in fron of him.  Just 30 seconds, and the paper-thin pancake skin is ready to be peeled off.

Incredibly, the Popiah Man keeps up this rhythmic swinging-pressing-peeling all day long.  It’s quite a performance.

Photos below:  Prime Minister of Denmark Poul Schluter was being briefed on the making of ‘popiah’ skin on 13/10/1985.  Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

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Chinese New Year shopping in Chinatown

Please check out the related blog of Chinese New Year shopping in Chinatown  here .

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Ang Teng uncle’s bittersweet goodbye

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By Ng Tze Yong  [Source:  The New Paper, 29 March 2006]

With strong arms and a hopeful heart, Ah Jiu set out to forge a new life in Singapore.

The year was 1947 and he was then 27.

At Clifford Pier, the immigrant from China ferried sailors on his sampan to cargo ships.

Ah Jiu, whose real name is Png Shui Zhui, worked day and night, sleeping in his sampan.

Today, skyscrapers have sprouted around the pier.

Tourists swarm the ultra-chic One Fullerton next door.  The glittering roof at the Esplanade beckons from across Marina Bay.

GHOST TOWN

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Clifford Pier is now a ghost town, but Ah Jiu, now 86, is still rowing his rickety boat.

Clad in jeans as weathered as his bronzed wrinkled face, he still does what he has been doing for almost six decades.

But this Saturday, when ferry operations move to the new Marina South Pier and Clifford Pier awaits redevelopment into a lifestyle hub, old-timers such as Ah Jiu would have to say goodbye.

“What to do?” he said in Hokkien, the only language he speaks, when The New Paper caught up with him last week.

Standing at the mouth of the Singapore River, Clifford Pier used to be the landing point of immigrants.

Built in 1933, it was named after Governor Sir Hugh Charles Clifford.

But locals renamed it as the more affable “Ang Teng” (meaning “Red Lamp” in Hokkien), after the many resident prostitutes and the red oil lamp that used to hang at the end of the pier to guide seafarers.

These days, Clifford Pier sees little more than a trickle of foreign sailors, tourists and the odd photographer.

Ferry services to the Southern Islands and container ships anchored offshore still operate.

But the pier is so quiet that at lunch time, Shenton Way-types go there for a quick siesta, sprawled on the benches in thier business attire.

Twice a week, you will find 63-year-old retiree K S Leong sitting on his favourite bench, reading, and nursing a cup of tea.

“It’s quiet and peaceful here.  Nobody disturbs me,” he said.

CHILDHOOD HANGOUT

Clifford Pier used to be his childhood hangout.

In the 1950s, he used to go there every day with his buddies after school, “to walk-walk, eat and see fish”.

“There used to be schools of groupers in the water, this big!” he said, stretching out his hands.

“Sometimes, I would bring a loaf of stale bread from home and we would sit on the pier to feed them.”

He still remembers Ah Jiu.

He was the kind boatman who gave students cheap sight-seeing rides along the coastline on his sampan.

“Ah Jiu charged according to how you dress,” he recalled.  “Since we were students, he charged us only $5 for everyone.”

It was a time when shopkeepers spoke Russian and Italian, picked up from passing sailors.

Hawkers sold Ang Teng’s famous roti john and mee rebus in carts, and the grand arrival hall resonated with the cries of rival boatmen bustling passengers.

On weekends, anglers and families took the boats out for picnics at Kusu Island and Pulau Bukom.  Couples came her to “pat-toh”.  (Hokkien for “date”).

“Sometimes, we even ‘ponteng’ (Malay for “play truant”) to come here.”

Mr Leong said.  “It was such a fun place.”

But for the boatmen, it was a tough life of life.

“We worked under the sun and we were at the mercy of the waves,” said Ah Bian, a 70-year-old retired boat captain.  “But seafaring was all we knew.  We’re not educated folks.”

Ah Bian, who’s real name is Fang Jing Guo, landed here with is mother and younger sister in 1947.

His father was already working as a boatman here.

“Most of us who came here originally only wanted to stay for two or three years,” he said.  “But life was hard and we didn’t make much money. We couldn’t go home like that.”

Serving the British sailors was also difficult.

“We were often insulted because we were Asians.  But we had to pretend we didn’t understand them,” he said.

Sometimes, sailors hopped onto his boat, drunk after a night out on shore.

“When you’re out at sea and the drunk passengers refuse to pay, what can you do?” he asked.

These days, Ah Bian still travels faithfully every day from his Jurong East flat to chat with his buddies at the ticket counter.

CAMARADERIE

They go back a long way.  Most of the boatmen here hailed from the same region of Jinmen Island in China.  Theirs was a camaraderies forged through hardship.

“But there are so few of us left now.  Most have left or passed away,” Ah Bian said.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore has guaranteed the boatmen mooring space at Marina South Pier at the same rental of $10 per month, but the old-timers still worry about their future.

On the outside, Ah Jiu said he “wouldn’t miss Clifford Pier one bit”, and that he will just move with the rest and “see how”.

But he’s worried inside.

When he first started out, he made $4 a day.

It wasn’t much, but he had enough to spend 30 cents every day on his favourite Red Cat cigarettes.

These days, he earn $15 a day working fromn 8am to 5pm.

NO MONEY TO RETIRE

Last year, a the age of 85, he stopped smoking to save money.

Ah Jiu, who’s single, lives at a rented flat at Chin Swee Road with two old friends.

He wants to retire.  “But no money, how to retire?”

Pointing to the horizon, he said: “This used to be the open sea.  You could see Batam from here.”

But today, cranes breaking ground at the reclaimed Marina South, site of the future Integrated Resort, dominate the skyline.”

Related blog about Clifford Pier previously posted  here .

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Hong Kong actress Li Hua Hua (李華華) at Clifford Pier in 1950s for film-shooting.  Photos courtesy of the National Library Board.

Clifford Pier in 1930 (below).  The archived photo with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

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Remembering the Singapore of old

20190915_154542Jerome Lim

HARDCORE Singapore

As our population swells, the concept of a ‘Hardcore Singaporean’ is becoming murky.  In the ongoing series to find the Singaporean Core – a term raised in Parliament during the Population White Paper debate – we speak to people with pink IC to see how red and white they truly are.

By ANDRE JOSEPH THENG  [Source:  New Paper, 11 July, 2013]

A young Singaporean would not be able to recognise many of the places in the photos on his blog.  In fact, many of the places do not even exist any more.

And this is precisely the reason naval architect Jerome Lim, 48, chooses to blog about these from Singapore’s past.

His blog, The Long and Winding Road (thelongnwindingroad.wordpress.com), features a contrast of existing places with old photographs and his collection of what it looked like when he was growing up.

He said: “It’s sad that many places that were special to me exist only in my memory.  My blog is partly an attempt to revisit my memories as well as to show how things have changed.”

Mr Lim started blogging after he was posted to Penang for a job in 2007.  As he had more free time, he started to explore his new surroundings, which reminded him of old Singapore.

“There were many reminders of my childhood, such as shop displays and five-foot-ways,” he said.

While he returned to Singapore in early 2008, he started blogging more seriously only in 2010.

Now he spends about two hours every day on his blog, taking photographs in the morning before work and writing the entries at night and on weekends.

One place he misses is the Tanah Merah area, a popular holiday spot as many government organisations had bungalows that civil servants could apply to use.

He said:  “It was an idyllic place by the sea.  It offered an escape from the city and it was marked by its undulating terrain and cliffs overlooking the sea.”

The coastline has since changed because of land reclamation, after which Changi Airport was built.

Another place he writes about frequently is Toa Payoh.  He lived there from 1967 to 1976 at Block 53, which had a viewing gallery for VIPs.

He even shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II when she visited his flat in 1972.

Jerome Lim’s 10-minutes with Her Majesty here .

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‘Grew up with Singapore’

Mr Lim was born just before Singapore gained independence, and so he describes himself as someone who ‘grew up with Singapore”.

“Just as I was finding my feet in the 1970s, so was Singapore,” he said.

Reflecting on the progress that Singapore has made, he feels that we can do more to preserve our past.

He said: “Progress is inevitable but I think that we have discarded too much of our past, and in the process, much of who we were as Singaporeans.

“Our identity as Singaporeans is something which should be allowed to evolve naturally.”

While the father of four hopes that his children will one day read his posts to understand the Singapore he grew up in, he also acknowledges that they have less time to explore their surroundings due to the more hectic lifestyle.

He said: “I am sure they will also find their own experiences and places they will reminisce about when they are older.  After all, today is yesterday’s tomorrow.”

What qualities do you have that make you Singaporean?

I am passionate about my country and our history.

How would you describe Singapore to a stranger?

That we have a lot more to offer than our tourist attractions, in the sense that we have a rich culture.

What are the little quirks you see every day?

I think that we can be more patient when things – like flash floods or MRT breakdowns – happen, as we don’t live in a perfect world.

What food do you miss when you’re overseas?

Char kway teow, laksa and sambal chilli.

Your favourite Singlish phrases or words?

I don’t have any, as I don’t really speak Singlish.

Iconic dragon playground in Toa Payoh

Designed by Mr Khor Ean Ghee, a former interior designer at the HDB, it was built in the ’70s, when playground designs reflected aspect of Singapore’s culture and identity.  A similar playground can be found along Ang Mo Kio Ave 3 and there are also smaller versions in Braddell and Macpherson.

Several heritage buffs have chronicled these old-school playgrounds online and called for their preservation, including blogger Jerome Lim, who welcomed the preservation of the dragon playground.

“It does give us a sense of belonging, a sense of place, especially in Singapore where places we are familiar with are all too quickly disappearing,” said Mr Lim, who runs the blog The Long and Winding Road.

20190916_144044.jpgPhoto courtest of TODAY.

So Many Worlds in Singapore

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Oh, so many worlds apart!

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By Geraldine Heng

[Source:  New Nation 13 July, 1976]

 

In a very special corner of my childhood are memories of some old toys, some noisy playmates, and some evenings spent in what seemed like wonderland – places that shimmered with lights and people, that whirled your child’s soul into fantasy and laughter.

We knew them as The Worlds – Great World, Happy (or Gay) World, New World.  They were symbols of all that you associated with fun, excitement and pure and simple pleasure.

Once you were within their grounds, anything could happen – you could go flying through the air on an aeroplane trip, become an intrepid explorer in your boat on a swirling river, or have the life scared out of you by ghosts and skeletons and horrible monsters.

Yesterday’s children had a great deal of fun in those amusement parks.  Today’s children have fun, too, but of a different kind, doing different things.

Today, the Worlds are not what they used to be.  Great World, which ceased operation in 1964, is no longer great.  By night, it is ghostly and deserted, pitch-black except for cases of activity like the cinemas and the penny arcade.

By day, office workers traverse its grounds to reach lunchtime eating places in nearby buildings.  The amusement machines – the miniature aeroplanes, the whirling jet rockets, the merry-go-round – stand as monuments to better times.  Some are coated with rust and are slowly falling apart.  Grass sprouts from the tracks of the miniature train.

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A watchman tells you that the place comes alive once a year, for a month, during the Chinese New Year festivities.

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New World and Gay World still survives, though they no longer live up to their names either.  New World is mostly shops, where business, if stallholders are to be believed, is largely slow.  There is still a weekend crowd, however, that pumps some life into the park and the shopkeepers’ pockets.

And there is still some entertainment.  Seated before a wayang-style stage are a couple of dozen people, watching a female singer, obviously inexpert and ill at ease, trot out a Mandarin pop song.  The Bunga Tanjong dance hall, with its dim interior  and kebaya-clad hostesses, still operates.

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Both the New World and Gay World, still charge for admission at the gate, at 20 cents per person, and cinemas function with its fairly good crowds at all three Worlds.

Their presence is much needed – they act as booster shots in the arm for the rest of the park, disgorging patrons who may stroll a while before leaving, buying or eating something in the process.

Gay World is by far the liveliest of the three.  The crowds at the Sin Hua Emporium are like those at other empriums around town, and the band at the Pesta Tarian Ria belts out heavy music, watched by a crowd of appreciative teenages.

The stadium still functions – you can hear people cheering from inside, watching the Fourth National Pugilistic Championships.  There are even hoopla and coconut-shy-type stalls, and a pool hall.  And perhaps most heartening of all, the ferris wheel still spins, and children still squeal excitedly, although the long queues of the past are missing.

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The people managing the worlds are reluctant to talk about them, for fear probably that the inevitable comparisons between past and present conditions might scare away the shopholders who are still around.

Great World and New World are both owned by Shaw Organisation, the first directly, and the second through New World Pte Ltd.

Plans were periodically announced from 1971 to 1975 to turn Great World grounds into a shopping, housing, business and entertainment complex in the style of a famous Hawaiian tourist centre, at an estimated cost of $100-$300 million.

When completed, the complex will almost be a self-contained “town,” say the owners.  But the plans and the blue-prints, apparently, will not be finalised for another six months yet, according to a spokesman.  Once begun, the entire project which will be built in three stages will take about six to seven years to complete.

The future of New World is somewhat more hazy, and the owners are reluctant to discuss whatever plans they might have.  A new revue hall, with facilities for both nightclub-style foreign and local artistes, will be opened soon, they say.

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Gay World was taken over by the Government in July 1973, and underwent a facelift for the Seap Games in August.  The Stadium now is managed by the National Sports Council.  The future of the park is unknown.

The numbers of people visiting the parks have changed because life has changed.  Singaporeans’ life styles have grown away from the old forms of entertainment towards new forms.

Shopping for instance, has become the great new recreational experience, a well-known sociologist says.  A student of his, when asked what she was planning to do during university vacation, replied:  “Oh, nothing much, just some shopping.”  That we have become a great consumer society is undeniable.  Look at the people-filled giant shopping complexes.

Then there is television, which keeps people glued to their living rooms for most of the night.  Television is a family entertainment too, like the amusement parks used to be – children watch cartoons, parents watch the new local documentaries and the whole family watch the police-detective programmes.

According to the Survey Research Singapore Media Index, in fact, there were 1,205,000 people of 15 years and above watching television in a average week last year.  An average day alone grossed 774,000 viewers.  And that’s not counting children under 15.

Outside the home, the range of entertainment has greatly increased in recent years.  Where, in the early ’50s and 60s, were there rollerskating and ice skating rinks, a sociological garden, a bird park, cable car rides, or specially constructed swimming lagoons?

People frequented the Worlds because excitement revolved around them then – stage shows, shops, fund rides, eating places, seasonal carnivals and fairs, the occasional special attraction or two.

Today, there are phenomena like large department stores in which you can shop, eat, market, and entertain your kids with coin-operated amusement machines, all at the same time.

One Japanese-own department store in town has a special amusement are4a, where the children of busy shoppers can happily spend their time riding spaceships or “flying” on the backs of their favourite TV cartoon heroes.

Parents are thankful for stores with amusement machines, they say.  It makes shopping or marketing a whole lot more convenient when their children are happily accepted.

Do they take their children to amusement parks these days?  “Well, not really”; “perhaps once in a blue moon”; “so many other things to do”; “waste of money”; “what for, when they can have rides in a shopping centre instead?”; “we stay at home mostly.”

And they do.  Stay at home, that is.  A University of Singapore Sociology Department research team recently completed a survey of the activities and habits of 400 lower-income HDB families.

Their results are not officially released as yet, but they say that 76 per cent of the people interviewed spent their nights at home, listening to records, or the Rediffusion, chatting, playing mahjong, working at hobbies, sleeping, or just doing chores around the house.

There is a decline, acccording to the sociologists, in outside-centred activities and an increase in home-centred activities among lower-class flat dwellers.

Perhaps the fact of living in a closed environment has something to do with it – people housed in one unit in a block of high-rise flats look inwards, towards each other, rather than outwards.

Even Singapore Wonderland Amusement Park, that five-million dollar younger sister of the old-style Worlds is deserted on weekday nights.  Unlike the other amusement parks, which originated in the 1920s and 30s in a Singapore that was still young and waiting to be entertained.  Wonderland was opened in 1969.

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The machine operators there say that the park really come to life on weekends and when there are block bookings made by large companies for the entertainment of their employees’ families.  This happens quite frequently, apparently, and draws crowds as good as those during trade fairs.

But things are a far cry from what they were before, in the halcyon days of the smusement parks.  Yellowing newspaper clippings of the ’20s and ’30s testify to the bygone glory of the Worlds.

Clippings tell of a New World glittering with beauty contest, garden parties, ronggeng and singing competitions, boxing matches that boasted fighters of international or near-international repute and mammoth trade fairs.

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Clippings say Gay World (then known as Happy World)started a few shacks clustered together, and grew to be a venue for political rallies, badminton matches (in the days before the Singapore Badminton Hall was built) performing bands and cabaret acts.

One clipping dated May 7, 1937, described the World as “a parade ground for the rich and poor alike, where a towkay may entertain 20 friends in a million-dollar private apartment of the expensive restaurants to be followed by largesse in the shape of dance coupons in the cabarent, and where the humblest members of the working class may spend his very hard-earned 50 cents or more unostentatiously at the gaming booths, the open-air cinema or laneside hawker.”

And did you know that in the gala grand re-opening of Great World when the Shaws took over ownership in 1958, there were weeks of celebrations where champagne flowed?

Elizabeth Taylor and her then-husband, Mike Todd, even made personal appearances …

Singapore’s latest amusement park in 1937

The Happy World, Singapore’s newest amusement park, complete with cabaret, cinemas, restaurants and boxing arena in addition to the usual side shows, open on May 6, 1937.  It is adjacent to the new Singapore Airport.  Pictures show the imposing buildings erected within the new park.

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The juxtaposed photos of the Happy World from the Malaya Tribute (above) and National Archives of Singapore (below).

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I am amazed to discover that these 82-year-old photos published in The Malaya Tribute on 6 May, 1937 are available to share on the blog, with thanks to NewspaperSG and National Library Board.

Nights of bright lights

By Yeo Ghim Lay (Source: The Straits Times, 26 March 2005 of Yesterday’s Tales)

Before the pubs and the late-night supper places, Singaporeans went to Great World, or “Tua Seh Kai” in Hokkien after the sunset.  A favourite with locals and tourists, it offered the best of night entertainment in one place.

Spread out over 300,000 sq ft of land in an area bounded by Kim Seng, River Valley and Zion roads, the site was a Chinese cemetery before it was developed into an amusement park in the 1930s by Mr Lee Choon Yong, a businessman.

Back then, Great World was visited mainly by British servicemen and the upper classes.  However, business was poor and the park was sold to Shaw Organisation in 1941, before the Japanese Occupation.

After the war, Great World flourished as the new owners expanded and reopened it in 1958.

Among the attractions was the 27.4m Sky cinema, the tallest building in the park.  It was one of four cinemas there.

A $500,000 stadium, which has a revolving stage that hosted wrestling and boxing matches, was a hit with Singaporeans.  Locals and foreigners danced the night away at the Flamingo Nite Club, also known as Great World Cabaret.

Besides entertainment, Great World was also home to 150 stalls hawking food and merchandise, two popular Cantonese restaurants and a slew of amusement rides, such as Ghost Train and a ferris wheel.

In its heyday, the park attracted up to 50,000 people daily and was packed during festivals like Chinese New Year and Hari Raya.  The searchlight, which pierced the night sky whenever there was a special attraction, was a familiar sight.

My personal memories and experiences at Great World Amusement Park on the blog here and the video on YouTube here .

But the allure soon faded.  Television, supermarkets and neighbourhood night markets came up and drew Singaporeans away from the park.

Poor business forced it to shut down and Great World’s lights were permanently snuffed out on March 31, 1964.

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Haw Par Villa, the Family Playground

20190824_114202.jpgThis last artisan at Haw Par Villa, Mr Teo Veoh Seng, 76, repairing and maintaining its figurines.  ST Photo:  Lau Fook Kong.

By Nicholas Yong

[Source:  The Straits Times, 17 April 2011]

Senior systems specialist Teo Mui Kiang, 44, has fond memories of a childhood spent at Haw Par Villa.

She says: “I used to run around the park with my siblings and cousins.  There was a cave where we could play hid and seek and open fields where we could play catching.”

Even the iconic 10 Court of Hell held no fear for her and her playmates:  “We were used to it.  It was just another part of our playground.”

Ms Teo and her seven siblings have a unique connection with Haw Par Villa – her grandfather, granduncle, father and uncles served the owner, ointment tycoon Aw Boon Haw, as servants and workers.

The extended family of more than 40 lived in two houses just behind the park.  Ms Teo’s parents moved out in the 1970s while the rest of the family remained for some years longer.

Her father, Mr Teo Veoh Seng, 76, is the last of the six artisans who created the original statues depicting scenes from Chinese legends and folkloare, which were meant to impart Confucian values.

More than six decades on, Mr Teo is still five days a week, patiently repairing and maintaining the statues with handmade tools such as chisels and scrapers.

Trained by a master craftsman who had worked at Haw Par Villa’s now defunct Hong Kong sister park Tiger Balm Garden, which was sold and demolished in 1998, he started work at the Villa in 1948 at the age of 13.

As an apprentice, his task was to lay the foundations for the statues, which were made of materials such as wire mesh, cement and sand, before the more experienced craftsmen refined the design.

A typical 2m-high statue would take a team of four to five men about a month to complete.

“I was the youngest among them.  When I was in my 20s, they were already in their 40s,” recall Mr Teo in Teochew.

“Now, I am the only one left.”

Built in 1937 by Mr Aw Boon Haw, Haw Par Villa housed a residence for his younger brother Boon Par and a free public park filled with statues.

It was one of three parks in Asia built by the Aw brothers, with another counter-part in Yongding county, in the Chinese province in Fujian.

Mr Teo recalls Boon Haw, who was based in Hong Kong, as a kind and generous boss.  He allowed the family to build a house and rear livestock on the land while paying a nominal rent, as well as to supplement their income by operating food and drinks stalls in the park.

Mr Teo’s eldest daughter, Ms Tay Chew Buay, 54, adds:  “Mr Aw Boon Haw came back once a year to pay his respects to his ancestors and the children would all queue up to get hongbao from him.”

In its heyday in the 1980s, Haw Par Villa attracted more than a million visitors a year.  Today, it receives only about 250,000 to 300,000 annually.

Mr Teo says:  “In the old days, there were not many attractions in Singapore, so Haw Par Villa was a must-see.  Now there are more places for people to visit, such as Sentosa.”

The Chinese New Year was an especially busy time for the Teos, when tourists and locals alike flocked to the park.  While others were out visiting or enjoying themselves, everyone would chip in at the family stalls.

Brought over by STB in 1985, Haw Par Villa was given an $80-million facelift, expanded to five times its original size and turned into a ticketed theme park.  But it failed to take off and is now a free attraction, open daily from 9am to 7pm.

When Lifestyle visited the park on a weekday afternoon, there were only about 15 visitors, all of them tourists.  Many of the iconic statues were chipped and peeling and the small food court there had been closed for at least a year.

When asked if it was a pity that so few come to visit these days, Mr Teo says with a shrug:  “It can’t be helped.  Young people especially don’t know about history or the things of the past.  They don’t know how to appreciate the figurines.”

One thing is for sure:  If Haw Par Villa ever closes down, he will just quietly retire.

While the park has changed greatly from its original incarnation, the memories of the Teo family have not.

Ms Tay says: “I go back every now and then to reminisce if I happen to be passing by.  It is a place where I forget my troubles.”

20190824_114834.jpgMr Teo Veoh Seng’s (fifth from right in the last row) extended family in the 1960s, many of whom worked at Haw Par Villa.  Photo:  Courtesy of Teo Mui Kiang

The saga behind the Villa

[Source:  The Straits Times, 20 September 1990]

Haw Par Villa was built by millionaire philanthropist Aw Boon Haw in 1937 for his family’s enjoyment.  After it was destroyed during the Japanese Occupation, Aw painstakingly rebuilt the place, adding more displays each year until his death in 1954.

But as with many historical relics, Haw Par Villa fell into disrepair.  The paint on the statues started to peel, and weeds began sprouting between the cracks.

A similar villa had also been built in Hongkong, another place where Tiger Balm Oil found a market.  This was demolished in 1978, making Singapore’s Haw Par Villa unique in the world.  But the owners decided to sell off the park as it was becoming a white elephant.

A 1975 report by Haw Par Brothers stated that it cost $10,000 a month to upkeep the park, part of the costs going to the four sweepers, three jagas, three gardeners and four painters employed.

With thanks to the National Archives of Singapore, the archived photos are shared on the blogs for the memories of Haw Par Villa.

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Tableaux of the infamous Chinese tale “The Journey to the West” displayed at Haw Par Villa.

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Tour guides to Tiger Balm Garden in the 1950s

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Yang Di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak, Puan Nor Aishah and Governer General of Trinidad and Tobago Sir Solomon Hochoy touring Haw Par Villa, guided by Chairman of Haw Par Brothers Private Limited Aw Cheng Chye (centre) on 30 June, 1964.

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Family photos at Haw Par Villa in the 1950s

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Students and teachers of Tampines Primary School on an outing to Haw Par Villa in 1980.

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My personal childhood memories of Haw Par Villa to share here .

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Many generations of Singaporeans have grown up to remember Haw Par Villa.  It is a special place to learn and enjoy for family and community bonding.  An unique tourist attraction in Singapore not found elsewhere in the world, because the sister Haw Par Villa in Hong Kong have been demolished.

One of the oldest existing cultures in the world today, Chinese history stretches back across millennia, and is filled with fascinating stories.  History buffs looking to journey through the richness of Chinese tradition and religious beliefs to visit Haw Par Villa, an Asian cultural park that is a repository of folklore and storied myths.

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The Legend of P. Ramlee

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Icon for the ages, P. Ramlee

P. Ramlee – Most if not all Malaysians and Singaporeans will agree that this legendary figure’s significant contribution to the local entertainment scene helped define the industry in Malaysia and Singapore and across the region.

Teuku Zakaria was better known as P. Ramlee – an entertainment icon during the golden era of Malay movies who help shaped history in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

P. Ramlee’s lack of formal training in the performing arts field was no hindrance to him.  This talented man acted in 65 films, directed 34 feature films and sung close to 400 songs – an impressive track record which ran over two decades.

The “P” in his name came about when Ramlee first entered a singing competition in Penang in 1947.  He had decided to add the initial “P”, from his father’s name Puteh.  P. Ramlee’s father himself was from Aceh, Indonesia, which perhaps helped boost the entertainer’s popularity in Indonesia, later on.

P. Ramlee’s interest in music began at a young age, having formed a band called Teruna Sekampung or lads from the village, where one of his roles was to be a song arranger, giving him the experience to learn popular music and trends.

Family and life

He was born on 22 March, 1929 in Penang.  He is being remembered up to today, long after his death, because he composed “evergreen” songs which are rare nowadays.

This legendary artiste married three times, first to Junaidah Daeng Harris in 1950.  After divorcing her, he married Noorizan Mohd Noor in 1955, but the couple divorced in 1961.  The same year, P. Ramlee married singer Salmah Ismail or more popularly known as Saloma.  He had a total of seven children from these relationships, three of whom were adopted.  He also had a stepson.

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P. Ramlee was 44 years old when he died of heart attack in 1973.  His strong influence on Malay popular culture is reflected in Malay production and songs.  P. Ramlee’s classic movies continue to be a hit amongst today’s viewers, as television stations air reruns of his famous title, and production houses churn DVD copies of  his award winning work.

Walking in Kuala Lumpur, visitors can appreciate the honour given to this talented individual, as major roads like Jalan Parry was renamed to Jalan P. Ramlee in 1982 and a memorial dedicated to his work was set up in 1986.  In 1990s, P. Ramlee was awarded with the title of Tan Sri posthumously.

P. Ramlee Memorial

The address of the P. Ramlee Memorial is 22, Jalan Dedap, Taman P. Ramlee (formerly Taman Forlong), Setapak, 53000, Kuala Lumpur.

His birthplace has been turned into a memorial, offering the opportunity for fans and visitors to enjoy and appreciate P. Ramlee’s contribution to the entertainment industry in Malaysia and the region.

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According to reports, on 22 April, 1986 – exactly a month after its official opening – the memorial received its 100,000th visitor.

Though every effort has been made to ensure that the house that P. Ramlee lived in would have a “live-in” atmosphere while serving to enlighten visitors, the objective has not been fully achieved.

The memorial was set up with two objectives in mind; namely, to commemorate the contributions of the late artiste to Malaysia’s performing arts and to preserve his works so as to encourage research into various aspects of his contributions towards the growth of Malay culture as a whole.

Glimpses of his life from childhood until his demise are found in the biography area.  In this area, documents such as his identity card, passport and death certificate are displayed.

There is a large wall poster that gives a summary of his biography.

He was born on the morning of Aidilfitri or Hari Raya – the first day of Syawal – when Muslims celebrate to mark the end of Ramadan, the fasting month.

Picture of his three wives – Junaidah, Norizan and Saloma – are hung in the adjoining room.  There are also written tributes paid to him by his contemporaries like Aziz Sattar, who acted with him in the Bujang Lapok series, and Ahmad Daud, a popular singer of evergreen songs.

At the centre of this room on a revolving table, are his violin, flute and gramophone, and a piece of music sheet.  This area focuses on the music world of P. Ramlee’s, tracing his involvement with music from childhood up to the time he became Malaysia’s renowned musician, composer and singer.

His favourite piano is also displayed in this room.

Pictures of scenes from films which P. Ramlee acted in or directed are displayed in another room.  Also displayed are filming equipment once used by P. Ramlee at the Merdeka Studio.  They include his huge camera.

P. Ramlee won many awards at various international film festivals.  They include the award he won for being “The Most Versatile Talent” in 1963.  It was for the film “Ibu Mertuaku”.  All these awards are displayed in a room together with letters from fans.

Also displayed are personal items including the clothers won by P. Ramlee and his wife, Saloma, when they received the Ahli Mangku Negara (A.M.N) award from the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, and costumes worn by P. Ramlee in the film, “Ali Baba Bujang Lapok”.

In the memorial, there is a theatrette which screens films by P. Ramlee and also documentary films.  It is located at the centre of the building.  Visitors can watch the films free of charge.

A Malaysian leader once said that P. Ramlee’s films did not provide empty stories.  They served as a guideline for social construction.

His films were full of criticisms against people who indulge in injustice and dishonesty and full of sympathy for the poor and the oppressed.

He also said that P. Ramlee’s works also did a great favour to Malaysia in the promotion of correct usage of Bahasa Malaysia and to popularising the use of idioms.

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A TRIBUTE TO P RAMLEE

Although he was born in Penang, it was in Singapore that he carved a niche for himself and contributed consideraly to the film industry.

Through his films, he brought glory to Singapore by winning several awards in the various South-east Asian Film Festivals held in the 50s and early 60s.

Some of these awards include Best Music for Hang Tuah, Best Actor Anak Ku Sazali (My Son Sazali), Best Comedy for Pendekar Bujang Lapak (The Old Bachelor Hero) and Best Cameraman for Sumpah Orang Minyak (The Curse of The Oily Man).

His most prestigious award was for the film Ibu Mertuaku (My Mother-in-law) in which he was voted the Most Talented Actor.

All these films were produced in Singapore during the heyday of the Malay film industry.

P. Ramlee’s works and copyrights are owned by his former employer, the Hongkong-based Shaw Brothers film company.

Mr Yusnor, a scriptwriter, says:  “It would be sad if his works were taken elsewhere or cloistered in some company which had the copyright to them.

“Instead if we have a corner dedicated to the man where we can display his works, it will not only be something the community can be proud of but also be beneficial to the younger generation.”

There are many old movies of P. Ramlee on YouTube.  Please check Seniman Bujang Lapok and Ibu Mertuaku to enjoy.
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Singapore Film Council – Press Conference on P. Ramlee at Shaw Preview Room, Shaw Centre on 31 March, 1999.

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On 14 April, 1999 the former Minister for Information and the Arts and Second Minister for Trade and Industry Brigadier-General George Yeo Yong-Boon as Guest of Honour at opening of a ‘A Tribute to P. Ramlee’ at Gallery @ Fort Canning.

The second Singapore International Film Festival from 14 to 28 January, 1989 gave younger movie fans a chance to see the man in action … and a trip down memory lane for those from an earlier generation.

Four P. Ramlee movies screened: Semerah Padi (The Village of Semerah Padi), Penarik Beca (The Trishaw Rider), Antara Dua Darjat (Between Two Classes) and Ibu Mertuaku (My Mother-in-Law).

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A world of dreams

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Xiang Yun and the stars of Kelvin Tong’s It’s A Great Great World remember the good old days at Great World Amusement Park

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By Genevie Loh

TODAY, 26 January 2011

 

 

 

 

Memories are groovy.  Anyone who says otherwise probably just can’t remember.  Not only do they light the corners of your mind, misty watercolour memories are best way to remind us of the way we were.  (Thanks, Babs).

And with MediaCorp Raintree Picture’ Its’ A Great Great World opening on 27 January 2011. this always sentimental journey was more than ready to plunge into a golden sea of nostalgia and reminiscence about the legendary Great World Amusement Park and all its colourful attractions that director Kelvin Tong had to recreate.

Except for one little glitch:  This 1979 baby was born a whole year after Tua Seh Kai (as it was affectionately known in Hokkien) permanently shut its doors in 1979.  Darn it.

The only Great World I know of is the shopping mall that replaced it on Kim Seng Road, and I don’t think those exotic themed restrooms they have within count as “attractions”.  I so needed help.

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Xiang Yun was sitting in the photo studio being worked on by no less than four individuals at once.  There’s the make-up artist, the hairstylist, the art director/stylist and me.  The veteran actress plays an aging but still glamourous songstresses who headlines at the infamous Flamingo Nite-Club in the moview, so she must know a thing or two.  You know, method acting and all.

MediaCorp TV Channel 8’s resident thesp, who will be turning 50 this year, is beyong resplendent in a figure-flattering, siren-red cheongsam by local designer Lai Chan, looking like a glamour puss from another, more glorious era.

“Being dressed up these outfits, and posing for these pictures makes me want to do even more ‘retro movies!” she giggled in Mandarin.

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The mother-of-two agreed it was a “more romantic and sentimental era”, which is why her story in the film – that of a washed up diva who pines for an old lover while the club owner hides his own feeling for her – was especially memorable.  “I’ve always wanted to play a stage performer who sings and dances.  It’s been one of my biggest dreams.

Could it be that it was all so simple then?

The actress shared that she was even more intrigued with Great World Amusement Park after shooting her part, and went around asking “uncles” whether they’d been to the Flamingo Nite-Club.  “Everyone had differing stories!  Were the ‘Taxi-Girls’ all Cantonese?  Did they sing Chinese songs or English songs in the club?” she said, laughing.  “I’m guessing Great World had gone through so many different eras and each era bring about different memories for different people.”

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She remembers stepping onto the movie set for the first time, saying how Tong’s detailed food stalls and flashing neon lights instantly brought her back to the era – and the delight of her childhood days.  “It was a wonderful rush of happiness.”

Chew Chor Meng understands Xiang Yun’s joy.  The 42-year-old actor – plays the reminiscing link in the movie’s sprawling, star-studded cast – remembers going to Great World Amusement Park with is relatives.

“I was just about 10 years old when it closed down, so I guess I was lucky enough to have been there about four or five times in total,” he said, recalling that it was only during special occasions like Chinese New Year or birthdays that he got to visit the park.  “Because that’s when you have the money to spend on food and games!” the affable actor laughed.

He patiently recounted to me all his fond memories of watching Bruce Lee movies at Sky Cinema and the many “tikam tikam” stalls.  His favourite attraction at Great World?  The Ghost Train ride.

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“I cannot remember if it was 30 or 50 cents.  But I do remember going on the ride and screaming really loudly.  Just for fun because, actually, the ‘ghosts’ in there aren’t scary at all!” he said, laughing heartily.

“Those were good times,” sighed the Star Search-winning father-of-two and self-professed nostalgic.  “Good times”.

If we had the chance to do it all again …

For stalwart Channel 8 actor Chen Shu Cheng, those “good times” refer to his carefree days as a Primary 6 student when he and his friends used to “pontang” school to hang out at Great World all afternoon long.

“The park would be empty in the days, so it was really fun to go and sit on the tea cup ride and chit chat with my friends about anything and everything,” the 61-year-old shared in Mandarin.

The actor, who plays a father paying for his daughter’s wedding banquet at the famed Wing Chun Yuen restaurant, remembers it all.  Well, almost.

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“I loved watching cowboy movies in English – those were my favourites!  I remember watching them in the Globe Cinema, which had air-con!  Or was it fan?  Oops, now I cannot remember … All I know is that it was nice and cool inside,” he recounted, laughing.

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Chen will forever link Great World to his father, seeing how his days of truancy came to an abrupt ended after his teacher sent a letter to his parents asking why he was “sick” for so many days.

“My father took me out of the house because he knew my mother would cane me, and asked me very gently to explain why I skipped school.  He also reminded me of how much he had to struggle to come to Singapore from China to start a life here.  After that, I felt very guilty and never skipped school to go to Great World again!”

Actress Yvonne Lim might not have the same intricate memories of Great World.  In fact, seeing as she was only a toddler during the last days of Great World, she has no direct memories at all.  But that’s not to say her story is any less touching.

It was through her preparation for this move that the 34-year-old, who plays a sassy photographer in the film, discovered that it was where her parents met and courted.

“I had to speak Hokkien naturally and, as you know, our generation doesn’t speak dialect very well,” she shared, laughing.  “So I ended up asking my father to help me with some words.  And that was when he suddenly revealed that my mum used to work at Great World selling clothers!”

The 2007 Star Awards Best Actress choked up recounting her father’s story of how he’d wait for her mother to finish work at Great World every night to send her home, explaining how it meant a lot as her mum passed away when she was very young.

“We never really talk to our parents about how they met.  And because of this movie, I now know.  And because of this story, I feel even more attached to the movie.”

Lim shared how she loves the fashion of the era, from vintage clothes to bags and shoes.  “Maybe I should have been born in that era,” she laughed.

After hearing all these stories, I wish I had been, too.  You know, scattered pictures of the smile we left behind.  Smiles we gave to one another … for the way we were.

Please check out the related blog here .

Archived photos of former Great World Amusement Park shared on this blog with the courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

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