When Singapore made its cinema – From the beginnings to the Second World War

When you think of cinema, Singapore is not necessarily the first country that comes to mind. And yet, there is a lot to be said about cinema and Singapore, from the first screenings at the end of the 19th century, to the Singaporean new wave rewarded at international festivals in recent decades, passing through the golden age of the Singaporean cinema, which produced hundreds of films widely distributed in Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. This article is the first in a series of three.

French people contributed to the beginnings of cinema in Singapore

Although Singapore was an English colony, the French played an important role there in certain fields, including cinema. This is not too surprising, insofar as France is the homeland of cinematography.

The first screenings began before the end of the 19th century in multi-purpose halls or under tents. But it was a Frenchman, Paul Picard, who opened the first theater dedicated to cinema, the Paris Cinematograph, in 1904 on Victoria Street. Other venues soon followed, such as the Alhambra (1907), opened by Frenchman François Dreyfuss, and the Marlborough (1909) on Beach Road, and the Palladium (1914) on Orchard Road.

The first known films shot in Singapore were by Gaston Melies, the lesser-known brother of Georges Méliès, in 1913, during a tour of Asia and Oceania. It should be noted that local actors starred in these films.

Posters of Gaston Méliès’ films on Singapore (copyright Singapore Film locations archive)

The films, still short films, then projected were very varied, from the procession of the jubilee of Queen Victoria, to documentaries on the region. In the early years, American or European films were brought in by itinerant traders. But, in 1907, Singapore became a regional distribution center under the leadership of the French company Pathé Frères.

Singapore, or Orientalism in 20th Century Cinema

For many Westerners, the name of Singapore took on exotic colors. This is why several films alluding to Singapore were made by Western directors before or after the Second World War.

Before the war, most of them had little to do with this place: They weren’t filmed there, the so-called Asian characters were mostly played by more or less “white” people. less well made up, and the subjects were inspired more by the vision of the East in the Western collective unconscious than by local reality.

Let’s quote the movies Across to Singapore (1928), ” Sal of Singapore (1928), ” The Crimson City “, also known as “La Schiava di Singapore” (1928), “ The Road to Singapore (1931), ” Out of Singapore (1932), “Malay nights”, also known as ” Shadows of Singapore (1932).

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The rise of Singaporean cinema before the Second World War

While Singaporean cinema had its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, this golden age has its roots before the Second World War.

First of all, after the First World War, the distribution of films developed in Singapore given the attraction for this new hobby. After Western distributors, Chinese entrepreneurs arrived. Among them, the Shaw brothers, originating from a family of Shanghai producing films, which were going to be determining 20 years later in the development of the Singaporean cinema. Faced with the difficulty of showing their films in existing cinemas, often linked to distributors, they launched into projection by opening a first cinema in Tanjong Pagar in 1927. This initiative was successful for them, because at the end of the 1930s, they had opened 139 cinemas in Malaysia, Thailand, Indochina and Singapore.

At the same time, the number of cinemas in Singapore and their attendance continued to increase. In 1932, there were already 9 cinemas (including the Capitol with 1,700 seats), not counting temporary screening locations. The number of annual places is then estimated at 910,000, or a little more than one visit per year and per inhabitant on average.

In 1935, another family, the Lokes, originally from Singapore, embarked on the film industry, before also becoming a major player in Singaporean cinema after the Second World War with their company Cathay Organization. She will build on Orchard Road just before the Second World War the Cathay, which will remain the tallest building in Singapore for 15 years, with 16 floors, including not only a 1320-seat cinema, but also a restaurant, a hotel, and 80 apartments. From this period, only the art deco facade has survived thanks to a classification as a preserved monument.

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The original version of the Cathay building (copyright The Cathay)

Given the success of the cinema in Singapore, some went into local filmmaking. The first seems to be a Chinese film from 1926, “Xin Ke” (“The Immigrant”), which did not leave many traces, but which has the particularity of being an exception in a local cinematographic landscape which will be exclusively Malay for several decades. In 1932, two films made by Westerners were shot entirely in Singapore with local actors, some of whom would later play in many local films: “White Pearl” and ” semarang “. In 1933, an Indian director made ” Leila Majnun which, although inspired by the tales of One Thousand and One Nights and Romeo and Juliet, resonated in the Malay community and in turn inspired many post-war films. This same director shot in 1942, still in Singapore, a second film in Malay, “Menantu Derhaka” (“The rebel daughter-in-law”). Meanwhile, the Shaw brothers had set up their studio in Singapore and produced there between 1938 and 1941 a dozen films. These films, shot in Malay by directors of Chinese origin, were not well received by the Malay community for whom they were intended, because their themes were based on Chinese culture. However, they allowed the Shaw brothers to harden themselves in the world of local production, where they were to play an important role after the Second World War.

To learn more about the history of cinema in Singapore, read the books and articles of Raphael Millet, from which this article is largely based. The English version of his main work, ” singapore cinema is available through the Singapore Public Library Network.

When Singapore made its cinema – From the beginnings to the Second World War