Once dubbed the Hollywood of Southeast Asia, Singapore has a rich and proud place in Southeast Asia’s cinema history.
Films as a medium and art form have always possessed great potential to convey crucial messages and influence the cultural zeitgeist of their times. Take a look at today’s pop culture and how Hollywood and its slate of modern blockbusters have permeated the fabrics of our lives.
You’ll be surprised to learn that there was a time when Singapore cinema had a similarly profound impact on us. In fact, during the ’50s and ’60s, Singapore was dubbed as Southeast Asia’s Hollywood. During this period, around 300 local films were produced, entertaining and shaping the lives of many Singaporeans.
The films of this era were truly a sight to behold, showcasing the breadth of talent available in Singapore’s film industry. Unfortunately, as the adage goes, “All good things must come to an end”. Despite the valiant efforts of many in the industry, this golden period eventually ended in the ’70s. Let’s explore the events that transpired that led to an end of an era.
The rise of the golden age of Singapore cinema
According to the consensus of many, the golden age of Singapore cinema occurred within a 25-year time span between 1940s to the 1970s, with the majority of the output driven by the two biggest film empires of the time – Cathay organisation and Shaw Brothers.
Shaw Brothers – founded by two brothers, Runme and Run Run Shaw – was already a major film conglomerate in Singapore, operating several theatre chains in Singapore and Malaysia, when it decided to make its foray into film production following the success of its film screening and exhibition business.
This move was arguably the catalyst that kickstarted the golden era of Singapore cinema. Setting their sights on the Malay audience in Malaysia and Singapore, the organisation incorporated a new company – Malay Film Productions – and reopened the Jalan Ampas studio in 1947.
Shaw Brothers also invested heavily by bringing in the latest film-making technology of its time from Hollywood, as well as building up its own crew of directors, production staff, and actors to support its film-making endeavour. A grand total of 37 movies were produced during the five-year period between 1947 and 1952, with 1952 seeing a record of 23 movies being released in that year alone.
A competitor rises
Shaw Brothers was not the only major player in the industry during this time. After the end of World War 2, Ho Ah Loke – a film producer – was eager to venture into the industry, and he convinced Loke Wan Tho, a Malaysian business magnate, to form Cathay-Keris. This organisation will grow to challenge the monopoly of film production that Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions controlled.
Cathay-Keris’ rise was a revelation at the time, as it looked to break away from the bangsawan (a form of traditional Malay theatre or opera) influence prevalent among the era’s films. It was also the first studio in Singapore to produce movies shot in colour – Perwira Lautan Teduh (1952) and Bulan Perindu (1953).
One of the staples of Southeast Asia horror – the Pontianak – was initiated into local film by the company in 1957, and the film Pontianak proved to be so popular that it was dubbed into English and Cantonese for the American and Hong Kong markets. Two sequels – Dendam Pontianak and Sumpah Pontianak – were released soon after, establishing the horror genre in Singapore and Malaysia. The success of these films prompted Malay Film Productions to emulate its formula with their own Pontianak film series.
The competition between the two companies only served to benefit the Singaporean and Malaysian audiences, who were blessed with captivating stories that appealed to them emotionally and culturally. Many of these films embodied Southeast Asia’s rich heritage and artistic flavour, with prime examples like Hang Jebat being highly regarded among many film historians.
The decline of the golden era of Singapore cinema
Despite the ’70s being regarded as an end of an era for Singapore cinema, its slow decline actually began in the 1960s, when the audience’s attention was turned away from local movies to the blockbuster films imported from Hollywood – a trend that has continued till this day. Furthermore, the introduction of television in Singapore also led to a decline in audience attendance in cinemas.
The decline was further hampered by the talent drain caused by the separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, as many talented producers, directors, and well-known actors chose to base themselves permanently in Malaysia. This problem was exacerbated when Ho, one of the founding fathers behind Cathay-Keris, left the organisation and took with him the rights of several of the company’s most successful films. He then founded Merdeka Studios in Kuala Lumpur.
As the local film industry began to crumble due to low film attendance and a talent drain, Shaw Brothers officially closed the Malay Film Productions in 1967, ending its 20-year run that saw a grand total of around 160 movies produced from its studio. Cathay-Keris soon followed suit by ceasing its operations in 1972, thus marking the official end of the golden era of Singapore cinema.
It is fascinating to imagine how much the Singapore film industry would have changed if the local films produced by Shaw Brothers and Cathay organisation were able to maintain their popularity past the ’70s. How would the modern local classics, like I Not Stupid and Singapore Dreaming, be influenced by these films of the ‘50s and ‘60s? Alas we will never know.
The films produced during this era have long since become time capsules, providing us with a fascinating peek at the cultural zeitgeist of its times. Nonetheless, they remain an essential part of Singapore’s history and their preservation through arts writing and discussion is crucial to ensure every Singaporean is aware of our film industry’s historical past.