Cathay Building

Singapore Infopedia


Cathay Building, located at the foot of Mount Sophia in the Dhoby Ghaut area, was once the tallest building in Singapore.1 It used to house the Cathay cinema, Cathay Hotel and Cathay Restaurant.2 The cinema was opened in 1939 in the front building, while the main tower behind was completed in 1941.3 In the early years of World War II, Cathay Building housed the offices of the Malayan Broadcasting Corporation. After Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942, the building became home to the Japanese Propaganda Department.4 On 10 February 2003, Cathay Building was gazetted as a national monument. Following a major redevelopment, the building was reopened in 2006 as The Cathay.5

At the foot of Mount Sophia (originally known as Bukit Selegie), where the Cathay Building now stands, there once stood a Victorian-style building. It housed the family of prominent businessman Teo Hoo Lye6 as well as a confectionery and cake shop run by a European, Louis Molteni.7 The property was later purchased by the family of the late Loke Yew, and in 1937 the land was cleared for the construction of Cathay Building.8

The 16-storey Cathay Building was designed by architect Frank Brewer and cost $1 million to build. Sitting on the slope of Mount Sophia, Cathay Building was 87 m high from the street level to the top. However, minus the height of the slope at the rear of the building, the actual height of the building was 70 m. It stood as the tallest building in Singapore at the time when its main tower was completed in 1941. This status was overtaken by the Asia Insurance Building in 1954.9

Formation years
Cathay Cinema, located in the front block, was the first section to be completed.10 Opened on 3 October 1939, the 1,321-seat cinema had black marble pillars, green-tiled floors and gold ceilings. It was also the first public space to be equipped with air-conditioning in Singapore. The opening film was the British adventure movie, Four Feathers, starring Ralph Richardson and C. Audrey Smith. The band from the 2nd Battalion (North Lancashire) Royal Regiment performed before the 9.15 pm premiere.11

The Cathay Restaurant, located on the fourth floor of the front block, was opened in early 1941, while the main block was completed in August 1941. The tallest building in Singapore at the time, the 16-storey main tower stood above the cinema and restaurant and had a total of 80 apartments.12

World War II and Japanese Occupation
By early December 1941, the Cathay cinema was one of the few places left for relaxation in those anxious times, screening movies despite dwindling audiences. With the war imminent, the main building was rented out to the government and the British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation.13 Five floors were occupied by broadcast studios and administration, and two floors by the Ministry of Economic Warfare, while the Royal Air Force occupied two rooms on another floor.14

On 8 February 1942, when the Japanese accelerated their attacks on Singapore, the radio station broadcast updates on enemy advances from their studios in the building. It has been estimated that the cinema was hit by at least 14 shells in February 1942, with one striking on 15 February after noon. The latter killed a few Australians who were in the hall, which was then being used for shelter and refuge.15 That evening, the British surrendered to the Japanese.16

Following the fall of Singapore, the Japanese Broadcasting Department moved into Cathay Building and took over the existing broadcasting facilities. In March 1942, the department began transmissions of Radio Syonan from there. Later, their Propaganda Department Headquarters and Military Information Bureau were also located there. The restaurant became the dining room for Japanese military officers stationed in the building. Occasional film screenings were held for the public, and these films were from existing stock in the storerooms. The fourth-floor preview theatre screened American movies exclusively for Japanese officers. Outside the building, there were human heads stuck on poles; these were beheaded looters and other victims of the Japanese military.17

After liberation
When the war was over, former staff were rounded up to help reopen the cinema.18 At 3 pm on 23 September 1945, the public saw its first postwar film, Desert Victory.19 With the Pavilion and Alhambra theatres reserved for the services personnel, and Capitol out of action because of a fire, Cathay became the centre for film entertainment in postwar Singapore.20

Cathay Building became the headquarters for Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia, from November 1945 to November 1946.21 It was also the headquarters of Governor General Malcolm MacDonald and Special Commissioner Lord Killearn.22 Other occupants included the Far Eastern Disposal Board, British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation (which resumed broadcast of Radio Malaya after the war),23 Navy Intelligence Branch and the American Club (1946–53).24

The owner of the building, Cathay Organisation, eventually regained control of the building, and Cathay Restaurant was reopened on 1 May 1948.25 On 9 January 1954, Cathay Hotel opened with 60 rooms,26 eventually expanding to 170 rooms. The hotel was one of the prime meeting places for celebrities, tourists and families. It had a restaurant, nightclub, swimming pool and shopping arcade.27

Cathay Hotel closed down on 30 December 1970. By July 1974, the 10 floors formerly part of the hotel had been converted into office premises. The tower housed the headquarters of Cathay Organisation until just before its redevelopment in 2000.28

In November 1971, the five-storey Cathay Apartments was completed.29 This was erected above a five-storey carpark built the year before.30

A new three-storey building was later erected between the Cathay Building and the multistorey carpark.31 Completed in 1990, this section housed a restaurant and a small cinema called The Picturehouse, which focused on art films.32 The new cinema was opened on 16 November 1990, with an initial ticket charge of S$6 per person.33

Redevelopment: 2000s
In 1999, Cathay Organisation put up a S$100-million plan to redevelop Cathay Building. While waiting for the plan to be approved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Cathay Organisation was informed by the Preservation of Monuments Board (now known as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments) that the building had been identified as a possible landmark for preservation because of its history, especially considering the events that took place there during World War II.34 The cinemas at Cathay Building had their final curtain call on 30 June 2000.35

In November 2000, the board introduced a new monument preservation scheme that allowed the partial redevelopment of historical buildings that were privately owned and being used commercially. On 10 February 2003, Cathay Building and MacDonald House became the first to be gazetted under this new scheme.36 In Cathay Building’s case, the art deco facade of the building was to be preserved, while the rest of the building would be redeveloped.37

On 24 March 2006, the redeveloped former Cathay Building was officially opened as The Cathay.38 The new complex was designed by Japanese architect Paul Tange of Tange Associates. The building’s key feature is its glass facade that incorporates the original brown-tiled facade of the old Cathay Building. Within the complex, there is a shopping mall, which occupies the first four floors of the building, and a multiplex. The multiplex includes the Grand Cathay, which is the largest hall, and the Picturehouse, which continues to screen arthouse fare.39 On the second floor of the shopping mall is the Cathay Gallery, which showcases the history of the Cathay Building and the Loke family.40 The rest of the building consists of a residential block.41

In November 2017, Cathay Organisation sold its cinema business to the entertainment company mm2 Asia, but retained some assets such as the Cathay Building in Handy Road and The Cathay Cineleisure Orchard Mall in Orchard Road.42


Vernon Cornelius-Takahama & Ong Eng Chuan

1. Kelvin Tong, “Akan Datang: Cathay’s New Home,” Straits Times, 4 April 2000, 4; “Cathay Building and YMCA Orchard Had a Grim Past,” Straits Times, 31 July 1995, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
2. David Brazil, Street Smart: Singapore (Singapore: Times Books International, 1991), 128. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BRA-[HIS])
3. Kelvin Tong, “Curtains to Fall on Cathay Building,” Straits Times, 4 April 2000, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Cathay Building and YMCA Orchard.”
5. The Preservation of Monuments Order 2003, Sp.S 60/2003, Government Gazette. Subsidiary Legislation Supplement, 10 February 2003, 370. (Call no. RSING 348.5957 SGGSLS)
6. Lim Kay Tong, Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991), 15 (Call no. RSING 791.43095957 LIM); Victor R Savage and Brenda S A Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 262, 337. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); S. Ramachandra, “Memories of Old Orchard Road,” Straits Times, 27 July 1950, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Brazil, Street Smart, 128; Lim, Cathay, 97; Ramachandra, “Memories of Old Orchard Road.” 
8. Brazil, Street Smart, 128; Lim, Cathay, 15; “Singapore’s $1,000,000 Cinema,” Straits Times, 8 March 1937, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Singapore's First 'Skyscraper' in the Making,” Malaya Tribune, 10 July 1939, 5; “I Built Highest, He Says,” Straits Times, 31 December 1953, 7; “Tallest Skyscraper Opens,” Singapore Standard, 12 December 1955, 9. (From NewspaperSG); Brazil, Street Smart, 128; Lim, Cathay, 97.
10. “Singapore's First 'Skyscraper'”; “Cathay Cinema Opens Doors Tonight,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884—1942), 3 October 1939, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Lim, Cathay, 15, 98.
12. Lim, Cathay, 98.
13. Lim, Cathay, 98, 100; “Cathay Building and YMCA Orchard.”
14. Lim, Cathay, 98, 100.
15. Lim, Cathay, 100–01.
16. V. T. Arasu and Daljit Singh, Singapore: An IIlustrated History, 1941—1984 (Singapore: Information Division, Ministry of Culture, 1984), 45. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
17. Lim, Cathay, 100–02.
18. Lim, Cathay, 102.
19. Brazil, Street Smart, 128–29.
20. Lim, Cathay, 102.
21. Brazil, Street Smart, 128–29; Lim, Cathay, 104.
22. Lim, Cathay, 104.
23. Lim, Cathay, 104.
24. Lim, Cathay, 103–04.
25. “Gay Scenes at Reopening,” Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 2 May 1948, 1; “Cathay Roof Garden,” Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 4; “Liquidate The Cathay Restaurant Opens May 1, Morning Tribune, 17 April 1948, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Studios Turn into a Plush Hotel,” Singapore Standard, 9 January 1954, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Lim, Cathay, 108.
28. Lim, Cathay, 108, 110; Jane Beamish and Jane Ferguson, A History of Singapore Architecture: The Making of a City (Singapore: G. Brash, 1985), 142. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 BE); “Bye, Cathay,” New Paper, 4 April 2000, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Lim, Cathay, 110.
30. “Cathay Hotel to Spend $6 Mil on Expansion,” Straits Times, 16 May 1970, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Lim, Cathay, 110.
31. “The Picturehouse Opens,” (1990, November 17). Straits Times, 17 November 1990, 31; Vivien Chiong, “A Cinema for Serious Film-Lovers,” New Paper, 17 September 1990, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Picturehouse Opens”; Chuang Peck Ming, “Disruptions Fail to Ruffle KFC’s Feathers,” Business Times, 24 December 1990, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Picturehouse Opens.”
34. Leong Weng Kam, “Landmark Building May Yet Be Saved,” Straits Times, 6 April 2000, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Michelle Ho, “Last Movie Show at the Old Cathay,” Straits Times, 1 July 2000, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Cheah Ui-Hoon and Parvathi Nayar, “Practical Approach Adopted to Preserve Buildings,” Business Times, 2 November 2000, 9; “Three National Monuments Added,” Business Times, 11 February 2003, 9. (From NewspaperSG); Preservation of Monuments Order 2003, 370.
37. “Alexandra Hospital May Be Gazetted as National Monument,” Straits Times, 15 November 2000, 14; Desmond Ng, “Akan Datang,” New Paper, 27 November 2002, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Ong Sor Fern, “The Cathay Reopens,” Straits Times, 25 March 2006. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Jeanine Tan and Juliana June Rasul, “That Golden Age...,” Today, 25 March 2006, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Ong Sor Fern, “Screen Test,” Straits Times, 15 March 2006, 3. (From NewspaperSG); Ong, “Cathay Reopens.”
40. Cheah Ui-Hoon, “Take a Walk down S’pore’s Cinematic Memory Lane,” Business Times, 13 October 2006, 39. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Ong, “Cathay Reopens.”
42. Wong Kai Yi, “mm2 Asia to Acquire Cathay Cineplexes for $230m after Failed Bid for Golden Village,” Straits Times, 2 November 2017; John Lui, “Cathay Sells Cinema Business,” Straits Times, 2 November 2017, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at September 2020 and correct as far as we can 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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