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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Singapore’s own secret agent

12 05 2010

For all my brushes with Malay cinema in my early childhood which came to me on the black and white Setron television set whilst sitting beside my Bahasa Indonesia speaking grandmother, I somehow never realised until much later that there was a lot more to watch beyond the horror flicks in the form of the Pontianak, or maybe the Orang Minyak (Oily Man), and the occasional ones featuring the crooning P. Ramlee. It wasn’t until I was in secondary school that the exploits of Jefri Zain played by Jins Shamsuddin, our very own home grown secret agent came my attention, perhaps due to a greater awareness brought about by having been caught up with the double O seven craze that was sweeping through the school. My own introduction to Mr Bond was towards the end of my primary school days a few years before that, which came in the form of an Ian Fleming novel Dr No, which I received as a Christmas present.

Mat Bond Title Scene

Somehow, it was another local version of Bond that caught our attention as secondary schoolboys. Jefri Zain was perhaps a little too Bond like for us, and it was our Mr. Bond, the Secret, Secret Agent, Mat Bond that many of us became fans of. Mat Bond was a parody of James Bond and perhaps Jefri Zain, produced by a rival studio of the one that was producing Jefri Zain.

Mat Sentul as Mat Bond navigating through the bobby trapped opening scene.

Back in the fabulous fifties and swinging sixties, Singapore’s movie making industry was in its heyday, with two film studios the Shaw Malay Film Productions and Catahy Keris competing for the Malay speaking market. There were some fabulous productions, mostly made in black and white that had audiences enthralled, and out of this came productions such as Jefri Zain produced by Shaw and Mat Bond by Cathay Keris. We were great fans of Mat Bond, played by Mat Sentul, a Singaporean comedian known in the 1980s for his role as the title character Mat Yoyo in the popular Malay children’s television programme. He was never without his trusty umbrella – his secret weapon, which more often than not, came to his rescue when he found himself in a difficult situation.

Escape from being held in an aeroplane - Mat Bond flushes himself out of the toilet and uses his trusty umbrella as a parachute.

What made us fans of Mat Bond was perhaps the hilarity that the character brought, or perhaps the delivery of wonderful guitar soundtrack by The Pretenders, a Malay Pop Yeh Yeh band. The opening scene was brilliant and possibly set the mood for the parody, as we see Mat Bond navigating through a bobby trapped passageway, to reach a toilet where he pulls on the flush and down the toilet goes, into a secret chamber below. The most memorable scene had Mat Bond being held in a passenger jet from which he escapes by flushing himself out of the plane’s toilet, and once out into the air, his trusty umbrella opens as a parachute. I can’t help but think back to the many times I watched Mat Bond in action with a smile on my face. I certainly was grateful we had our very own secret agent, not for ridding the world of evil, but for giving us more than a few chuckles.