8 facts about the Cathay building that S’poreans should know as the iconic cinema closes
8 facts about the Cathay Building spanning decades of history
Many Singaporeans reacted with sadness to news that the Cathay Cinema was closing after Sunday (June 26).
But the closure is just the latest event to occur in the many decades of the life of the iconic Cathay building that houses the cinema.
As we bid farewell to his film operations, at least for a while, Singaporeans might want to know what other experiences he had.
Here are eight facts about the old building that we can add to our memory banks as a reminder of the good old days.
1. The Cathay Building is 83 years old
Although it doesn’t look that old now, the Cathay building is actually older than some of our grandparents.
The building opened on October 3, 1939, according to the National Library Board (NLB), making it 83 years old this year.
And the Cathay Cinema, which began operations that day, was the first to open. This means that Singapore loses a real institution from June 27, when there will be no more Cathay Cinemas.
The rest of the building, i.e. the main block, was completed in 1941.
2. The cinema was the first air-conditioned public space
Air conditioning is ubiquitous in Singapore’s indoor spaces to combat the sometimes unbearable heat and humidity.
But the first air-conditioned public space in Singapore was none other than The Cathay Cinema.
The 1,321-seat theatre, with its black marble pillars, green tiled floors and gilded ceilings, must have been considered very chic at the time.
3. It was once the tallest building in Singapore
As we gaze at the many skyscrapers of downtown Singapore, it may be hard to believe that the Cathay Building’s 16-story main tower was the tallest in the country when it was completed in 1941.
Although the actual height of the building is 70m, its roof was 87m from the street level as it sits on the slope of Mount Sophia.
From its roof, you could see as far as the port of Singapore at that time.
It was surpassed 13 years later by the Asia Insurance Building.
4. He broadcast military information during World War II
The Cathay building played an important role during the turbulent period of World War II.
His radio station provided information about the advancing Japanese army.
Unfortunately, a few people died when the cinema was attacked by shells in February 1942, before the British surrendered.
5. The Japanese army exhibited severed heads here
During the Japanese occupation, the Cathay Building was used by the Japanese Broadcasting Department, transmitting Radio Syonan from there.
The Japanese Propaganda Department and the Military Information Office also used the cinema’s facilities to screen Japanese films and pro-Japanese propaganda films.
However, the exterior of the building had a much more macabre purpose.
Real decapitated human heads were displayed there, stuck on poles – they belonged to looters and other army victims. It served as a warning to those who would challenge the occupiers.
6. Its founder was a businessman and a movie buff
A mansion belonging to the influential tycoon Loke Yew once stood on the site where the Cathay Building now stands.
Loke Yew’s son Loke Wan Tho founded Cathay Organization and The Cathay Cinema, which owns the building until now.
Loke was also the first president of the NLB.
After the war, Loke rebuilt the film industry, making Cathay the first major cinema to resume operations, according to the NLB.
He even moved into film production, establishing his own studio – Cathay-Keris Studio – which was behind a host of Malaysian and Chinese films.
Consolidating all of his family’s cinemas under Cathay, his empire was strongest in the 1950s and 1960s.
Unfortunately, Loke died prematurely in a plane crash in 1964 while leaving Taiwan. He had attended a film festival in Taipei with his wife a few days before.
7. There was a hotel there
Few Singaporeans know that in addition to a cinema and a restaurant, there was also a hotel in the building.
The Cathay Hotel, which opened in January 1954, initially had 60 rooms, but later expanded to 170 rooms.
Along with a restaurant, nightclub, swimming pool, and shopping arcade, the hotel also had ballrooms that hosted meetings and dinners attended by celebrities and VIPs.
However, the hotel closed in December 1970.
8. It’s a national monument, so its facade can’t be touched
In 2003, the Cathay building was listed as a national monument due to its historical value.
At the time, the building was undergoing redevelopment – a project which began in 2000 and which required the temporary closure of the cinema.
Because of this status, the building’s famous art deco facade had to be preserved, including the rounded, stepped walls and the vertical signage that spells the word “Cathay”.
The rest of the building, however, could use some updating — which explains its current half-retro-half-modern look.
The refurbished building was reopened in 2006, along with a multiplex.
Following the decline of the cinema business, Cathay Organization sold it to mm2 Asia in 2017.
However, they still retain ownership of the Cathay Building.
On June 17, mm2 Asia announced that it would end its cinema business in the Cathay Building, leaving it without a cinema for only the second time in 83 years.
The Cathay building has a rich history
The Cathay Building is not just a landmark perched at the end of Orchard Road, but a rich repository of history.
Although the building will remain, things will not be the same without a cinema as the Cathay name is inextricably linked to the business.
Hopefully, when The Projector takes over in August, they continue this tradition with flying colors.
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Featured image adapted from National Archives of Singapore and MS News.