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Popular Culture In Singapore

Info: 2498 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 9th May 2017 in History

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Number & the question: Question 3. With reference to at least two types of popular culture, discuss and evaluate the role and impact of popular culture in Singapore between the end of the Second World War and Singapore’s independence in 1965?

Popular culture is defined as a cultural artifact or events by which large numbers of people are voluntarily attracted to through the dissemination of mass media. The study of popular culture helps us to understand the society that embraced it as it developed over time. Popular culture also tackles the everyday life and lived experiences that are often neglected. It is argued that popular culture plays a role in shaping the values and identity of a society when the general masses consumes and embraces it. In this paper, the author will look into the role and impact of popular culture in the form of Shaw Cinema films and the mass visiting of amusement parks between post war and independence of Singapore.

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Japan surrendered on 15 August 1945 and the British returned on the island on 5 September 1945. Britain’s failure in defending Singapore had undermined her credibility as a governor of the island. In addition, post-war Singapore was plagued with poverty, unemployment and economical uncertainty. These gave rise to political awakening and nationalist identity amongst the Singaporeans. [1] This period of uncertainty and anxiety shaped the identity and popular culture of post-war Singapore.

Shortly after the return of the British to Singapore and Malaya, the Shaw cinemas started afresh and business began to boom.

“On the return of the British to Singapore and Malaya, we started afresh and business became prosperous because the public hungered for the opportunity to see British and American films. Theatres were crowded especially during the first few months with the main draw being war movies. With such overwhelming response, we had to plan for expansion.” [2] 

Cinemas owned by the Shaw stretches from Sembawang to Balestier and prior to the Lido, Shaw had the Pavilion on Orchard Road. By 1965, the number of cinema halls owned by Shaw in Singapore totaled 19. The independent halls in Singapore which were contracted to play only Shaw distributed films numbered 30. With cinemas scattered throughout the island, the Shaws had the widest exhibition circuit in Singapore.

Cinemas during the post war period were avenues where new modern technology and culture converge. In addition, cinema films also had a role in shaping political awareness and nationalist sensations just after the war amongst the community in Singapore and Malaya. These could be seen from the popular demand for war themed British and American films. On one hand, the reasons were partly due to Singaporeans losing confidence in them as an infallible ruler and on the other hand, the British government was also gradually preparing to grant self-governance to Singapore and Malaya. Secondly, the post war films by the Shaw Brothers played an important role in shaping the identity of the Chinese in Singapore. The film, The Song of Singapore, highlighted Nanyang Style and Nanyang atmosphere, the identity of being a Chinese national was still predominant in the movie. The term huaqiao denotes an overseas Chinese residing in a foreign country and will ultimately return to their homeland China. [3] 

By the mid 1950s, the Chinese films from Shaw studio in Hong Kong and Shaw Malay films began to gain popularity over the American Hollywood. The first Malay film of the Shaw Brothers, Singapore at Night (Singapura di Waktu Malam) was made after the war. The emphasis of post- war movies were local style, local flavor, and local character. At that time, the major selling points of the movies were that it conveyed a “totally Nanyang style” and a “fully Nanyang atmosphere. [4] 

During the post-war period, films in cinemas not only had the role of evoking nationalism, the impact of the cinemas were so huge that they became the representations of mass entertainment consumption and voluntarily participation. Patronizing the cinemas had also become a new form of sensation and indulgence where patrons were eager to experience. As mentioned above, cinemas during the post-war periods were avenues where audiences could catch a glimpse of technological innovations. With increasing popularity and competition from other post-war exhibitors and other forms of mass entertainment, the Shaw cinemas imported the latest in cinematograph and theatre equipments, sound systems, furnishings, air-conditioning and chairs. Over the years, other than the improvements in colour and sound there were also other innovative methods for enhancing the cinema experience constantly being launched from Hollywood. [5] Although many of these special format films were shortlived, but they renewed excitement in cinema during the various periods they were launched.

Cinemas were also avenues of cultural convergence where patronizing audiences could experience a new form of modern culture. One example was the ‘dual purpose’ halls in which the Shaw cinemas not only screened movies; there were also held ‘live’ shows and events. Some of these were meant for promoting films and others were purely for entertainment. Imported ‘live’ shows and performance from Malaya and the region made its way into Shaw cinemas as early as 1951. Visiting magicians and illusionists never failed to draw crowds with their exciting performances which not only provide entertainment; it also drew a form of mysterious sensation amongst the audiences. Dances by visiting dance troupes from all over the world were also popular demands amongst patrons then. [6] 

By the 1950s, the advertising campaigns during the post war period became more sophisticated and creative. The impact of the film industry on the locals was so great that promotional and advertising materials sent from major studios abroad had to take on a local context. Furthermore, the Shaw Cinemas went on to involve public participation in order to achieve success in film promotion events.

“You must advertise, put up the posters, put it in the newpapers… you must think what are the kind of people, what kind of advertisements to attract the people” [7] 

Daily newspaper ads, cinema standees poster displays and movie trailers provided the mainstays of Shaw promotions. Posters were not only hung outside of the cinemas but also on poster boards along road junctions and overhead bridges. They were also hanged in other major locations such as shopping centres, supermarkets, fairgrounds, schools, coffeeshops and even the Singapore Turf Club. To further engage larger crowds, billboard trucks travelled all over the island to broadcast coming attractions and distribute handbills. Promotions for blockbusters were even more elaborated as it involved all forms of public transportations and even armoured trucks and airplanes. These vehicles were outfitted with advertising banners and billboards.

Apart from mere screening of films and performances, Shaw cinemas went further to entice and involve their audiences and patrons in their business. For example, ‘Movie theme’ marketing was another effective method at drawing attention. Within the cinema itself, the Shaw marketing team would organise theme screenings with audiences dressed up in movie themes. Another was the red head promotion at the Capitol in 1956 for the premiere of ‘Slightly Scarlet’. Girls who flaunted the loveliest red hair were given a spray of flowers and a voucher for free hairdo with a leading hairstylist.

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As a source of publicity, personal appearances by stars created maximum impact for their films wherever they went. Touring stars from Hollywood or Shaw Studios added glamour to movie premieres, cinema openings, festivals, charities as well as other events in Singapore and all over Malaysia. Autograph signing sessions never failed to draw crowds as well as interest from the press.

These events and contests were considered new and exciting to Singaporeans during the post war periods. The Shaw cinemas at its peak during this period not only created a platform that united community from different ethnicity and languages; it further created a form of lifestyle and mass culture amongst the community that indulged in mass consumption of entertainment. The impact was far-reaching that it even introduced to the community the first time the idea of ‘star chasing’ and the glamour to be a successful celebrity.

Amusement parks operated by the Shaw Brothers during post-war Singapore were also familiar sights. Since 1930s, it had always been an unforgettable experience for populace of Singapore to visit these amusement parks. [8] These amusement parks resumed business shortly after the war; continued to offer variety and non-stop offerings which could not be found in traditional culture and entertainment venues. It was a crucible of new culture forms, as old contents transformed to meet changing popular taste, and new ones were introduced to suit the diverse crowds. Popular live stage shows featuring all forms of dances, game contests, magic shows, comedy shows, fashion parades as well as band performances before the screening of movies. Some stage shows featured local or visiting celebrities, but most of the time they were performed by amateurs or semi-professionals. Then there were the contests based on fads. In addition, depending on what was popular at the time, dance contests were held regularly. In 1956, with rock and roll sweeping the film world, a rock and roll contest was held at the Great World Caberet to promote ‘Rock around the Clock’. In 1957, the same venue was used for the cha cha cha contest to promote the film ‘Cha Cha Cha Boom’. In 1963, with ‘twisting films’ increasingly popular, a twisting contest was held at Sky. [9] 

One of the highlights in the amusement parks was the bangsawan which was a travelling commercial theatre meant to generate profits. Although the main language used was Malay, the bangsawan as a cultural form was effectively multicultural. [10] Bangsawan was a popular culture that transcends all boundaries; ethnicity, linguistic and cultural. Not only was the profile of the audience cut across class distinction, it was also multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. In the amusement parks, there were also other forms of popular culture such as the Chinese Wayang, band performances, open air cinema, and Malay social dances. Consequently, this process of assimilating traditional performance groups, and especially travelling theatres in the amusement parks inevitably resulted in the transformation of different cultural forms. [11] When bangsawan was assimilated into the urban amusement parks, it featured an improbable variety of shows. To fill in time between acts, or before and after each play, there would be musical and dance interludes.

Until mid 1960s, Singapore was largely socially stratified and each person was kept to exclusive clubs and clan associations. Amusement parks on the other hand were accessible to any social groups. The various cultural forms which were adapted allowed for different degrees of participation in the show, depending only on the amount of money one could spare. This loosening of boundaries of the urban amusement parks hence provided everyone a glimpse into the different cultures, practices, and leisure life of the diverse community living in Singapore. [12] Such opportunities during post war or prior independence were rare. The urban amusement parks were then a different world to the visitors where they could participate in leisure activities and cultural performances of the various communities, all at once, within a single community.

Both Shaw Cinema and amusement parks played a major role in attracting multiethnic groups under one roof and consuming the diverse forms of entertainment, culture and technological advancements which never failed to evoke strong sensations and excitement amongst the patrons. The cinema films also played a role in evoking nationalism and shaping of the Nanyang identity during the post-war period. Perhaps, it could be argued that these avenues to a certain extent provided refuge from reality and the harshness of life during post-war Singapore. The impact of publicity and marketing was so far-reaching amongst the local community that the culture of “star chasing” then mirrored the image and glamour pop and movie stars enjoy in contemporary Singapore.


Barbara Leitch Lepoer, ed. Singapore: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989.

Sai-Shing Yung, “Territorialization and the Entertainment Industry of the Shaw Brothers in Southeast Asia”, China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema, ed. Poshek Fu, pp. 133-153.

Tan Sooi Beng, “From Popular to “Traditional” Theater: The Dynamics of Change in Bangsawan of Malaysia”, Ethnomusicology, vol.33, no.2, Spring-Summer 1989, pp.229-237

Wong Yunn Chii and Tan Kar Lin, “Emergence of a cosmopolitan space for culture and consumption: the New World Amusement Park- Singapore(1923-70) in the inter-war years”, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 5, Number 2, 2004, pp. 279-304


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