Where legends of the silver screen had once set foot on: No. 8 Jalan Ampas

11 11 2010

It may not be a surprise to some that the legendary Malaysian actor, singer, songwriter and director, P. Ramlee had actually plied his trade and made his mark on the silver screen from a studio that was located in Singapore, the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions (MFP). However, it may surprise some that a few of the buildings that were associated with the studio still stand, albeit somewhat obscurely and forgotten and dwarfed by the many commercial and residential developments that now surround its compound at No. 8 Jalan Ampas, off Balestier Road in Singapore.

Lying somewhat hidden amongst commercial and residential properties is the former Shaw Brothers' Studio at Jalan Ampas.

It was back in the late 1940s, the 1950s and the early 1960s, that the studios at No. 8 had its best days, rising to become the most successful Malay film production house of the time. It was also during that time when as a young and aspiring actor at the studios, P. Ramlee, not only made his mark as an actor and a singer and songwriter, but also very quickly as an award winning movie producer and director. P. Ramlee was responsible for over 70 films and 200 songs before his departure for the Merdeka Studios in Kuala Lumpur in 1963. P. Ramlee was of course, well known to me in my childhood, having been given many doses of his exploits in black and white whilst seated next to my maternal grandmother in front of the Setron console television.

A nondescript gate leads to hallowed grounds on which the legendary P. Ramlee had once ruled the studios.

Somehow 1963 had been a very eventful year in Singapore, not just because of P. Ramlee moving to Kuala Lumpur, but it was more importantly, the year in which Malaysia was formed, made by the merger of Singapore and the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak into what had been the Federation of Malayan States. More significantly for the MFP though, it was a year which saw the introduction of television in Singapore, and while it certainly benefited my grandmother who was able to obtain the diet she craved of P. Ramlee and Pontianak movies in the comfort and safety of the living room of our flat, it also led to competition for the Malay speaking audience for the film making industry in Singapore, which besides Shaw Brothers, also featured another prominent film studio, Cathay Keris. Ultimately, this, together with a ban imposed on Malaysian productions by Soekarno’s Indonesia during the Konfrontasi (Confrontation), led to a falling demand and the eventual demise of the hitherto very successful Malay film making industry. The MFP, unable to sustain itself in this climate, eventually closed its doors in 1967.

A peek through the gates into a world that might have once been where dreams were made ...

While many of the events had either been before my time, or had passed me by in the bliss of my childhood, I did have some of my own memories of the MFP after its closure. What I would remember most is the view I regularly got of it in passing-by, from the back seat of my father’s car on the many occasions through the late 1960s and during the 1970s that I passed it on my visits to my paternal grandfather (who lived in the area). I had by that time been very aware of the MFP’s role in providing my maternal grandmother with the endless hours of entertainment which probably kept her sane through some of the lonely moments she had living in the confines of our HDB flat. I would in passing-by often look at what I remember as a desolate looking whitewashed walled compound which had a sign that must have read “Malay Film Productions” for me to have been able to have identified it then. I had also, in passing-by, often tried to picture what it would have been like in the days when the career of the legendary P. Ramlee flourished in the studios, wishing sometimes to have an opportunity to see and explore the place, which I never did get to. In time, with the passing of my grandfather the late 1970s giving me no reason to pass by the studios, it had been somewhat forgotten by me.

To the memory of a legend. A modest memorial to the late great P. Ramlee at the former MFP.

The memories of the studios did come back to me only recently, when I, in recalling the comical antics of Mat Bond (which was produced by the rival Cathay Keris studios), also remembered our very own more Bond like Jefri Zain, played by Jins Shamsudin, which was made at MFP, and the MFP along with it. I had intended for some time, to take a walk of rediscovery in the area where the MFP was (I wasn’t even sure if it was still around), which I somehow never go to doing. It was by sheer coincidence, a group involved in this concept of Urban Exploration, which I was only very recently introduced to, the One° North Explorers, obtained permission to visit the former studios and were kind enough to extend an invitation to me (see One° North Explorers’ post about the exploration of the studios) – an invitation at which I was quick to jump at. It wasn’t for me, so much a walk down memory lane, as I am often inclined to do, as it was to satisfy that unfulfilled childhood desire to see and explore the hallowed grounds that my grandmother’s silver screen hero, P. Ramlee, had once trodden upon.

Where the more serious of the two local Bond like characters, not Mat Bond, but Jefri Zain, was created.

There isn’t really a lot to remind us of the past use of the abandoned buildings which stand silently and forgotten in the compound at No. 8 Jalan Ampas. For one, they are well hidden behind a nondescript gate that one might only notice because of the two misspelt signs that might convince vehicle owners not to park there. There is however, an easily missed marker that does stand just by the gates, which does tell of the forgotten past and of the fact that it wasn’t just local legends whose feet had once trodden on the grounds, but also the feet of hallowed legends of Hollywood, including John Wayne and Ava Gardner. Beyond this, there is perhaps only the faded Shaw Brothers (SB) logo at the top of one of the buildings that gives away a clue to its past.

Information on the Shaw MFP Studio on the marker at No. 8 Jalan Ampas.

A scene from the filming of the last movie to be made at the studios in 1967, Raja Berslong.

I guess I would have been disappointed if I had expected to find much that would have connected the buildings with their glorious past, with most of what had equipped the rooms within the buildings disposed off in the 1970s. However, being there just for the opportunity to satisfy that desire to see and explore, I was quite happy to discover there were indeed some little reminders, this despite most of the equipment there having been moved out, and also the four decades of relative neglect. Within buildings that are still in relatively good condition, beyond the external walls that exhibit some of the ravages of weather and time, were rooms illuminated by the soft glow of light filtered through frosted and textured window panes which did hold a few things that connected the buildings with its past: contraptions that might have perhaps been old film dryers, old reels, posters and photographs that would have been used in promoting movies produced or distributed by the studios … Although that wasn’t really enough to go on to allow me to have a feel of what the buildings might had once been like when perhaps it was the Hollywood of South East Asia, it did not leave me the least disappointed, for at last, some three and a half decades since I last set my eyes on the old buildings behind the wall, I got the chance I had longed for – to have a look around the grounds where the great P. Ramlee had once trodden upon. And, for some reason beyond my comprehension, it felt as if I was home again.

The visit to the former MFP offered me a chance to see and explore the hallowed grounds that I had previously only had a peek at ...

Reminders of a forgotten past ...

Much of the former MFP although worn by the weather and time from four decades of neglect is still in relatively good condition.

The SB logo on top of the building ...

Reminders of the past ...

Evidence of a forgotten time when the MFP ruled the silver screen.

More evidence of the glorious past ...

The Directors' Rooms ... one had been where P. Ramlee had worked from ...

Perhaps Room A?

Some of the current residents of the prestigious address ...

Except for the weather worn walls and a few broken panes of glass ... the studios seemed to have aged pretty well.

A record book ...

A few more scenes from the MFP …

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A pauper’s house under the jackfruit tree?

24 05 2010

In Singapore, we have grown accustomed to the many names by which places could be referred to by the different ethnic groups. While this usually revolves around either a translation of what the name means in a different language or the pronunciation especially in the case where a proper name is involved. Once in a while, we do come across a set of names that when translated; takes meanings which seem completely different from one another, which is the case with an area that was once known as Rumah Miskin.

The area that was once called Rumah Miskin and also Mangka-kah, seen today.

I had become acquainted with the area early in my life, passing through on the back of a bechak (trishaw). This was on the many trips accompanying my maternal grandmother to an area a little further away that she referred to as Kampong Jawa. My impression of the area had always been that of the longish building with a staircase that had a wooden banister visible from Balestier Road. The building had been part of the Rumah Miskin Police Station, which had stood as a landmark at the corner of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road for many years. The name, Rumah Miskin translated as “Pauper’s House”, had always been a source of fascination for me. My grandmother, who had in all probability not put much thought into the origins of the name, was not able to offer much to satisfy my curiosity as to the origins of the area’s name. Unable to find an explanation, I allowed my imagination provide the explanation, and for a while, I had the impression that the building with the staircase must have once been that home for the poor.

Another view of the Rumah Miskin area today.

It was later in life that I learnt of another intriguing name by which the area had been referred to. Rumah Miskin was used by the Malay and English speaking communities, and the Chinese speaking community had referred to the area as Mangka-kah, which in Hokkien or Teochew, could be taken to mean “jackfruit leg” (possibly at the foot of or in the shadow of the jackfruit tree) or perhaps “mosquito bitten leg”. The former does seem quite plausible as an explanation of the origins of the name, and as some would have it, that came from jackfruit groves that were thought to have existed in the area. I was also told later that there was another interpretation of “jackfruit leg” that could provide another possible explanation for the name, which unrelated as it may sound, does seem to have something to do with the Malay name for the area.

The Rumah Miskin area is also where another landmark, the Kwang Wai Shiu Hospital, which had recently been in the news for the hefty increase in rent following a renewal on its 99 year lease, which expired this February, stands. The hospital was known as the Kwang Wai Shiu Free Hospital then, and did, as the name suggests, provide free treatment for the less fortunate. My grandmother had herself visited the outpatient clinic there on many occasions in the 1970s, when she found that it was more affordable (despite having to pay for the treatment) than the Rakyat Clinic that she used along Balestier Road. The hospital had started in 1910 with buildings that had been inherited from the original pauper’s hospital, Tan Tock Seng, when that moved to Moulmein Road in 1909. That set of buildings were demolished sometime in the early 1950s to make way for the hospital buildings that we see today. It was actually from the pauper’s hospital that the area took its name, the hospital being a home for infirmed and poor, hence the name Rumah Miskin. As to what this has got to do with the name Mangka-kah, the explanation was that the name originated with the sight of patients of the hospital hobbling around on their diseased legs which could be observed in the area – the wounds and sores on their legs of these patients were said to resemble a jackfruit, hence “jackfruit leg”. Whichever explanation for the origins of the name Mangka-kah, it would probably be difficult to establish today.

The Kwan Wai Shiu Hospital building was rebuilt in the early 1950s.

Information board on Kwan Wai Shiu Hospital.

Today, all we see is an empty plot of land at the junction where the Rumah Miskin Police Station had stood as a landmark. The buildings had been used as a halfway house for drug addicts by the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA) when the Police Station closed its doors around 1975, and for a while later, became the premises of the Indian Fine Arts Society, before being demolished. With the demise of the buildings, the names Rumah Miskin and Mangka-kah seem to have perished as well – I have not heard of it being used for quite a long while now. With this, there is somehow a sense of loss and sadness, not just at the passing of another landmark, but also with a name that would soon be lost with time.

The buildings of the Rumah Miskin Police Station are conspicuously absent from the plot of land where they once served as a landmark.

Another view of the junction where the Rumah Miskin Police Station once stood.

Some old buildings still stand in the area ...

As wrecking equipment stand threateningly in the vicinity.