30 June 2008

Before The Multiplex

The New Paper on Sunday 29 June 2008

This nostalgic article appeared in the New Paper on 29 June 2008. It was written by Elysa Chen (elysac@sph.com.sg). I am posting it here as it has very good nostalgic, entertainment and information values. There are many details related by the 3 senior gentlemen which I didn't even know. But then again, what do you expect - I am decades younger than any one of them.

Memory lane
: Mr Lee Kip Lee, Mr Narayanan Narayanan and
Mr William Gwee, looking at a folder of cinema programmes
that Mr Gwee had collected over the years.

Three movie fans recall when cinemas didn't even have air-con

The seats were bug-ridden, there was no aircon, no system for seating, and you had to sing the national anthem at the end of it.

Yet retiree William Gwee would give anything to watch a movie in the cinema of yore.

The man was so in love with movies that he even jotted down notes on the shows he had watched in a notebook.

The 74-year-old former senior pharmacist recalled: "The cinemas last time were dirty. There was litter everywhere and the screens are much smaller than what we have now.

"But I still prefer going to the cinemas in the past. We were young, and so noisy, we knew the life stories of the actors and actresses. They would appear in almost every other movie. Stars today do not appear in as many movies as before."

Mr Gwee's sudden rush of nostalgia did not come out of nowhere.

Last week, it was reported that Capitol Theatre, one of Singapore's earliest cinemas, was earmarked for development.

The report drew a response from fellow movie buff Lee Kip Lee, 86, who wrote to the Straits Times Forum page pointing out that there were other cinemas that came before Capitol.

He also wrote about what it was like to catch a movie during Singapore's pre-war years.

To get a better picture of the cinema-going experience before Internet booking, fresh popcorn and air-conditioning came along, The New Paper on Sunday invited Mr Lee, Mr Gwee, and their friend Mr Narayanan Narayanan, to reminisce about their days as students catching an afternoon matinee.

Picture courtesy of NAS - Alhambra Theatre on Beach Road circa 1950

ST file picture - Marlborough Theatre: On Beach Road

Mr Lee, a former businessman, said that there were three earlier cinemas: the Pavilion on Orchard Road, the Alhambra and the adjoining Marlborough Theatre on Beach Road.

ST file picture - Black tie: A charity event at Pavilion Cinema

The Earliest Cinema

Mr Lee said: "The earliest cinema I can remember is the Paladium. It was renamed the Pavilion. I lived on Emerald Hill, so it was quite near my home.

"The Alhambra and the theatre next to it, the Marlborough, were on Beach Road. At the back was the sea."

According to the Book of Singapore's Firsts, by Kay Gillis and Kevin Tan, the first cinema was the Paris Cinema built in 1903 by an Indian jewellery company at Victoria Street.

Mr Narayanan, 80, a former share broker, said: "There were two main cinema groups pre-war: Cathay and Shaw. When Shaw. When Shaw first started out, the brothers Runme and Run Run Shaw came with just a projector from Shanghai. They operated a travelling cinema, and went around the estates, where they would draw crowds of 100 to 200 people."

After that, came the Roxy at East Coast Road, Mr Gwee said, where it cost 40 cents for a seat in the first few rows, and 80 cents for the middle rows.

There would be a "mad rush for tickets" the moment the box office opened, he said, but he had a way of securing his tickets for a movie, decades before there was Internet booking.

He said: "My friends and I knew the ticket seller at Roxy. So half of the tickets would be in our possession even before the box office opened! We would then sell the tickets on the black market for 60 cents each, instead of 40 cents."

Mr Gwee also had tricks up his sleeve to make sure they got the best seats in the house.

He said with a mischievous smile: "They didn't have numbers for the seats then, so we would reserve seats for our friends using our handkerchiefs."

"Once we saw a pretty girl coming along, we would untie the handkerchief and ask her to join us."

Sex Movies

In the 1950s, Mr Gwee recalled, there were a few "sex movies" that were screened. One of them, he said, was titled Sins Of Our Fathers.

There was an uproar, Mr Gwee said, and the prefects of catholic schools such as St Joseph's Institution, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the then St Anthony's Boys' School were even stationed at the cinemas to catch students who wanted to watch the films.

He added: "A group of us went to Capitol to watch the film, but despite its mystifying title, it turned out to be nothing. It was actually more educational than pornographic."

The censors would also include a notice at the beginning of each film, telling moviegoers how long a movie would last. A two-hour movie would usually have around 10,000 feet (about 3km) of film.

But it has been "a long time" since the three of them have seen a movie because they can now watch television shows.

Mr Narayana explained: "Previously, we had to go to the cinema halls for our entertainment. Today, our living rooms have become our cinema theatre, especially with all those huge screens now available.

"Going out just does not appeal to me as much as it did during my younger days."

Bug bites and Mickey Mouse Club

If you thought finding leftover popcorn scattered on your cinema seat was bad, think again.

Mr Narayanan Narayanan said: "When you went to the movies those times, you would have to get ready to come back with bug bites, because the seats were wooden."

An animated Mr William Gwee added that before sitting down, if you "ketok" the chair (and here, he makes a motion of raising a chair and knocking its legs), bugs would fall out.

Mr Lee Kip Lee said: "They would also show news clips before the movie, and at the end of the show, everyone had to stand to attention as the national anthem, God Save the King - because it was still the King then - was played."

Mr Gwee said he went to watch Tamil movies because Western movies were not screened during the Japanese Occupation: "I liked watching the Indian movies because you could see the hero fighting 20 villains at the same time, while talking to the girl he was saving."

Tamil Stars

These movies were so popular, Mr Gwee said, that children would imitate the Tamil stars.

Going to the movies was also a good way for boys to meet girls, Mr Gwee said.

The cinemas started a "Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1930s to attract students. The club would not only offer tickets at special prices to its members, it would also organise picnics and outings, and screen free cartoon shows once a month.

"Times have changed, but it was not easy for boys to meet girls then. So, we would go to these activities to meet girls," Mr Gwee said with a chuckle.

Mr Gwee said: "There would be intervals during the movie, because the film would 'burst' (stop), and they would have to put in the next reel of film.

"When this happened, everybody would whistle and go 'Boooo'."

29 June 2008

What Kind Of Insect Is This?

No, I am not scolding the people involved in the recent illegal kidney transplant fiasco. Neither am I admonishing the alleged 26-year-old killer of the aged transvestite nor the wife of the Slipperman who was alleged to have fatally knifed her brother-in-law and critically injured his wife during a violent argument. I am referring to a real insect.

Today in the New Paper, there is a feature on Mt Pleasant colonial bungalows which are popular among expatriates. One British national who has been living in there for two years remarked, "I absolutely love it - the space, the house, the garden and especially the wildlife... This place is close to nature; we get monkeys, monitor lizards, skinks (small, shiny lizards) and even snakes here, and it's lovely."

I guess there must have been insects as well. This monstrous one was found dead in Peter Chan's house, although Peter lived no where near Mt Pleasant:

Peter found it dead inside the house during the day. It must have come in through the window because it was found below it. The insect's body was about 2-inch long while its wing-span was about 4-inch. It had a huge thorax, at least half-inch in height and its backside had yellow stripes on black.

Do you know what insect is this? This is a quiz for which I don't know the answer. I must confess that I have never seen anything like this before, not even in Sentosa Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom. Maybe my entomology-trained friends Walter and Sivasothi can? Hurry, identify it before someone else does!

27 June 2008

Fighting Spiders

I wrote this post to provide some answers for Mr Andrew Ngin, a scriptwriter currently working on an upcoming drama about friendship amongst 3 boys who lived through the 60s. Andrew studied at the same secondary school as I but is 8 years my junior. As he is doing some research on spiders, he left a comment here and there, asking several questions about spiders.

Q1. Did you catch any spiders back in the 1960s

A: Although I have never played with or caught any spider in my childhood before, I have seen my neighbours' kids play with them before. Below is a brief description of a typical spider fight. I also did some research for you by googling and also asked a self-proclaimed "spider expert" called Moo. (I call that "moogling". Haha.)

The spider owner, usually a boy, will house a lone spider in an Elastoplast box. It is a rather flat (about 1 cm thick) rectangular metal box that is red in colour. (Elastoplast, as you probably know, is a brand of plaster or self-adhesive bandage as you would call it now. This brand may still be available today but the packaging is probably different.)

The boy will put a leaf or two in the box, probably to make the spider feel "at home". It also gives the spider some places to hide.

For boys with in-born gambling instinct, they will wage bets on a spider fight. The stake could be anything from a 10-cent ice ball for poor kids like me or up to a dollar or two for well-to-do kids.

When it is fighting time, the outside surface of the closed box will be the fighting arena. One kid will hold the box with one hand while another spider belonging to another kid will be placed on the same box. The 2 spiders soon see each other because the space on the box is quite limited and each spider has several eyes to see with, so it's hard to miss an opponent.

They will then face each other and start their "fighting dance" routine. Both will hold out their arms and move from side to side. They will make contact every now and then.

After a few minutes, the winner and loser will have been decided. The loser will run frantically around the box with the winner chasing close behind it. That's when you know that the fight has ended and it's also time for the winning owner to chase the loser frantically round the block for payment. ;)

There are usually no fatalities but sometimes injuries are sustained. Although a spider is too small to be examined for minor injuries and it doesn't bleed red blood, you can certainly tell when an arm or two have fallen off and the spider is limping.

Fighting spiders are usually male. If a male meets a female, they will probably not fight but do the other "f" thing, quite naturally. Fraternising that is, what were you thinking?

According to this website, females also fight each other, but "the combat does not show the same degree of vigour as in the male-to-male fray". They probably just pull at each other's hair.

Q2. What were the best methods and techniques you used in catching them?

A: According to this website, "the spider builds a nest by binding two leaves together with vertical strands of silk, perpendicular to the leaf surfaces". So look for leaves that are stuck together, peel them open slowly and be ready to catch any escaping spider.

Q3. Where did you find them in Singapore?

A3. Certainly not in city areas where I live. Maybe in countryside kampongs like Lorong Kinchir.

Q4. What do you feed them with?

Any small live insects that are made half-dead by a little squishing with our fingers. Click here for more information from a real spider expert on how to properly rear spiders.

(Moo says that you also have to cater to their sexual needs, i.e. catch a sexy female spider and let it spend some quality time with your top-ranking fighter. If you are lucky, you may be blessed with hordes of baby fighters. If you care for your prized spider properly, it will live happily for several months and die not in battle but from old age.)

Q5. What were they called?

Thiania bhamoensis of the Salticidae family... Oh you mean the colloquial name? I heard one species was called Orh Pao (Hokkien for "black panther".)

Q6. Do you know anyone who was/is a spider expert?

Yes, more than one. Besides the real expert Mr Joseph K H Koh, there is the self-proclaimed one, Mr Moo. If you would like to interview Mr Moo, please let me know how I can contact you. (If you would rather interview the real expert, I will see what I can do.)

There, I hope I have answered all your questions satisfactorily, Andrew. In return, I would like to ask you just one:

Do we get to have our names mentioned in the film's credits as "spider consultants"?

16 June 2008

The Mama Shop (3)

A 1962 Mama Shop - Photo Courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore

The Mama Shop story continues with items that the mama shop sold half a century ago which you could still get today. Believe it or not, some of the items are still sold under the same brand names!

1. Hacks sweets. (Known as "cough drops" then). There were 2 flavours - the regular type (those in the left bottle in the photo below) and the lemon type (you can see them partially in the third bottle on the right). Five cents could buy you 2 sweets - you could choose to have one of each flavour. As you can see, my neighbourhood provision shop is now selling 5 of them for 20 cents - not a very hefty price increase after more than 40 years, I must say.

Hudsons cough drops were also available then at the same price. These mostly came in red wrappers and were strawberry-flavoured. Hacks and Hudsons were a bit too minty for my liking. Of course, there were also other mint sweets - those that looked like a miniature block of ice in shape and form. I also fondly remember the oval-shaped milky-mint sweets that were beige in colour. They came in transparent plastic wrappers and were one of my favourite sweets.

2. Pon-Pon cuttlefish. (Now you could only get Ken-Ken cuttlefish. However, the wrapping still looks similar to Pon-Pon.) The smallest packet cost only 5 cents. Bigger packets costing 10 cents and 20 cents each were also available. The recent Ken-Ken packet you see in the photos below costs me $1.20. However, the amount of cuttlefish inside is even less than to what I got in the 20-cent Pon-Pon packet in the 1960s. Inflation certainly makes the balloon bigger but the cuttlefish packet smaller. Haha.

Notice that the 1960s tagline "chewing gum of the orient(als)" is still in use today.

3. Prawn crackers. The small packets were priced at 15 cents each, if I remember correctly. We loved to eat this snack because it was very tasty. Of course, there was a lot of aji-no-moto (mono-sodium glutamate or MSG) in it and we felt very thirsty after polishing up a whole packet.

4. Treets chocolates. These were round and had nut centres. They came in plastic packets of about 10 chocolates each. The tagline was "melts in your mouth and not in your hands". Hmm... it's similar to that of today's M&M chocolates. Anyone knows whether they are products of the same company?

5. Bic ballpoint pens. Can't remember how much the mama charged for these pens which are still sold today. I recently bought 3 for $1 but not from a mama shop. Bic comes in 4 ink colours - blue, black, red and green. The old Bic had a nib that was made of brass. It was attached to a translucent ink tube hidden in the pen casing. We liked to pull it out every now and then to check how must ink was left. Some years later, the nib was replaced with brass-coloured plastic and now it is in same colour as the pen's ink colour, as you can see in the photo. The rest of the pen looks very similar to the 1960s version though. "Writes to the very last drop" was Bic's tagline, as if ink was so precious then.

6. Paper balls. These were sold at 2 pieces for 5 cents. They are still being sold at some toy shops today but I don't know what is the current price for one ball. You blow through a tiny hole to inflate it and then kick it around or hit it with your hands. When it looks deflated, you simply blow it up again. When you are tired of playing with it, you deflate it and then wear it on your head like a hat, acting like a traditional Chinese kid.

Effectively, you have two different toys for the price of one! Not bad at all, eh?

7. Blowing balloons. These were favourite toys of many fun-loving children in the 1960s and they are still available today, both the balloons and the children. (Laokokok blogged
about it before here so I needn't say more.)

8. Cigarettes in cans of 50's. At today's cigarette prices, a 50-stick can will cost more than $20 each. No wonder they disappeared altogether - no one could afford them! Haha. Actually, the mama shop sold them by the stick. Maybe it was 5 cents for a stick or two. At those prices, you could afford to be a chain smoker. It certainly won't burn a hole in your pocket. Don't know about your lungs though. :p

9. Finally, there was one item which I couldn't identify when I was a kid. It looked to me like chocolate gold coins.

They were placed in a transparent glass container just like the Hacks sweets were. When I was about 10-year-old, I couldn't hold my curiosity any longer. So I asked my elder brother (who is 7 years older than me) what they were. His Confucius-like answer was, "You will know when you grow up."

Well, I have more than grown up now and indeed I know the answer. They are gold-coin condoms.

The traditional mama shops have largely been replaced by supermarkets, department stores, neighbourhood provision shops and 7-Eleven convenience stores now.

Some mama shops have transformed into what I would call "oiki" shops. You may be wondering, "What is an oiki shop?" Well, here is the answer:

It is a convenience store set up in the void deck of an HDB block. Because it is located on the ground floor, it is on the 1st storey (or #01). It is called a kiosk (shortened to K). Since there is usually at most 1 kiosk at any HDB block, it follows that they always have the address "01K1". Hence "oiki". QED, not "quite easily done" but quod erat demonstrandum or Latin for "that which was to be demonstrated. ;)

But don't be surprised if you find that your oiki shop is not manned by a mama. Nowadays, it is common to find oiki shops being manned by Chinese as well. What will become of the oiki shop in 50 years' time? I wish I know.

09 June 2008

The Mama Shop (2)

Just in case you missed the answer to the question in my last post, the mama shop in the photo is located in Kampong Kapor Road, along the stretch between Desker Road and Rowell Road. Better quickly go take a look as no one knows when it might slip into oblivion forever. Due to a reason which I would rather not elaborate here, you are advised to visit this area during the daytime. For those who would not be caught dead in this area, day or night, here is the photo again:

Mama shop in Kampong Kapor Road

The mama shop is a grocer, stationer, pharmacy, toy shop and snack shop, all rolled into one. As a kid in the 1960s, I couldn't resist patronising the mama shop opposite my flat daily, sometimes even several times a day!

Yesterday's mama shop (photo courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

So what merchandise did the mama shop sell which got kids like me all captivated? I remember quite a few things - some are no longer available while some are still sold today albeit the packaging and the manufacturers may be different.

Here are a few things that we used to buy and are no longer available now:

1. A game of tikam tikam for 5 cents a try;

2. "Five Rams" batteries. Can't remember how much these cost per piece but they were definitely cheaper than EverReady ones. The former were yellow in colour with a picture of 5 rams (what else?) printed on the battery while the EverReady ones were silver in colour, I think, and had a black cat jumping through the loop of a blue figure "9";

3. Ready-made paper kites which were sold at 5 cents each;

4. Powdered drink satchets which cost 5 cents each. Sold in plastic packs of about 2x4-inch size, they came in orange, lime and melon flavours. Each pack was accompanied by a thin plastic straw. The sugar powder in the satchet was intended to be dissolved in a cup of water and consumed as a drink. However, most of the kids preferred to suck the powder straight out of the packet. As the powder melted in our mouths, it produced a very cooling and shiok (pleasant) feeling. We relished it so much that we usually finished the whole satchet this way; and

5. Chewing gum or rather, what was more appropriately known at that time as "bubble gum". I usually bought those packed in a tiny box containing 2 half-inch sugar-coated balls of various colours. Although Wrigley's chewing gum was available then, I preferred the balls to the long one (pardon the language). As the name suggested, I blew bubbles with them and made loud "tock-tock" sounds while chewing them. To me, it was fun but the noise irritated anyone who happened to be nearby. As almost every Singaporean knows, bubble gum disappeared here not so much because of the passage of time but more due to the passage of a law banning it in 1982. Hmm... I can't seem to remember how I disposed of the bubble gum after I have chewed them. Maybe it ended up in the hair of my neighbour's kid. Haha.

Wrigley's Spearmint chewing gum

Sigh, 5 cents could certainly go a long, long way in the 1960s - there are just so many ways to spend it! In comparison, with 5 cents today, you can't even visit toilets that charge a minimum of 10 cents, regardless of whether your "business" is a big or small one.

If you are around my age, could you remember some other things sold by the mama shop which are no longer available today?

02 June 2008

The Mama Shop (1)

I have blogged about the mama shop before.

When I visited the Singapore Philatelic Museum last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find a mock-up of a mama shop:

The explanatory notes accompanying the exhibit was as follows:
Indian Mama Shop - A sundry shop or general provision stall traditionally operated by Indians, especially the Tamil ethnic group. Colloquailly refers to as "Mama Shop or Stall", the word "Mama" means "uncle" in Tamil.

Such stalls were commonly found in Little India, the enclave of the Indian community in Singapore. Operating in very small and tight space, it is amazing that these stalls could sell a wide range of products - cigarettes, sweets and tidbits, fruits, toiletries, drinks, films, batteries, medicines, and lottery tickets. These stalls were indeed the convenient stall of early days.

With barely a metre depth of shop space, the stalls were usually stashed away at street corners along the five-foot-ways or along side alleys. It is however hard to miss the stalls because the display of colourful magazines and newspaper, strung across the stall with strings and cloth pegs, are very eye-catching. This display method has also become the trademark of the mama shops.

Urban redevelopment, introduction of modern convenient stalls and escalating rental fee are some of the causes that lead to the vanishing of mama shops in Little India. Today, very few mama shops are still in operation.
To pre-empt my philatelist friend Wee Kiat who never fails to point out relevant stamps, there was even a Singapore stamp issued in 2006 which featured the mama shop:

It was one of ten stamps issued in the "vanishing trade" series.

Today, there are probably less than 10 mama shops still running their trade in Singapore. I managed to hunt one down yesterday with my camera:

Can you guess where this mama shop is located?