The winds of war are blowing over Southeast Asia.
The Second World War is well underway and the Japanese have invaded Singapore.
A man is lost at sea, shipwrecked. He is left temporarily blinded and burnt by a Japanese attack on his boat. Somehow, he reaches safety in Jakarta — a successful escape from the Japanese.
Somewhere else in the world, in Singapore, another man is frantically burying millions of dollars in gold, jewellery and cash. He then plans on going into hiding. Unfortunately for him, he will be found, interrogated and forced to work for the oppressors — an unsuccessful escape from the Japanese.
This isn’t the premise of a period blockbuster.
This is why we get to watch blockbuster films in the first place. It’s the story of two prominent families and how they built their cinematic empires.
It’s the story of Singapore’s cinema.
Chapter 1: The Shaws
Running across borders
Runje, Runde and Runme Shaw were three of six sons born to a Shanghainese textile merchant. In 1924, after years of running a local musical theatre, they decide to take the next step — open a film production company. The resulting Tianyi Film Company enjoyed substantial success at first. The brothers were experts at identifying the tastes of audiences and experimenting with new technologies, such as sound films.
Things were looking good for the company — at least until rival companies popped up. Started by Runje’s former colleagues at the musical theatre, the Mingxing Film Company quickly became one of the largest production companies in the country. Forming an alliance with five other local companies, Mingxing attempted to dominate the industry and prevent Tianyi films from being featured in Shanghai theatres.
It was only with this attempted sabotage that the Shaw Brothers were driven to establish their own network within Southeast Asia.
Runme Shaw did not plan to come to Singapore. Instead, he only ended up here in 1925 after being denied entry to Indochina (Thailand, Vietnam etc). But in Singapore, the brothers were faced with yet another challenge. The film scene in Singapore was monopolised by local dominant dialect groups who preferred to do business with their own people.
Joined by his younger brother Run Run the following year, Runme decided to press on anyway. They took over The Empire, an old theatre located in Tanjong Pagar, where they showcased Tianyi-produced films. The move proved to be a massive success, following which the Shaw Brothers Limited was incorporated in 1928. Around the same time, the brothers had begun to import other foreign films and showcase these alongside their own productions.
In order to expand their distribution pool, the brothers next ventured into Malaya, where many small towns lacked theatres. To test market potential, temporary cinemas were set up and in places where reception to these was good, permanent cinemas replaced their makeshift counterparts.
By the 1940s, the brothers found themselves restless once again and plunged into yet another ambitious venture. A new film studio was built at Jalan Ampas and served primarily as a space for the production of local Malay films under the Malay Film Productions company. Collaborating with Malay, Indian and even Filipino directors, the company managed to produce over 150 Malay films. As testimony to their quality, many of these black-and-white films continue to be featured regularly on Malaysian television stations up till today.
World War Two
To say that the Japanese Occupation was problematic for the entertainment industry would be a gross understatement. Japanese censorship meant that movie profits effectively came to an end. Furthermore, Runme Shaw was captured, interrogated and made to produce Japanese propaganda films, with their cinemas being seized and used to play these for the public.
Unlike many others, the brothers were lucky enough to escape with their lives and much of their wealth. As fate would have it, the post-war period not only saw a successful resuming of business but also a surge in profits. It also came with new opponents.
Chapter 2: The Lokes
Tin to tickets
Loke Cheng Kim was born to a family whose business was tin mining. Her mother, an illiterate, was determined to ensure that her daughter would have a better life and decided to break the norm of the era by sending her to a school in Kuala Lumpur. Subsequently, Cheng Kim married a man whose business, among many others, was also tin mining. Tragically, the marriage ended prematurely when her husband passed away just three years later.
Despite the large fortune that her husband had left them, possibly inspired by her mother, she decided to break with tradition further by herself venturing into entrepreneurship. Thus in 1936, she launched Associated Theatres Ltd alongside her eldest son Wan Tho. In 1939, the Cathay Building opened its doors, earning the titles of Singapore’s first air-conditioned cinema as well as the tallest skyscraper of the time in Southeast Asia.
Films and fear
Like the Shaw Brothers, Associated Theatres similarly took a major hit in World War Two. The building became a key part of the conditions of surrender to the Japanese, with the British being forced to fly the Japanese flag alongside a white flag on the building for ten minutes. During the course of the Occupation, the building came under the use of the Japanese Military Administration as both a propaganda and broadcast station.
Lee Kuan Yew famously recalled the horrors of working in the propaganda department of the building:
“On the ground floor of Cathay Building was a branch of the Kempeitai (secret police). Every employee who worked in the Hodobu (propaganda department) had a file. The Kempeitai’s job was to make sure that nobody leaked anything.”
On the other hand, the cinema itself became an instrument of Japanese propaganda. Only pro-Japanese films were allowed to be shown and the theatre was renamed Daitao Gejikoor Greater East Asian Theatre. The building was also used to instil fear and order among locals, with the severed heads of criminals occasionally being displayed just outside to deter potential offenders.
Cheng Kim managed to flee to India after the British surrender and spent the occupation years running a Chinese restaurant in Bangalore. Wan Tho was less lucky. The ship he had taken to escape the Japanese was bombed and sunk, and while he managed to reach safety in Jakarta, the attack left him temporarily blinded and badly burnt. Nonetheless he managed to regain his health and was eventually able to join his mother in India.
Chapter 3: The End
After the war, the re-establishment of private private property and the return of seized cinemas gave way to a post-war boom. The effects of this boom didn’t last long though. With the victory of the communists and the closing off of mainland China in 1949, the Chinese film market shrank down to Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. The combined effect of a smaller audience and a strong rival in the form of the Cathay Organisation gave way to a period of intense rivalry between Cathay and Shaw, peaking in the 1960s. At the height of this competition, Run Run actively circumvented Cathay Organisation’s efforts to gain further traction by signing actors and directors whom he knew were being eyed by Cathay Organisation and making films to match Wan Tho’s planned releases.
The feud only came to a dark end in 1964 with Wan Tho’s sudden death – the plane he was taking home from the Asian Film Festival had crashed.
In the decades to come, increased competition, piracy and a lack of demand meant the demise of both Cathay’s and Shaw’s production houses. However, in the theatre space, both companies have continued to thrive and revitalise themselves. Cathay for example, opened a 1596 seater multiplex at Jem in 2013. Shaw, on the other hand, opened up an 11-screen multiplex at Jewel Changi Airport mere weeks ago.
Today Singapore hosts among the highest cinema per capita attendances in the world. But of course, being able to watch Endgame within an extremely comfortable setting isn’t the only thing that these cinematic pioneers left us. More than their businesses, these extraordinary visionaries continue to benefit thousands in Singapore with their philanthropy, of which many of us are likely familiar.
Who knows, maybe someday we’ll see a blockbuster film depicting their story.
Featured image from Radii China