Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Fiona


Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre (牛车水人民剧场) was built in 1969, funded by public donations. The theatre was revamped several times, including a complete overhaul that was completed in May 1979, before it became the well-equipped theatre seen on 30A Kreta Ayer Road today. Run by the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre Foundation, it continues to bring arts and culture to the public with a strong emphasis on Chinese opera, and with a keen sense of social responsibility.

Reviving Chinese opera
Considered by some as a successor of Lai Chun Yuen Theatre, the centre of opera in Chinatown before World War II, Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre champions Chinese opera in Singapore.1

Wayang, or Chinese street opera, had been a source of popular public entertainment in Singapore since the early colonial period. The social and political unrest of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the rise of alternative forms of entertainment such as film, however, contributed to its decline. This decline was partially mitigated in the 1960s with the increasing popularity of opera films and the reintroduction of overseas opera troupes, which raised the standards of local amateur troupes.2

Distinguishing itself from the other English-language centric performing arts venues of its time, such as the Victoria Memorial Hall and National Theatre, the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre, which opened in 1969, was a strong boost to the revival of the Chinese opera scene in Singapore.3

The Kreta Ayer Community Centre management saw the need for a permanent stage for cultural shows and celebrations, and in December 1967, a fund-raising drive was held at the old National Theatre for such a venue to be built.4 Previously, temporary stages had to be constructed and dismantled within the community centre, which was an arrangement that wasted both time and resources.5

On 10 August 1968, the foundation stone of what was then known as the “Kreta Ayer People’s Stage” was laid by Goh Keng Swee, then Minister for Finance and Member of Parliament (MP) for the Kreta Ayer Constituency.6 Initially conceived as a permanent open-air stage on Banda Hill, the enthusiastic response to the fund-raising exercise enabled an expansion of plans for a sizeable and fully-equipped theatre instead that catered better to the needs of the constituency.7 On 23 January 1969, the project-in-progress was renamed the “Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre”.8

The construction of the theatre, which cost approximately $100,000, was completed in the middle of March 1969. It opened its doors to the public, as an open-air stage with concrete flooring, on 24 March 1969. The opening of the theatre was celebrated with nine successive evenings of diverse performances by groups such as the People’s Association and National Theatre Trust cultural troupes, Kreta Ayer Community Centre Cantonese Opera Group, Kum Loong Cantonese Opera Troupe, Chin Woo Athletic Association, Kok Sing Musical Association, opera performers from Hong Kong, as well as Rediffusion and Singapore Television and Broadcasting Corporation artistes.9

Further improvements, such as a permanent roof and replacing the cemented stage floor with teakwood boards, raised the total cost of construction to $250,000 by the time of the theatre's official opening on 16 May 1971, which was officiated by then Minister for Culture Jek Yeun Thong.10 The theatre had a stage measuring 64 ft by 45 ft (19.5 m by 13.7 m) with a height of 18 ft (5.5 m), which was located within a 1,500-seater auditorium measuring 73 ft by 80 ft (22.3 m by 24.4 m).11 These improvements were financed through various fund-raising shows arranged by Chinese theatre groups, ranging from the foreign Peck Wan Tin Cantonese Opera Troupe in 1969, to the Singaporean Rediffusion Hokkien Dramatic Troupe in 1970.12 Indian film star Raj Kapoor also helped the theatre raise $10,000 by making an appearance at a film premiere held at Odeon Theatre in 1971.13

Between 1972 and 1974, a building extension which cost almost $220,000 enabled the construction of improved roads around the theatre, a separate lavatory block, a ticket booth, upgraded lighting systems and a sound effects control room.14 This was made possible through more fund-raising performances, which included a premier screening of the film Boat by Chong Gay Theatres Ltd, and a gala show put up by Rediffusion stars.15

As the arts scene in Singapore evolved, the facilities of this wall-less theatre gradually became inadequate to meet the demands of performances and audiences.16 From January 1978 to May 1979, the theatre underwent a complete reconstruction costing more than $1 million.17 The new theatre was now fully air-conditioned, had 1,102 permanent cushioned seats arranged in tiers, facilities to screen films, and a larger stage, measuring 74 ft by 45 ft (22.6 m by 13.7 m ) with an increased height of 27 ft (8.2 m), which could accommodate a symphony orchestra and larger-scale performances.18

The Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre continued to upgrade its facilities to meet the expectations of performers and audiences alike, including the most recent revamp of the sound system in 2002.19

Since the theatre’s establishment in 1969, its day-to-day activities have been managed by a management committee, while the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre Foundation is managed by a board of directors. This board, and its preceding trustee committee, was chaired by Goh Keng Swee until 1985. The foundation was registered as a non-profit organisation on 21 May 1975.20

Playing a crucial leadership role in the management of the foundation, Goh chaired the board up till 1985.21 Parliamentary representatives for Kreta Ayer constituents often played leading roles in the management of the foundation. They include Richard Hu Tse Tau, who succeeded Goh from 1986 to 2001, and Lee Boon Yang, who took on the role as chairman of the board of governors in 2002.22 Other prominent government officials who had served in the foundation and management committee include Lee Wai Kok, director of the People’s Association and chairman of the management committee from 1971 to 197623 and, his successor, Phua Bah Lee, who was an MP for Tampines and a senior parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Defence.24

Though many of its leaders have been prominent civil servants, the theatre is run solely by earnings from performances and public donations, and is not financially supported by the government.25 The government does, however, support the theatre and its work through tax exemptions for public donations and entertainment duties.26

Heeding Goh’s two main objectives of promoting the arts and helping the needy when he chaired the board, the foundation continues to promote affordable cultural events in Kreta Ayer and help the needy, especially those in the constituency, through programmes such as its annual distribution of hongbao (which means “red-packet” in Chinese) to low-income elderly constituents with profits made from the theatre.27 The foundation has also actively donated funds to community institutions such as the Yew Tee Old People’s Home, the Kreta Ayer Education Centre and the Kreta Ayer Community Home for the Aged.28

In 1980, the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre Foundation set up Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre Private Limited in partnership with Cathay Organisation Private Limited to facilitate the screening of Cathay’s first-run films. The Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre Private Limited was liquidated in 2002 when film screenings ceased at the theatre due to stiff competition from modern cineplexes in Chinatown.29

To date, the Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre has staged more than 1,000 performances. Distinguished guests who have attended performances at the theatre include various public office holders and even members of the British royal family, who attended a performance during the Chinese Opera Week held on 19 February, 1972.30

The theatre is well known for staging Chinese opera performances, especially Cantonese opera, attracting both internationally renowned opera stars and local opera troupes to grace its stage. Notable performers include: Hong Xiannü (红线女) in 1980, a movie and Cantonese opera diva of the 1950s; China's Xiamen Hokkien Opera Troupe in 1985, which earned a record profit of $300,000;31 and Guangdong's Foshan Cantonese Opera Troupe in 1991, which performed to a full-house theatre for a record of 28 nights.32

Profits from some of the performances were donated for charitable purposes. For instance, proceeds for the sold-out performances lined up for the theatre’s 30th anniversary celebrations were donated to Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital and Apex Harmony Lodge. The foundation has also donated proceeds from performances to community centre building funds, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Singapore Science Centre and local opera group, Chinese Theatre Circle.33

Though most of the performances staged at the theatre were Chinese operas, there were some exceptions in its earlier years. Examples include: Sumatra Night held on 18 October 1973, which featured Indonesian cultural performances; Russian acrobatic shows co-organised with the National Theatre on 11 November 1973; and a touring American Jazz band performance on 23 April 1974.34 However, these non-Chinese performances remained exceptions rather than the rule.35

Other forms of Chinese-language entertainment staged at the theatre include popular music concerts in the 1970s organised by Rediffusion, a popular Singapore cable-transmitted radio station, and acrobatic acts from Anhui organised by the Ngee Ann Foundation in 2000.36

Fiona Tan

1. Kreta Ayer Citizens' Consultative Committee, Singapore, Kreta Ayer: Faces and Voices (Singapore: Kreta Ayer Citizens' Consultative Committee, 1994), 27. (Call no. RSING 959.57 KRE-[HIS])
2. National Archives, Singapore, Wayang: A History of Chinese Opera in Singapore (Singapore: National Archives, 1988), 59. (Call no. RSING 792.095957 WAY)
3. National Archives, Singapore, Wayang, 59.
4. “From Makeshift Stages to a New Home,” Straits Times, 3 January 2000, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee 牛车水人民剧场庆祝重建开幕工作委员会, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan牛车水人民剧场庆祝重建开幕特刊 [Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Souvenir magazine] (Singapore: [Working Committee to celebrate the opening of the theatre's reconstruction], 1979), 17. (Call no. Chinese RCLOS 792.095957 KRE)
6. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 17.
7. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre 牛车水人民剧场, Renmin juchang jinian kan 人民剧场纪念刊 [People's Theatre souvenir magazine] (Singapore: People's Theatre, 1972). (Call no. Chinese RSING q792.9095957 PEO)
8. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 17, 28.
9. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 17, 28.
10. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 17, 28.
11. “Roof for Kreta Ayer Theatre after Five Years,” Straits Times, 10 May 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, Renmin juchang jinian kan.
13. “Millionaire Actor's Movie to Net $10,000,” Straits Times, 6 July 1971, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Leong Weng Kam, “Theatre's Past and Present,” Straits Times, 22 October 1981, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15.  Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, Renmin juchang jinian kan.
16. “Our Journey,” Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, accessed 2010.
17. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, “Our Journey.”
18. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 18–19.
19. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, “Our Journey.”
20. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, “Our Journey.”
21. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, “Our Journey.”
22. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, “Our Journey.”
23. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 32–33.
24. Leong Weng Kam, “Taking Opera to the People,” Straits Times, 8 July 2001, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, “Our Journey.”
26. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 18.
27. Leong Weng Kam, “Opera's Star,” Straits Times, 3 January 2000, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 18.
29. “Kreta Ayer Theatre Not Wound Up,” Straits Times, 15 November 2002, 26 (From NewspaperSG); Kreta Ayer People's Theatre Opening Celebrations Committee, Niu che shui renmin juchang qingzhu chongjian kaimu tekan, 19.
30. Kreta Ayer People's Theatre, Renmin juchang jinian kan.
31. Leong, “Opera's Star.”
32. Leong, “Taking Opera to the People.”
33. Leong, “Opera's Star.”
34. Xu Yongshun 许永顺, You jian niu che shui又见牛车水 [Chinatown, again] (Singapore: Hui Yong Shun Studio, 2004), 33. (Call no. Chinese RSING 959.5705 XYS-[HIS])
35. Xu Yongshun, You jian niu che shui, 33.
36. Xu Yongshun, You jian niu che shui, 34, 38–39.

The information in this article is valid as of 21 January 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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