Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


Innovations in technology and shifts in leisure culture at the turn of the 20th century ushered in a new era of entertainment in the West, and Singapore was quick to embraced the new trends. Advertisements from the 1900s to the 1960s reveal the diversity and popularity of these new forms of leisure. Before this, the populace in Singapore was entertained by a variety of performances such as Chinese operas in various dialects, Malay bangsawan opera, Indian traditional dance, and Western theatre.

The cinematograph, what films were called when first invented, came into Singapore shortly after its first screening in Paris in 1895. The earliest local public screenings took place in makeshift tents in the 1900s. The first enclosed cinema, Paris Cinematograph, opened in Victoria Street in 1904. Larger movie theatres soon sprouted and advertisements of cinemas and movies proliferated in print media in the following decades.

Another innovation in entertainment introduced in the early 20th century was the amusement park. The three local amusement parks: New World (1923), Great World (1932) and Happy World (1937, later Gay World) were said to be modelled after the Malaya-Borneo Exhibition held in Singapore in 1922 and were inspired by entertainment parks in Shanghai. These ‘worlds’ became highly popular leisure spaces where people from all social classes could enjoy a myriad of entertainment, from traditional theatre performances to getai and boxing matches.

One of the major attractions of amusement parks were the cabarets – dance halls with dance hostesses, a live band and floor shows, which were highlights of Singapore night life from the 1930s to 1960s. Cabarets were also found in hotels, with the Southern Cabaret in Great Southern Hotel on Eu Tong Sen Street being the most famous.

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Enter the
Picture Palaces

‘Picture palaces’ – movie theatres renowned for their grandeur, opulence and modernity – emerged in the West in the 1910s and 1920s with New York’s Roxy Theatre (1927) being the ‘cathedral of motion pictures’. Reflecting this trend, early Singapore cinema advertisements also boasted of their luxury, comfort and modern facilities.

Some of the earliest movie theatres established in Singapore were Alhambra (1907), Marlborough (1909) and Palladium (1914). Pioneer cinema entertainment entrepreneur Tan Cheng Kee, the eldest son of business leader Tan Keong Saik, invested in and transformed these screening halls into lavishly decorated theatres with modern amenities – drapery, tiled floors, electric lights, telephone booths – to offer patrons an extraordinary experience.

Singapore’s own picture palace was none other than the Capitol Theatre, which opened to great fanfare in 1930. A few years later, Cathay Cinema (1939) joined the ranks. Ads announcing the launch of the two cinemas gave elaborate descriptions of their deluxe and state-of-the-art amenities. At these picture palaces, patrons could expect to be transported into the cinematic world of glamour and make-belief.


From Hollywood
to Bollywood

Movie advertisements in Singapore reveal a mind-boggling variety of films available to local cinema-goers. The first movies screened in Singapore in the 1900s were primarily French. It wasn’t long before Hollywood movies comprised the bulk of Western films shown locally. Before 1930, imported films were almost all silent. Sound films or ‘talkies’ that revolutionised the film industry entered Singapore cinemas to a warm reception.

Asian films which resonated well with local populace were hugely successful in the Malayan box office. Chinese and Indian movies were imported into Singapore in the 1920s. Shaw Brothers dominated the business, bringing in films made in Shanghai and Hong Kong. While Bollywood movies had a large following among the Indian plantation workers in Malaya, their appeal extended beyond the Indian community – many movies were subtitled in other languages such as English and Malay. In the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore was the centre for Malay film production with the Shaw Organisation and Cathay-Keris studios making movies prolifically and distributing them in the region.

Film distributors and exhibitors published many entertainment magazines, which played a vital role in advertising movies. Replete with movie ads and reviews, pictorial features and celebrity gossips, these magazines fed the public’s penchant for entertainment news. Movie ads typically featured the lead artistes as a major selling point – a tried and tested strategy still prevalent today.


Evening Escapades

The New World, Great World and Happy World amusement parks were major entertainment hubs in Singapore from the 1920s to the 1960s. Operating daily from 6 p.m. until midnight, they offered visitors varied entertainment for an admission fee of a few cents. Their success and popularity lay in their ability to provide ordinary folk, regardless of their social standing and spending power, a place to escape from the mundanities of life and to find thrills in the after-work hours.

From their advertisements, a plethora of leisure activities was available: Chinese operas in various dialects, Malay Bangsawan opera, an open air café with live singing (an early form of getai), boxing matches, magic shows, movies in multiple languages, fun rides, cabarets, shopping, food and more. Due to the multicultural blend of entertainments, the ‘Worlds’ attracted people from various social classes and ethnic communities who could mingle and experience leisure offerings of other cultures. The frequent appearance of amusement park ads in tourist guides also shows that the ‘Worlds’ were marketed as unique attractions where visitors could experience local culture.


The Charm of Cabarets

Cabarets were a key attraction of amusement parks and some hotels. Their advertisements invariably highlighted beautiful dance hostesses, or ‘taxi-dancers’, to draw male customers. Patrons could buy dance coupons – a dollar for three – that entitled them to dance with the girl of their choice. Live music and singing were performed at the cabarets and the hostesses had to learn their dance steps well. To outshine their competitors, cabarets also advertised their excellent bands, spacious dance floors and modern comforts. Perhaps, facilities could not compare to the allure of the dance hostesses – as a publicity gimmick, many cabarets held annual competitions for the most popular hostess, based on votes from their patrons. These events lasted more than a week, during which special floor shows were held, adding buzz and colour to the nightspot.



Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.