Glamour and scandal in the skies

16 05 2022

The 1920s in Singapore were exciting times for aviation. Late in 1919, Singapore witnessed its very first inbound flight, a Vickers Vimy which carried four men and which landed at the racecourse (now Farrer Park). In the excitement of seeing the Vimy land, many would have missed the sight of its mechanic, Jim Bennett, sliding along the fuselage toward the aircraft’s tail keep the nose up just before landing. The brave act — the equivalent of flaring on landing today, was quite necessary given the short landing distance required at the makeshift airfield. This would be a pattern for flights into Singapore that would follow, even after a dedicated but still makeshift landing ground had been prepared by filling Government sand pits at Balestier Plain in the early 1920s anticipation of an increase air traffic. 

The first ever flight into and out of Singapore was on a Vickers Vimy carrying four crew, which landed in Singapore in December 1919.

The lack of a proper airfield proved of little deterrence to the string of intrepid aviators that Singapore would see through the 1920s. Many, on their quests for fame, touched down here out of necessity more than anything else, as the technology of the day required multiple stopovers as flights could not take place in the dark and, due to the short range of aircraft then, required to be refuelled every few hundred miles.   

The location of Balestier Plain Aviation Ground

Among those who touched down at Balestier Plain was pioneering Australian aviator, Mrs Keith Miller (Jessie Maude “Chubby”) on 7 January 1928. The world had a fascination for the female aviator, who added a touch of femininity and glamour to the skies .She would be the first among several aviatrices to land in Singapore — although she did not actually pilot the Red Rose — a small Avro Avian that was owned and piloted by Captain Bill Lancaster. Capt Lancaster, an RAF pilot, described the aviation ground as a quagmire — something that could also describe the somewhat scandalous relationship that the pair, both of whom had spouses, would forge during the long and eventful journey from England to Australia. The pair, who took off from the racecourse (due to the unsuitability of the aviation ground) two days after landing on 9 January, survived a crash on the island of Muntok that resulted in them spending two months in Singapore having the Red Rose repaired. Repaired and tested, the Red Rose  took off once again on 14 March 1928 and arrived in Darwin on 19 March.

Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller.

Some years later in August 1932, a murder trial involving the killing of a certain Haden Clarke, played out at the Miami Dade County Courthouse. Capt Lancaster had been charged with Clarke’s murder, which took place at a rented Miami home of Mrs Miller. During the trial, a sordid tale of love and betrayal emerged. Mrs Miller, who arrived in the United States with her lover Lancaster with the intent of having her autobiography written. She became romantically involved with Clarke, who she had employed to be a ghostwriter for the autobiography, and the allegation was that Lancaster had killed Clarke out of jealousy.  It also emerged during the trial that Clarke had deceived Mrs Miller and was a bigamist.  Lancaster was acquitted of the murder, and the pair, who were deemed to have overstayed in the US, were deported. 

The RAF aerodrome, and later the civil aerodrome at Kallang (terminal building pictured here) would be a big improvement on the “quagmire” that the Balestier Plain aviation ground was described as.

The development of RAF Seletar, and its opening to civil aviation, would write a new chapter for aviation here in Singapore. The military aerodrome, built to provide air cover for an intended naval base, would see the launch of the first regular air services to and from Singapore “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten  first between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies and eventually with Europe in 1933. The aerodrome would also serve as a staging ground for several other female aviators attempting to set records flying from England to Australia, who included the likes of Amy Johnson and the “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten. By the time of the arrival of Amelia Earhart in June 1937, who was perhaps the best known of teh aviatrices, RAF Seletar was forgotten as a dual-use airport and Singapore’s first civil aerodrome at Kallang, was in operation.


The first inbound flight
Piloted by brothers Ross and Keith Smith, a converted Vickers Vimy — a bomber built for use in the First World War but did not get to see action, touched down at the racecourse on 4 December 1919. Together with mechanics James (Jim) Bennett and Walter Shiers, the Smiths had their eye on a prize money of £10,000 — in excess of S$900,000 in today’s terms — being offered by the Commonwealth Government for being the first to fly from England to Australia. One condition was that the flight was to be done in less than 30 days and the four men were well on their way to achieving that, having arrived in Singapore some 22 days after taking off from Hounslow in London. The historic flight would land in Australian soil at Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, four days after taking off on 6 December from Singapore.


The contents of this post supplement that of my talk (cum virtual tour of old Kallang Airport), “An Aviation Journey“, for Singapore Heritage Festival held on 8 May 2022.

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The Singapore debut of The Capitol of Singapore

4 05 2022

Anyone stepping into Capitol Theatre will get an immediate sense of a grace and elegance that is a reflection of the age that the theatre was built in and that and the building’s evolution over the years has been captured on film, through a documentary “The Capitol of Singapore” that makes its Singapore debut this Friday, 6 May 2022, at The Capitol! Two screenings of the film have been scheduled in conjunction with Singapore HeritageFest 2022, the other screening being on 7 May. Directed by French filmmaker Raphaël Millet, Friday’s screening of the film — also known as “Le Capitol de Singapour”, the film, will mark the first time that it will be seen outside of France. More information on the screenings and a link to the booking page can be found at this link.


Capitol Theatre

Built from 1929 to 1930, the theatre was designed by Keys and Dowdeswell at a time when the formerly government employed pair had ventured into private architectural practice. The cinema, the most progressive of the day in Singapore and Malaya, reflected the aspirations of the architect, as much that it did those of its wealthy owner, Mr Mirza Mohamed Ali (M A) Namazie — a Madras (Chennai) born Muslim of Persian origin who had substantial holdings in property and also in the rubber trade.

No expense seems to have been spared in the building of the Capitol. Not only was it large by the standards of the day, but the Capitol was also the first cinema hall in Singapore and Malaya to feature forced ventilation. Maximising the comfort of its patrons, the ventilation system reduced the necessity for large ventilation openings, thus keeping noise at a minimum. This would have been especially desirable, given that the cinema was built during the progression from the silent age of cinema to the new era of the talkies.

Before its refurbishment,

That Capitol Theatre is still with us over 90 years after it screened its first movie, is itself a remarkable story.  The cinema faced a string of challenges from very outset; its opening night plagued by the poor performance of its audio system due to Singapore’s high levels of humidity. Caught up in the excitement of watching Bebe Daniels and John Boles star in the musical production “Rio Rita” in a cinema of Capitol’s stature, not many apparently noticed.

At the end of its refurbishment in 2015.

The death of Mr M A Namazie in July 1931, and the effects of the Great Depression, prompted a change of ownership at the end of 1932. The Japanese Occupation of Singapore would see the cinema utilised as the Kyoei Gekizyo, opening in November 1942. Besides screening movies, the Kyoei also played host to recitals, concerts and other performances, as well as rallies and meetings, some of which were organised by the Overseas Chinese Association. Anti-Japanese saboteurs set off an explosion in early 1945, which caused sufficient damage to see that it would never used by the Japanese again. Capitol Theatre was given a new lease of life in January 1946 when it reopened, having been refurbished by the Shaw Brothers at a cost of half-a-million dollars. The cinema screened its last movie in December 1998 before being revived as a theatre in May 2015.

The Capitol’s elegant interior.


Synopsis

At the heart of Singapore’s Civic and Cultural District stands Capitol Theatre, a historical landmark that has borne witness to Singapore’s transformation over the years.

The documentary film, The Capitol of Singapore, traces the evolution of this historical building, from its founding in 1930 as a state-of-the-art theatre and shopping arcade; its requisition by the Japanese during the Second World War; its years as a top cinema where Hollywood blockbusters and local movie premieres were shown; its eventual decline into disuse and disrepair; and finally, its resurrection, after undergoing preservation and conservation works, to its present day incarnation as part of the integrated development Capitol Singapore, which is owned and managed by Perennial Holdings Private Limited. Capitol Singapore houses The Capitol Kempinski Hotel Singapore, Eden Residences Capitol as well as a retail mall and the iconic theatre.

The film delves into the heritage of Capitol Theatre through a look at the theatre’s original architecture and personal stories recounting what it has meant for many Singaporeans. Like a phoenix reborn, Capitol Theatre has stood the test of time, reinventing itself at every turn to stay relevant for each generation to come. In telling the story of Capitol Theatre, the film also explores, in parallel, the history of Singapore cinema, highlighting the golden years of film production when Singapore was at the centre of Southeast Asia’s film industry, producing films in Malay and the various Chinese dialects and drawing talent from across Asia.

During this period, Singapore was also a known locale for international film productions, attracting filmmakers from both Hong Kong and Hollywood. The Capitol Theatre made Singapore a top Asian destination for many film stars, with celebrity visits from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner and Douglas Fairbanks who graced their film premieres in Singapore.

Through the story of Capitol Theatre, the film journeys into Singapore’s past and in doing so, reflects upon its present and future.