Park Road School. Part 8


Lew, F.H.

[During 1880s, Chinese operas 戏院 were a common form of entertainment in Singapore. The Chinese immigrants patronised Chinese opera which was initially staged in front of temples during religious festivals. In Singapore, The Chinese opera has a unique Malay name of Wayang.  Most Chinese immigrants had become successful due to their hard work. As business flourished, Wayang was elevated from cheap street entertainment to a thriving business. By 1881, there were about 240 Chinese performing artistes residing in Singapore. 

Li Chun Yuan (梨春园) Theatre (1887-1942) was undeniably the most popular of them. It was located at Smith Street in the heart of Chinatown which was largely populated by the Cantonese. It was so popular that they named Smith Street as “hee hng koi” (戏院街, theatre street). The widespread fame of the name also ensured the theatre was taken as the main reference for the nearby Temple Street and Trengganu Street, which were simply called “hee hng au” (戏院后, back of theatre) and “hee hng hang koi” (戏院横街, street adjacent to theatre) respectively. Two other opera houses Heng Seng Peng (Qing Sheng Ping  庆升平) and Heng Wai Sun (Qing Wei Xin 庆维新) located at Wayang Street also put up Cantonese operas regularly.  Most of the Chinese who settled in Chinatown in 1822 came from different part of China. They belonged to different Chinese dialect groups. ]

Eu Tong Sen Street (Chinese:余东旋街) is one of the major roads in Chinatown with a number of modern Chinatown landmarks such as People's Park Complex, The Majestic, The Central and Pearl's Centre located along this stretch of road. It starts at the junction of Neil Road and Jalan Bukit Merah, and ends at the junction of Hill Street, Fort Canning Rise and Coleman Street. It is named after a wealthy Chinese tycoon Eu Tong Sen (余东旋)(1877-1941) , a tin mining and rubber magnate who had a wife, a passionate Cantonese opera fan. The story told of Mrs. Eu Tong Sen’s unhappy experience in an opera house. It was reported that she was refused entry at the theatre. Because of her unhappiness, Mr. Eu Tong Sen built, on a whim, the Tien Yien Moi Toi Theatre (天演舞台) or "Tin Yin Dance Stage" in 1927 at this street for his wife as a consolation.  

Located at the foot of Pearl Hill, Eu Tong Sen Street was formerly part of the expunged Wayang Street (哇央街).  In 1918,  part of Wayang Street in Chinatown was improved by Eu Tong Sen. The improvements included an extra bridge and new railings for monsoon drain on the New Bridge Road side of Wayang Street and back lanes for the new theatre that he was about to build along the stretch of Wayang Street.  He also acquired the two Chinese opera theatres on the street and renamed them as Heng Seng Peng (庆升平) and Heng Wai Sun (庆维新). These theatres now stand on the present site of People's Park Complex.   

The rebuilt and improved stretch of Wayang Street was later renamed Eu Tong Sen Street in 1919 in recognition of his contributions in this area. Tien Yien Moi Toi Theatre (天演舞台) was designed by Swan and Maclaren (also designed Raffles Hotel and Victoria Memorial Hall), the leading architectural firm at that time. The building was a hall for the performance of Cantonese operas. The theatre featured and attracted the most glamorous opera stars from China. With their beautifully painted faces and exquisite costumes, they performed to the audiences that filled the theatre to full capacity. Standing ovations and catcalls filled the theatre every night in the 1930s. Major opera stars flocked to perform in Tin Yin to raise money for China's war effort against the Japanese. In 1938, the opera faced competition with the screening of occasional silent movie at the theatre.

Eu Tong Sen was an early admirer of the Hong Kong Shaw Organisation (a Hong Kong movie production company) and invited Shaw brothers (Runme Shaw and Run Run Shaw) over to Singapore as his guests. In 1938, the Cinema magnate Shaw Brothers rented Tien Yien Theatre and converted it to a cinema. The theatre was renamed the Queens’ Theatre (皇宫戏院) and used to screen the latest Cantonese blockbuster films. Shaw’s entry in Singapore movie market coincided with the Second Sino Japanese War in China.  

In 1942 during Second World War, the Japanese invaded and occupied Singapore. During the Japanese Occupation, western films were banned. The Imperial Japanese took control over Queens’ Theatre and renamed Ta He Ju Chang (大和剧场). It was used to screen the Japanese propaganda flicks in an attempt to justify their invasion of Asia. Chinese actress Li Xiang Len’s (李香兰) movies were also screened at the Ta He theatre. After the war, the Shaw Organisation leased the building again and gave it a new name as Palace Talkies. The name Majestic Theatre (大华戏院) was used when the new tenant The Majestic Film Company moved in and the name continues to be used to date. The original name of the theatre can still be seen on the front as well as the side of the building. The Eu family sold the building to Cathay Organisation for a hefty $1.1 million in 1956 and the cinema maintained its popularity throughout the years until its closure in 1998. In 2003, the building was converted into a shopping mall known as The Majestic but it could only last four years before it ceased its operation.

 Mr. Eu Tong Sen’s gift (天演舞台) to his wife in 1927 has also become a gift to the cultural landscape of Chinatown in Singapore. 

[1920 picture on Chinese Opera Theatre Halls showed a rickshaw puller running pass the theatrical halls along Wayang Street (later Eu Tong Sen Street). On the right was Heng Seng Peng (庆升平) at  Eu Tong Sen Street where Cantonese, Peking and Hokkien operas were put up. The other was Heng Wai Sun (庆维新), frequented by lovers of Cantonese opera and Pak Kue Wing (白駒榮), was among the famous Cantonese opera stars that performed at Heng Seng Peng in 1930.  The rickshaw (originated from Japan) introduced in Singapore on 16 February 1880 was a mode of human-powered transport - a runner drew a two-wheeled cart which could seat two persons.

Rickshaw was a most popular means of transport in old days of Singapore. The Chinese settlers and immigrants (including the Henghuas and Hokchias) arrived in the last two decades of  the 19th century became rickshaw pullers here. Rickshaw pullers often wore little else other than the blue denims and if not barefooted, they were shod with sandals made of cut-out car tyres. They had a conical hat with a flat brim, typical of those Chinese who came from Fujian province in China. Rides were often nauseatingly swift as the rickshaw puller wove his cart through traffic and pedestrians, zipped over narrow dusty alley and narrow lanes in Singapore. A regulated series of fares were set up in 1892 on the distance the passenger was pulled by the puller. Initially it was 3 cents for the first half mile, 6 cents for the first mile and another 2½ cents for the next half mile or less. There were also the Jinrickshaw Stations (a.k.a Jinricksha Station) which served as a busy interchange for the passengers and pullers alike and one being built in 1903 on the corner of Neil Road and Tanjong Pagar Road. Rickshaws were registered here at the station and were checked for their road-worthiness. By 1924, there were 28,000 jinrickshaw pullers in Singapore.  After Second World War, trishaws replaced the rickshaws particularly after the rickshaw was banned in 1947. Trishaw was powered by a bicycle and capable of holding up to 2 children at one time. ]