An early black and white photograph of a group of young men standing in front of the grand fountain outside the National Theater of Singapore. Photo credit: Loo Zihan
Neither of us in the SG Snaps team has had the opportunity to attend a performance at the National Theater of Singapore previously situated on the slope of Fort Canning Park along River Valley Road. Before we were born, or could develop a conscious memory of the world, the theater also known as the “People’s Theatre” was already demolished in the mid-1986. That was when the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) North East line to connect Chinatown to Dhoby Ghaut and the Central Expressway (CTE) began construction and the theatre had to make way for these developments. Our only encounters with this theatre were through the collected photographs and conversations with the contributors, and we certainly saw and felt the glory and splendour the theatre exuded that remained in the hearts of Singaporeans.
There were aplenty photographs of people taken in front of the iconic façade of the theatre. Browsing through all the contributed photo albums, it is easy to recognise the five-point exterior, which is emblematic of the five stars on the Singapore flag. The center of the theatre’s outdoor fountain is a crescent moon sculpture representing the crescent moon on our flag. What a brilliant piece of architecture it was, by Singaporean architect Alfred Wong, whose firm won the design competition for the theatre in 1963.
The year the National Theatre of Singapore was constructed was a significant and eventful one for Singapore. 1963 was the year Lee Kuan Yew had declared de-facto independence for Singapore from the British colonial rule, and the year The Malaysia Agreement was signed, combining North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore with the existing Federation of Malaya. These two events placed Singapore amongst the other newly formed independent nations in Southeast Asia.
The inaugural show at the National Theatre reflected just that. The Southeast Asian Cultural Festival was launched to celebrate the opening of the theatre on August 8 1963. Eleven Asian countries attended this grand opening, including film stars from Hong Kong. A postage stamp of a value of 5 cents was specially released to commemorate the event. There were performances of folk dances from around the region. In the opening, our first president, Yusof bin Ishak described the festivities as a “South-East Asian cultural renaissance.” It seems that this interest of a bourgeoning cultural scene in South East Asia is not a recent construction but one that has its roots way before our nation’s independence in 1965.
The National Theatre was also the result of one of Singapore’s first major crowd-sourcing project – “A-dollar-a-brick” campaign, in which the public could buy a $1 paper brick, a colour-printed frame showing a design of the National Theatre. This fund-raising campaign supplemented the government for the building costs, and described by the then Minister of Culture, S. Rajaratnam as “a good example of how the success of any effort depends ultimately on the co-operation and dedication of people from all walks of life.” The theatre also became an emblem of community-building, earning its civic name of the “People’s Theatre”.
The National Theatre of Singapore has its significance beyond its history of being the first and largest theatre in Singapore. Aside from its massive 3,420 seating capacity, it is also a reminder of our beginnings as a nation. As written on the twin heritage site markers by the National Heritage Board on the current site, the theatre signifies “a spirit of self help and nationhood in the early days of nation building.”
Now, close to the original site of the National Theatre of Singapore, stands an artwork by Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien for the Singapore Biennale in 2013. In exactly 50 years since its construction, the sculpture is a reminder of the theatre’s existence, possibly unknown to many Singaporean youths. The 40m-tall painted steel sculpture of the theatre’s façade pales in terms of scale compared to the original size, but it makes an excellent backdrop for photographs as a tribute to the ones taken when the theatre was still around.
There is a situational irony literally behind the sculpture. The vacant space of what used to be the area where cultural celebrations were held is now empty. What is left is but an empty plot of grass with trees meagrely occupying the space. Is this current state of the site a reflection of how our country, in its race for progress, has emptied out any semblance of a true aspiration to culturally define ourselves? Only to be left with an empty shell to remind us of its ghost? Only one can ponder, looking at the smiles of the people in the photographs of the theatre from before.
Written by Samantha Tio
Edited by Tan Wei Keong
Singapore Snaps would like to show our great appreciation and admiration to the work of Mr Koh Eng Soon, author of “我们的集体记忆” (Our Collective Memory) – A self-published book, in Mandarin, on the National Theatre of Singapore and several other historical landmarks. Mr Koh had visited us at the Singapore Snaps booth at the National Library building on July 27 2014. That afternoon, he had shared with us all the wonderful histories of the theatre. In the book, he shares his valuable collection of photographs and paraphernalia of the theatre through its lifetime and his personal memories of it. We salute Mr Koh for his love for civic history and his generousity. This article will not be possible without him.