Singapore’s ‘Cinema-Age’ of the 1930s: Hollywood and the shaping of Singapore modernity
CHUA Ai Lin
AbstractCinema-going was the most popular form of entertainment in 1930s Singapore, with an estimated 8000 viewers filling twenty screens each night in the city by 1936. About seventy per cent films screened were American and many large Hollywood studios had distribution offices in Singapore. A entire supporting field consumption shaped by film fandom culture emerged, from film magazines to sales in gramophone records and wireless broadcasting of popular soundtracks and live performances in dance halls at entertainment parks, called the ‘Worlds’—such as Great World and Happy World. There were diverse reactions to this social phenomenon from different quarters. The colonial government was alarmed at the perceived influence of decadent Hollywood films on a native audience in terms of moral vices and crime. Religious bodies and older members of the local non-European community were brought in to sit on the Cinematograph Films Censorship Annual Committee. Drawing from the Anglophone print media, this paper aims to document local audiences’ voices in the highly-debated topic of censorship. The existence of a large corpus of English-language publications produced in inter-war Singapore for a local, non- European audience is testimony to the depth of the domestic, English language public sphere, which cut across diverse ethnic backgrounds and sharing a common framework of English-language education and cultural references. This paper will argue that America films played a crucial role in influencing social changes in Singapore, particularly amongst young people and women, as well as in shaping the identity of Singapore as a distinctly modern city.
Keywords: cinema, leisure, entertainment, consumer culture, cultural entrepreneurship, popular culture, women, youth, race, modernity, colonial Singapore, Malaya, British Empire, Hollywood
Chua Ai Lin is an Assistant Professor at the Department of History, National University of Singapore. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2008, with a thesis entitled, ‘Modernity, Popular Culture and Urban Life: Anglophone Asians in Colonial Singapore, 1920-1940’, the material upon which this chapter is based. Her publications include ‘Imperial subjects, straits citizens: Anglophone Asians and the struggle for political rights in inter-war Singapore’ in Paths Not Taken, edited by Michael Barr and Carl Trocki (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008), ‘The modern magic carpet: wireless radio in interwar colonial Singapore’ in Modern Asian Studies46(1) (Jan 2012) and ‘Nation, race, and language: discussing transnational identities in colonial Singapore, circa 1930’ Singapore’ in Modern Asian Studies46(2) (Mar 2012).