Revisiting the Singapore of the Malay film industry’s golden age

7 02 2018

The Malay Film Productions (MFP) at Jalan Ampas was one of a pair of production houses that entertained a generation of Singaporeans and Malayans. Established by the Shaw Brothers’, the MFP is especially well known. It was where the legendary P. Ramlee made his name, excelling not just as an actor but also as a singer, songwriter and director. Lending his range of talents were to a series of films, his popularity has endured to this day, more than four decades after his sudden and premature passing in 1973.

Main gate to No. 8 Jalan Ampas.

The recent run of State of Motion 2018: Sejarah-ku, organised by the Asian Film Archive, renewed a consciousness for Jalan Ampas. P. Ramlee’s career there coincided with the golden age of Malay cinema – a time when the production of Malay movies was at its most prolific. Besides the screening of films of the genre, a guided tour also plotted a return to the MFP, albeit to its closed gates beyond which the buildings of the former studios stand quite forgotten. The tour, one of two – the other an offshore tour – with which locations where outdoor scenes in several MFP productions were visited, permitted a recall not only of the scenes, but of a Singapore forgotten if not for the movies. Site specific art installations were also presented at the sites, expressing the memories that also lay embedded in the locations .

Participants listening to CLOSURE / TUTUP by Wu Jun Han outside the gates of No. 8 Jalan Ampas.

Standing outside gates at Jalan Ampas, I found myself transported to the confrontational scenes that were enacted at that very gateway by Wu Jun Han’s recording, Tutup or Closure. The scenes, captured in the movie Mogok (Strike), although set in the Eveready  factory, were actually inspired by a strike that took place at the studios that same year involving 120 MFP employees.  The spot was also a location for another movie, the hit comedy Seniman Bujang Lapok,  which P. Ramlee directed and played a leading role in. This inspired a second installation along Jalan Ampas, Izzad Radzali Shah’s Wayang Terbiar (The Theatre that was Left Behind). A diorama of a mini threatre with scenes from the movie depicted, it seems almost altar-like in appearance.

Wayang Terbiar.

I was particularly drawn to Mintio’s Penghibur Hati-Lara (Solace for the Heart) installed just off Tanah Merah Besar Road. The work takes its title from a line in a lullaby “Kau penghibur hati-lara” (you are solace for my painful heart) sung in the film Darah Muda by the female protagonist to her baby in the seaside setting provided by the promenade at the end of Tanah Merah Besar Road. Anticipating separation, the line also suggests a sense of yearning that the artist also intends to evoke with her piece and its location between Changi Prison and the Airport – both sites of separation. The seaside promenade is now buried under a Changi Airport runway. Having been part of an area in which some of my most treasured memories of childhood were made, the artwork also evoked a sense of great longing and of loss in me.

Penghibur Hati-Lara at Tanah Merah Besar.

The former Kangkar Fishing Port, the location for scenes in the 1958 movie Sri Menanti, also provided a setting for Boedi Widjaja’s Path. 9, ))) ) ) )). The artwork, separated from the audience by the Serangoon River is bridged by the sounds of the flute, exploring the divide that the main characters in Sri Menanti faced in their attempts to bridge a cross-religious and cross-cultural gap in finding romance.

Once where a scene of Kangkar’s fishing colourful fishing fleet would have greeted the eye.

The mainland tour’s two other sites were at seaside (or former seaside) locations. At Punggol, the sea provided a backdrop for the scenes from Isi Neraka (Sinners to Hell) that inspired Salleh Japar’s Sulh-I-Kull (Universal Tolerance). The Shaws’ former seaside villa was used as a symbol of the individualism brought about by materialism and wealth in P. Ramlee’s Ibu Mertua Ku. P. Ramlee’s character in the movie violently blinds himself after he realises the circumstances in which he regained his sight after a previous spell of blindness. It is this loss of sight that the site’s installation, Tan Peiling’s 0.25 Seconds before an Image is Void, provides a response to.

The former seaside villa of the Shaws at which Liz Taylor was hosted on her visits here.

I was also able to join the offshore tour, which included a visit to Pulau Ubin – off which Pulau Sekudu or Frog Island lies. The rocky islet, a popular spot once for photo shoots, served as locations for Hang Tuah (1956) and Hang Jebat (1961). A central theme in the two movies is loyalty, betrayal and feudal authority. That is played out in the final fight scenes that both movies feature, which pitted 15th century pair of warriors – one-time close companions. The questions of the loyalty, betrayal, brotherly love, rage and desire expressed during the fight are what Akulah Bimbo Sakti’s Cinta Tuah Jebat examines. The artwork, a live performance accompanied by a recorded audio playback takes place on a beach on Ubin and within sight of Sekudu. More on State of Motion 2018: Sejarah-ku, which runs until 11 February 2018 can be found at

Pulau Sekudu, where the final fight scene in Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat was filmed.

Cinta Tuah Jebat (The Love of Tuah and Jebat).



Tanah Merah, 1965

22 05 2017

Old photographs, of much cherished places that are no longer with us in Singapore, are a godsend. They help me to hold on to my sanity in a country that due to the relentless pace of change, feels much less like home with each passing day.

A set of such photos arrived in my inbox over the weekend. Taken in 1965 and sent by Ian Brooks, the photos are first in colour that I have come across of the Tanah Merah Besar area of my early childhood. The photos are especially precious for two reasons. One, the show a house perched on a set of cliffs (yes, cliffs!) and two, they also show one of many machine-gun pillbox that were then a fairly common sight.

The area in which these were taken – where the seaward end of Tanah Merah Besar Road turned northeast or left into Nicoll Drive and right or southwest to Wing Loong Road – was a gateway into a most magical of places, the Tanah Merah of my early childhood. That Tanah Merah was one of seaside kampungs, coconut groves, beach-side villas – one of which belonged to Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall – and holiday bungalows (see also: Once Tanah Merah and also Mata Ikan) and one that provided me with some of the most memorable moments of my early childhood.

Sadly, nothing is left of it except for a Tanah Merah Besar Road that now ends at a fence (belonging to Changi Airport’s western perimeter), and the memories of a world that if not for the photographs that still exist, would surely fade away.

Horses dancing on the Istana’s lawn

5 11 2014

One of the memories that connects me to Tanah Merah, a magical place that I dearly miss by the sea, is of seeing what had first appeared to me to be grown men at play on cardboard horses. Tanah Merah was a wondrous place to me, not just because of that little moment of magic, but also due to its physical landscape. Set along a coast marked by cliffs from which the area derived its name, it a naturally beautiful world into which I could in my childhood, often find an escape in.


Four decades now separates me that memory. The place has long been discarded by a Singapore that has little sentiment for its natural beauty, but what I remember of it, the horsemen I saw at play,  continues to be a source of fascination for me, play a dance that is surrounded by much mystique.


The dance, known as Kuda Kepang here in Singapore, is thought to have its origins in the animistic practices of pre-Islamic Java and part of the mystery that surrounds it are the spirits invoked in joining man with the horses they stand astride on. The trance the horsemen fall into provide the ability to do what science cannot explain.


I revisited these memories of what I had witness as a young child from the safety of the side of the road at the village of Kampong Ayer Gemuroh in Tanah Merah. With the familiar strains of the dizzying gamelan-like accompaniment playing, I watched, enthralled, as men possessed pranced on their two-dimensional horses in the shadows of a former royal palace .


The palace, once the Istana Kampong Glam, is now a centre to promote the history and culture of the Malay community of which the descendants of the Javanese immigrants in Singapore have largely assimilated into. Known as the Malay Heritage Centre, it was on its now well manicured lawn on which I was able to catch what today is a rare performance of the age-old dance.


Where it had once been quite commonly seen, especially at happy occasions such as weddings, performances in public have become few and far between as a change in lifestyles, social perceptions, and religious objections, have seen such ritual practices having been all but discarded.


While I have in fact put up a post on the dance, sitting through an entire performance does mean I have a newer and more photographs of the dance to share in this post. My previous post does however contain a more complete description of my first impressions of Kuda Kepang and on the dance itself, and should you wish to visit it, it can be found at this link.

Before the performance

Prayers offered before the performance.

Prayers offered before the performance.







During the Dance

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Smoke from the kemenyan (incense) being breathed in.

Men becoming one with the horse.

Men becoming one with the horse.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

The performers are obviously in a trance-like state.

Drinking from a bucket of water.

Drinking from a bucket of water.


The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.

The horses are whipped, apparently without any pain being felt.













The Barong







Performers being brought out of the trance






Once Tanah Merah …

16 08 2010

There was at Tanah Merah, an idyllic world that in the Singapore of today, would be rather difficult to imagine. Set on a landscape on which the gentle undulations seemed to blend those of a forgotten sea, except for where a set of cliffs – the larger of two from which the area derives its name – stood, it was a most picturesque of spots and one in which many found an escape.

Caressed by the gentle breeze of the forgotten sea, Tanah Merah was where life was pretty; both for the occupants of the generously diemnsioned villas overlooking the sea, as it was for those whose humbler dwellings were marked by their thatched attap roofs.

Life was very much a beach for me, spending magical holidays by the sea in the Tanah Merah of old!

I first met the acquaintance of Tanah Merah as a child of three. A holiday taken at a huge government bungalow my parents were guests at, was to be the start of many early childhood encounters I was to have with the area.

Plymouth, the bungalow by the sea, near the village of Ayer Gemuroh, was one of two of a similar sort. The other was called Newquay. Perched on a small elevation that had overlooked the sea, it was typical of a colonial era house, its well selected position, a testament to the knack the British had for the best locations to house their colonial administrators.

The grounds of the bungalows at Tanah Merah, the Plymouth, at which I stayed at in Dec 1967 can be seen in the background.

As was typical of such houses, the bungalow was raised over the ground on stilt like columns. That I suppose, not only kept the vermin out, but also allowed ventilation through the slits in the wooden floorboards to keep the house cool in the oppressive tropical heat.

The bungalow would have been handed over to the Singapore government in the transition of the island from the colony to a state in the Federation and then independence. Several in the east, where the best beaches in Singapore were, were turned into holiday bungalows. This was to the benefit of the many civil service officers, in days when holidays at home by the sea were the fashion.

The entrance doorway of the Plymouth was accessible through a short flight of stairs.

The bungalow’s grassy and expansive grounds were shared with the neighbouring bungalow. A flight of stairs at its seaward end led to a terrace where benches allowed one to stare at the beach and sea beyond it.  Both the beach and the sea were accessible via another flight of stairs.

From the grounds, one climbed a short flight of stairs to the raised floor of the bungalow. This brought one up to a landing that led to a well ventilated lounge and dining area. Large airy bedrooms were also spread across the bungalow’s single level. The kitchen, and what would have been rooms that served as servants’ quarters, were found on behind the bungalows at ground level.

The expansive grounds where the bungalows were located was on a hillock close to Kampong Ayer Gemuruh that overlooked the sea.

The area around Ayer Gemuroh all was rather interesting. I would be given many views of the area from the back seat of my father’s Austin 1100 over the years that were to follow. The drives would take us from the holiday bungalows we would subsequently stay at in Mata Ikan, just southwest of Ayer Gemuroh, all the way to eastern ends of Changi Beach near Telok Paku where the waters were more pristine and also beyond which a favourite haunt of my parents, Changi Village, lay.

Map of the Kampong Ayer Gemuruh area showing the location of the Plymouth and Newquay (map source: Peter Chan).

The drives would take us through Wing Loong Road, down the area of the cliffs near where the road ended at Tanah Merah Besar Road. Moving beyond the T-junction, the road would become the marvellous Nicoll Drive, which ran along the casuarina lined beach and the sea, taking us past among other things, a children’s home.

Village scene, Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, 1963 (source: Peter Chan who obtained this photograph through a British guy whose father had worked in RAF Changi in the 1960s).

One of the sights to look out for during the drives would be David Marshall’s house by the sea. I was to learn much later that Marshall, who served as Singapore’s first Chief Minister upon the attainment of self-government, had the house named Tumasek and that it was where he entertained guests with his famous Sunday “curry lunches”. Marshall had set eyes on the house from a very young age and was able to purchase it only much later when its owner, a retiring accountant, wanted to sell it.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, close to the junction of Wing Loong Road with Tanah Merah Besar Road showing the “white cliffs” (source: Peter Chan).

The house then seemed a wonderful sight to behold. Set high over the sea, it greeted you especially on the approach from the northeast. It was from this point that the road  wound its way to Ayer Gemuroh and continued to the area where Mata Ikan was. The road moved inland from Mata Ikan towards Somapah Village. A path along the coastline would have taken one to Padang Terbakar and just beyond that to Bedok Corner

I had my first encounter with Kuda Kepang, a somewhat mystical dance of Javanese origins in which two-dimensional representations of horses are used, in passing Ayer Gemuroh on one of the drives. It was being performed in a clearing in the village for a wedding, as it would have been commonly seen in those days. Another sight from the village that would be etched in my memory is that of a group of boys walking around with their sarongs held away from their bodies by a frame. I would learn that the boys had just been circumcised and the frames, which presumably made of rattan, kept the sarongs from making painful contact with what must have been an especially tender spot.

Aerial view of the coastline at the Tanah Merah area in 1964, showing also Wing Loong Road (source: Peter Chan).

Another description of the area has also be provided by Peter Chan, who often guest blogs on Lam Chun See’s wonderful Good Morning Yesterday blog. I am also grateful to Peter for his aerial photographs, maps and some of the photographs in this post:

When you travel down Tanah Merah Besar Road, (after the junction with Tampines Road) you go down the “valley” and up the top then down the “valley” until you reach Nicoll drive junction. There was a sand pit on the left of Tanah Merah Besar Road (just before the junction) – you see like what you find in Malaya’s tin mining open cast mining this wooden “slide”.

Once you turn into Nicoll Drive on your right was Casuarina Motel (later called Aloha Rhu Village opened in 1971) with Hawaiian waitresses dressed in grass skirts. Then next was the Singapore Handicapped Home or Cheshire Chidlren’s home. In front of those homes was a WW2 pill-box.

You would then drive to 14 milestone Nicoll Drive. On your right you see one wooden community building – PA operated I think, called Tanah Merah Holiday Camp. There is a sharp bend to the right because there was the RAF Eastern Dispersal Area, and a road straight again to the Teluk Paku Road junction.

After this junction you find government division 1 holiday bungalows (black and white type, modern bungalows also – now where I think the SIA Engineering hangers are).

Teluk Mata Ikan was accessible from Wing Loong Road (metaled road), also from David Marshall house, from which one must pass 2SIB HQ called Tanah Merah Camp, which was built in 1966, There was also access from the north through Somapah Road.

There was a kampung and mosque at Ayer Gemuroh facing a cliff. Here are some photos you might need. I have written these up in my memories book. The PA venue could be called either Tanah Merah Holiday Camp or Changi Holiday Camp. The modern bungalows during RAF era were called B & H Bungalows (Brighton & Hoove still operate similar place in south England today)”.

The gateway to Tanah Merah. The junction of Tanah Marah Beasr Road, Changi Road and Tampines Road. The watch tower was a landmark in the area and was to watch over the perimeter fence around the piece of land in the background where prisoners from Changi Prison would be put to work (source: Peter Chan).

I suppose, beyond the descriptions provided, it would still be hard to fully appreciate what Tanah Merah was. Sadly for us and for the residents of the area, all the wonderment that a most beautiful of places provided, lives now only in our memories. That Tanah Merah, and its beautiful coast, lies in an area swallowed up by the massive land reclamation project of the early 1970s. Altering much of Singapore’s southern shores. In the case of Tanah Merah, it was to provide the land on which Changi Airport was to be built (a September 1970 news report in the Straits Times provides some information on the reclamation effort).

What has happened to the magical Tanah Merah Coastline …

The reclamation brought to not just a time of magical adventures for me. It altered the lives of many who had lived and had an attachment to an area of which little evidence other than a name, is left these days. Some of the area lies under Changi Airport with Ayer Gemuroh itself, buried under Taxiway WA (which runs along Runway 02L of Changi Airport). I have included a Google Earth map below, in an attempt to identify the approximate locations of the places I have mentioned.

The idyllic setting of Mata Ikan village as captured by Singapore artist Harold Ong.

All I have left of the most magical of places are some photographs, many fond memories, and a deep longing to return to an area that provided me with a joy that I have never again had the experience of.


Tanah Merah Besar, 1958, posted by Graham Collins on Facebook.


Grown men prancing on cardboard horses: Kuda Kepang

14 06 2010

See also: Horses dancing on the Istana’s lawn

It may have been just a coincidence, but it was really uncanny that having just got back from a break, just before which some recollections of the first Kuda Kepang performance I had witnessed some forty years back came back to me, that I stumbled upon one that was taking place below a block of flats in a part of Woodlands that I had not until yesterday visited. It was as if the spirits that are said to possess the performers had led me there to feed the memories I was starting to recall of that first moment that I had seen a Kuda Kepang dance. Kuda Kepang is a traditional dance that is performed by members of the Malay community in Singapore using painted cut-outs in the shape of horses. The dance is believed to have some of its origins in the retelling of stories from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Java, is performed accompanied by the dizzying strains of a Gamelan orchestra. It was at one time, a popular feature at Malay weddings, especially in the kampongs, and it seemed to me to have disappeared from Singapore together with the kampongs that had once been a feature of Singapore life – or so I had thought …

A Kuda Kepang performance seen in Woodlands – my first experience of Kuda Kepang was more than forty years ago in the setting of a coastal Malay kampong that has long disappeared.

Masks that are used in the later part of the performance.

The very first time I had come across the dance was when I was maybe three, in a part of Singapore that we have long lost – the Tanah Merah area, on which I was trying to piece some memories together on. It was a part of the world that I would on occasion pass through – my parents were fond of taking holidays in the government bungalows that were available in the area. What had defined the Tanah Merah area was the hilly ground which overlooked the sea and besides the Malay kampongs present, there were also some magnificent villas, including one owned by David Marshall. It was, passing through one of the kampongs, Kampong Ayer Gemuruh, that, while peering out of the open window of my father’s Austin 1100, what seemed to be grown men playing on what would have appeared to be toy horses caught my eye. My father pulled the car over so that we were able to get out and observe the performance from the side of the road from where we could glance down towards the sandy clearing where there were indeed grown men on painted white horses that seemed to be made of cardboard or plywood. We could see them prancing and twisting around to the strains of the Gamelan that we could faintly hear, each astride a cardboard horse of which my first impression was that they were like the stick horses I had seen at the Robinson’s toy department.

My first impression of Kuda Kepang was that it was grown men engaging in child’s play.

I had, through much of my childhood, been intrigued by the Kuda Kepang. My maternal grandmother, who I was very close to and had originally come from Java, had herself held a fascination for the dance and there were several occasions when we stopped to watch a performance when we did see one in passing by a Malay wedding. That was despite a friend of hers warning us that we shouldn’t watch it. The friend, who we referred to as “Bibik Boyan”, “Bibik” being a term used to address a senior lady, much like the term “auntie” is used in Singapore, and “Boyan” due to her ancestry being traced to the Boyanese as folks from Bawean Island off east Java were referred to, would drop in a few times each week to keep my grandmother company as well as to help her out with the laundry. It was through her warnings that I first heard of the association of spirit possession with Kuda Kepang. This somehow only served to heighten the sense of intrigue that I had for the dance, and it was only when going to school kept me busy that I stopped taking notice of it, and slowly over the years, the memories I had of it had been stored away until the recent recollection that I had.

Dancers are seen to go into a trance like state and make movements that seem to be guided by another force.

Watching a performance of the dance, it isn’t difficult to imagine it having a spirit possession dimension. The dance involves movements that have symbolic values that would have originated from the animistic practices of the people of pre-Hindu Java. Throughout the dance, the performers seem to move in a trance like state, their movements guided seemingly by a force other than their own. It is said that in some of the forms that Kuda Kepang takes, dancers are fed with pieces of broken glass, grass and other objects which do them no harm. In some cases, the dance is said to even be able to heal the sick. Whether or not this is true, the dance is certainly mysterious as it is captivating and watching a little portion of it yesterday, I felt like that three year old boy again, staring down at the fascinating scene before my eyes.

The movements of the dancers is guided by the dizzying strains of the accompanying gamelan.

A few more photographs of the Kuda Kepang performance that were hastily taken in the rain:


%d bloggers like this: